College-aged girls have heard it before: Never leave your drink alone. But what if there was a way to know, before you even took a sip, if it had been tampered with?
According to the National Institute of Justice, between 85% and 90% of rapes reported by women in college are perpetrated by people they know, and half are on dates. But, periodically, groups of scientists have tried to look at date rape—a violent crime perhaps better described as "acquaintance rape" or "partner rape"—from a chemical perspective. In 2011, a group of Israeli researchers said they had developed tests resembling straws that could detect two common date rape drugs. Last year, a product called DrinkSavvy pledged something similar. And this year, researchers from the National University of Singapore say they’ve developed a sensor that will turn blue in the presence of Gamma-Hydroxibutyric acid, or GHB.
"As a technical person, I feel this can help," explained NUS professor Young-Tae Chang. "It can be used for many other purposes, too."
Unlike the standard paper chromatography test, which Chang says can take several minutes to determine whether GHB is present, his test can work as quickly as 10 seconds. A person who suspects her drink might be tampered with would need to take a sample of her drink, add a drop of the sensor, and wait for it to fluoresce orange (which could go down in the bathroom, maybe?) If the drink does turn orange, it's safe—but if it shows up dim, there's GHB.
Chang has good intentions. But pulling out a small chemistry kit seems like a complicated, if not awkward, thing to do in a bar. Plus, conventional thinking surrounding the kit misses out on something huge: Instead of putting the onus on women (and men and any other people of any kind of gender expression who also get raped) to come to parties or bars equipped with a date rape chemistry kit, maybe we should be urging more men to come to parties or bars with less, you know, date rape intentions?
Feminist blogger Zerlina Maxwell has created quite a bit of controversy by urging people to break out of the mode of thinking that assumes rape prevention starts with potential victims.
"These questions about my choices the night of my assault—as opposed to the choices made by my rapist—were in some ways as painful as the violent act itself," Maxwell wrote in a piece for Time. Hers is not an easy position to take in public. Last year, Maxwell received death threats after an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News.
But other products focused on rape prevention have traversed a similar fault line: Can super-strong modern-day chastity belts, for instance, really prevent a deeply ingrained societal ill that will be perpetrated against roughly one in five women in the United States?
And it says something significant that not all date rapes involve GHB. Of all the substances involved in rape, alcohol is the most frequently reported. Still, focusing on what a rape victim drinks or doesn’t drink, or what preventative steps that victim chooses to take or not take, seems like it strays from the central issue: Whether she consented to have sex, or not.
GHB chemistry kits are clearly a technology that’s arisen from good intentions. But before I buy that handy rape prevention kit, I think I’d like to live in a world that educates its young people, as Maxwell suggests, on the meaning of obtaining consent, and the importance of respecting others’ bodies. Good intentions—and technology—can’t solve everything.