Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assaults

During the 1990s, drug researchers and advocates who assisted rape victims began to receive anecdotal reports about drug-facilitated acquaintance rapes. The charge was that certain predatory men were escalating their aggressive tactics and going beyond weakening their prey by plying them with alcohol. They were secretly spiking the drinks of the young women they were targeting with chemical sub- stances that were far more effective than just beer, wine, or liquor.

To overcome female resistance, the unscrupu- lous males would surreptitiously administer certain club drugs that were popular among partygoers: primarily Rohypnol (“roofies”) and GHB (“liquid ecstasy”), but also MDMA (“ecstasy”) and ketamine (“special K”). Large doses of these controlled sub- stances rapidly induce sedation and temporary amnesia, and drinking alcohol magnifies those effects. Odorless and colorless, the drugs can be dropped into a drink, and the unsuspecting quarry either feels paralyzed or loses consciousness and the ability to recall events (Ottens and Hotelling, 2001; and Pope and Shouldice, 2001).

Despite the attention paid to drug-facilitated sexual assaults in recent years, the true scope of the problem remains unknown because of the absence of reliable estimates of incidence and prev- alence rates. The situation becomes especially com- plicated because voluntary and involuntary drug

taking and drinking often are intertwined. One forensic analysis of the bodily fluids of nearly 150 sexual assault complainants who went to clinics established that about 4 percent had been victims of surreptitious drugging; an additional 30 percent voluntarily ingested these controlled substances (Negrusz et al., 2005). A phone survey discovered that of the women who considered themselves to be incapacitated before they were violated because of either drugs or alcohol, about 95 percent believed that alcohol, not other drugs, were the cause (Kilpatrick et al., 2007). Another phone sur- vey determined that about 2 percent of the sample believed that they had suffered a drug-facilitated rape, but of these women, nearly 80 percent of the assaults began with voluntary substance use (Zinzow et al., 2010).

A maximalist viewpoint and a competing min- imalist viewpoint can be discerned whenever the following questions arise: “How many rapes actu- ally were drug facilitated?” And also, “How should the rapists’ preferred targets respond to this threat?”

According to maximalists, the problem is seri- ous because the overwhelming majority of drug- facilitated rapes go unreported, and those that are reported end up unsubstantiated by lab tests. Fur- thermore, teenage girls and women might not even be aware that they were intentionally drugged and then violated. When they wake up, they might not realize that they were mentally and physically inca- pacitated for up to several hours, unless they find themselves in compromising circumstances or bruised and sore from rough sexual intrusions. Maximalists believe that sexual predators quickly learned to use these “liquid poisons” to subdue their prey as soon as the drugs became widely avail- able and popular among partygoers during the early 1990s. Law enforcement officials lamented that GHB-fueled rapes are a “perfect” crime because females who were “roofied” usually can’t prove it. If they don’t notify the authorities immediately, and if hospital and laboratory personnel don’t perform chemical tests quickly, the traces of the drugs disap- pear from the target’s blood and urine within hours or days of ingestion (depending on the specific sub- stance). As a result, police investigations involving


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complainants who suspect they were surreptitiously drugged usually turn out to be inconclusive because the window of opportunity for testing their bodily fluids has passed, or because local law enforcement agencies do not have the forensic laboratory exper- tise to collect and preserve this evidence, which does not show up in routine screening procedures Without toxicological evidence indicating foul play, the accused male merely can insist that the woman had not been comatose but had consented to the sex acts that took place. Even if traces of club drugs are found in lab results, the defendant still can claim that she willingly took the drugs to achieve a pleasurable high. Females incapacitated by the drugs will have difficulty recalling specific details of the assault and will tend to be less effective as complai- nants in police stations and as prosecution witnesses in court (Ottens and Hotelling, 2001; Pope and Shouldice, 2001; Smalley and Mnookin, 2003; Fitzgerald and Riley, 2005; and Jordan, 2005).

Maximalist concerns about a surge in these insidious attacks have brought about a number of responses by government, colleges, and even drink- ing establishments. Congress passed the Drug- Induced Rape Prevention Act of 1996, which imposed stiff penalties for selling or even possessing some of these controlled substances. In 2000, Con- gress increased the punishments for dealers and users of GHB, which had been banned by the FDA in 1990. The Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime has provided training and technical assis- tance to improve the detection abilities of medical examinations seeking evidence of traces of drugs in the aftermath of sexual assaults. A Los Angeles County task force pioneered the use of a forensic evidence kit specifically in cases when drug- induced paralysis and amnesia is suspected. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration collaborated with antirape organizations to sponsor campaigns that alert women about this presumably growing threat and dedicated increased resources to investiga- tions of predatory drug rings. College administrations have undertaken “Watch That Drink” campus awareness events. Students are urged to pay close attention to risk factors that heighten their vulnera- bility: Never leave their beverages unattended; only

accept drinks directly from waiters and bartenders; never drink from a punch bowl, keg, or bottle that is being passed around; and, of course, never accept drinks from people they don’t completely trust. Of course, the potential for victim blaming and self- blame arises whenever a woman who believes she has suffered a drug-facilitated rape concedes that she did not scrupulously follow all of these precau- tions (see Abramovitz, 2001; Drug Enforcement Administration, 2003; Office of National Drug Con- trol Policy, 2003; Bergfeld, 2005; and Fitzgerald and Riley, 2005).

