Students develop nail decal to detect date rape drugs

By Chelsea Mulligan, CORRESPONDENT
On October 7, 2014

Research by the Centers for Disease Control Prevention claims that nearly one in five women have been raped. Sexual violence also came to the forefront recently when Emma Watson addressed the issue at the U.N. Headquarters in New York last month.

Three fourth-year students — Ileana Alvarez, Roger Stern and John Pilz — are working with the USF Innovation Incubator to develop a drug-detecting nail decal intended to combat sexual violence, but it is not without controversy.

“It is unfortunate that we need such a product as theirs, but I think that it is much needed. I think that their solution, if they are able to make it work, would be an extra step in protection,” said Keosha Poole, a USF graduate student and Student Innovation Incubator co-founder. 

The product, created by the student company Spike Drink Detectors, is similar to the nail polish product Undercover Nails developed by UNC students, which changes color when exposed to chemicals commonly used in date rape drugs. Some of the most common date rape drugs include Rohypnol (roofies), GHB and Ketamine.

Alvarez said the intention is to develop a sticker-like decal that will be applicable to any type of nail polish including gel nails, as opposed to just another nail polish. 

“We just want to make it easy and discreet and just something you can apply, literally, in a second,” Alvarez said. 

When UNC students released their product Undercover Nails, a number of critics said the product doesn’t do anything to stop rape culture.

Alvarez said she could understand criticisms of the product, agreeing the similar decal sticker her company is developing could be viewed as perpetuating a culture of victim blaming, though she remains optimistic. 

“All these devices that have come out have saved lives and have done a really good thing for women,” she said. 

Nanci Newton, director for the USF Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention, said she believes such products may not address issues of victim blaming and rape culture. 

“When we keep coming up with these newer and newer ideas and devices aimed at having women change their behavior or do something, we’re not focusing on the problem. The problem is not victims. The problem is offenders,” she said. 

Newton also said it is necessary to have men participate in protecting women, since most men are not violent. 

“You do that by recognizing that stopping a rapist is the responsibility of everyone, and that a majority of that responsibility actually relies on men, on the vast majority of men who are good men and who need to step up to the plate,” she said.

In response to the general criticism surrounding the prevention product, such as practicality or victim blaming, Alvarez said she wants Spiked Drink Detectors to do more than just alert women of drugged drinks in the moment. 

“What we want to do as a company is not just create a product that will let you know if there’s these chemicals in a drink, we also want to bring awareness, making men a part of the solution,” she said. “I think a good way to decrease the number of incidents would be just to have education. So we’re thinking of once we get sales, we’d like to give back, give education, spread education not just around campus, but around Tampa.” 

Alvarez said she hopes the company could eventually increase knowledge about date rape across Florida, although she, Stern and Pilz are just now in the very early stages of product development. 

As to awareness, Newton said that some of the problem lies just in the language used surrounding date rape. 

“I don’t think ‘date rape’ is really the proper term for it because most of the time people aren’t actually out on a date together,” she said. “Some people call it ‘acquaintance rape,’ but again that’s not very accurate because sometimes when you’re at a bar or a party, it’s a just-met stranger, and I would hesitate to call that an acquaintance. So the term my office uses is ‘non-stranger.’”

Though devices such as those being planned by Spiked Drink Detectors are not the complete solution to a problem endemic in the culture, Alvarez said there is a possibility that they could prevent some crime until future answers are found.

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