By 2003, thousands of bars and at least 40 uni- versities distributed chemically impregnated card- board coasters that turn colors when doused with a few drops of a beverage laced with club drugs like GHB. The manufacturer of this drug detection device planned to market it to more than 1,000 college campuses nationwide, although critics warned it was far from foolproof. A straw and a cup that changes colors when in contact with date rape drugs is also being marketed (Mason, 2002; Ellin, 2003; Smalley and Mnookin, 2003; Maddalenna, 2005; and Lear, 2013).

The minimalist viewpoint proceeds from the observation that the number of reports to police departments of suspected drug-facilitated assaults is low, and stories in the press about successful prose- cutions that prove conclusively that surreptitious drugging took place are very hard to find. A search of newspaper articles using the keywords “date rape drug” will turn up many warnings in articles and on blogs about the potential dangers to women posed by predatory men who might use powerful chemi- cal substances to immobilize their prey. Past news items centered on men arrested for possession of date rape drugs, individuals who suffered from self-induced overdoses, some criminal cases handled in other countries, and stories about young women who suspected that they had been drugged. But only a few actual cases can be found about men arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for carrying out drug-facilitated sexual assaults such as this one:

A 17-year-old girl meets a man in a bar and then goes to his apartment. She complains of a headache so

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he gives her a white pill. She wakes up periodically over the next six hours but is unable to move a muscle as he repeatedly takes sexual advantage of her. A week later she goes to the police but can provide no medical or toxicological evidence to corroborate her complaint. But when four other women make strik- ingly similar charges against the same man over the next two years, a prosecutor of a special victims unit convinces a judge to consolidate the cases. The man is convicted of sexually assaulting four of the five women and is sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison. (Warkentin, 2006)

The minimalist viewpoint argues that the alarming warnings about the size of the problem that are circulated by persons holding the maxi- malist viewpoint are not based on solid evidence. For example, minimalists would cite the findings of a survey of over 5,000 women in college in which only 0.6 percent believed that they had been given a drug (not alcohol) without their knowledge or consent before being sexually assaulted (Krebs et al., 2009).

A skeptical perspective that questions wide- spread concerns about this “terrifying scourge” of drink tampering has taken root in other English- speaking societies but has not gained traction yet in the United States (but see Bliss, 2013). The skeptical stance first emerged when a British tabloid published the results of a controversial study. It challenged the message of a “Watch Your Drink” campaign emanating from an “anti- drink-spiking” organization that innocent and unsuspecting young women were being slipped a dose of an “anesthesia” drug at pubs and clubs. A forensic analysis of samples collected in the United Kingdom from more than 1,000 women who alleged drug-facilitated rape did not find traces of Rohypnol in a single specimen. The lab tests did find that a large proportion of the young women had been binge drinking or using recreational drugs, or had taken heavy doses of both. A similar investigation by British doctors of evidence col- lected from 75 women seeking medical treatment because of fears of drink spiking also concluded that not one tested positive. Similarly, an analysis in

Australia of nearly 100 hospital emergency room files of persons who thought they were victims of spiking found no traces of illegal drugs. Skeptics in these countries concluded that the threat posed by insidious predators on the prowl, promoted by alar- mists, was greatly exaggerated. To minimalists, the presumed rash of drug-induced rapes seems to be largely based on anecdotal evidence from rape crisis centers and hotlines, victims’ suspicions, and a spate of newspaper articles about arrests but not convic- tions. What keeps this “urban legend” (as minimal- ists might call it) going is not forensic evidence and court cases but rather the several useful functions it plays. The focus on controlled substances draws attention away from the primary drug of choice of rapists for eroding resistance: alcohol. Believing that she was surreptitiously drugged by some evil man enabled a woman to “play the victim” rather than to take responsibility for drinking herself into a stupor. It was more socially acceptable to demonize spiking than to condemn binge drinking. The spec- ter of stranger danger enabled parents to impart “safety advice” without engaging in frank and unpleasant discussions with their daughters about alcohol and sexuality. Various rituals to protect drinks from being contaminated allowed women to bond and form alliances to take care of each other when out partying. Of course, focusing on women’s behavior and blaming them for making themselves so utterly vulnerable doesn’t excuse the men who imposed themselves on a semicoma- tose “partner” incapable of granting consent: The male exploiters of weakness were still breaking the law by committing sexual acts without the other party’s permission (see Platell, 2005; Weathers, 2005; Hope, 2007; Adams, 2009; Burgess et al., 2009; White, 2009; and Brooks, 2011).

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