The Sexist

The Date Rape Drug Is An Urban Myth. Let’s Put It to Rest.

This week, a study in the British Journal of Criminology announced that "date rape drugs" are "largely an urban myth," as "there is a stark contrast between heightened perceptions of risk associated with drug-facilitated sexual assault and a lack of evidence that this is a wide-spread threat." Several sites for women met the news with skepticism. Feministing suggested that the study may have engaged in victim-blaming. The Frisky warned that the study "needs to be viewed with caution. I don’t think we want women to start leaving their drinks unattended, just because the chances of getting roofied are slimmer than they may have thought." TresSugar hailed the report as "depressing."

I, for one, am celebrating. First: the research suggests that women aren't regularly being drugged on their night out—wonderful news! But it also means that we may finally retire all the media scare-tactics, the girls-night-out drink protection strategies, and mercifully, every single absurd product that has arisen out of society's inflated concern of drink spiking—and has dangerously distracted the rape conversation from addressing the real experiences of victims.

Confession: I have always been a roofie skeptic. This is not to say that I'm an all-out Date Rape Drug Denier: I do think that these drugs exist, and I do believe that some women have been drugged by men who intend to rape them. I just think that this happens about as often as the classic stranger-rapist-in-the-bushes scenario—in terms of real rape statistics, hardly ever. A 2006 study of 120 date rape cases in the United Kingdom revealed that 119 of the cases involved alcohol, but only two involved the date rape drug GHB. Of course, those two cases are not insignificant, and the experiences of women who have been drugged should not be discounted. That being said, these numbers just don't support the widespread fear that girls' nights out are being sabotaged by amateur druggists.

But despite my reservations about the actual risk of "date rape drugs," I have completely assimilated to the behavior modifications required by the "date rape drug" myth. When I step away from my beer, I'll tell a friend to watch over my glass. When I'm sitting at the bar, I'll nurse my drink close to my body. I will go so far as to take my beverage along to the bathroom while I'm having a piss. And I'm not alone. According to a study in UK's More magazine, "77 per cent of women claimed to keep hold of their drink even when they go to the toilet."

I blame the date-rape-drug-industrial-complex for forcing me to squat over a dingy bar toilet with a pint in one hand and a wad of toilet paper in the other. According to the study, the constant reminder that date rape drugs are a real danger to women has significantly altered our behavior patterns, even though law enforcement sources have found that the drugs pose a "very limited threat." As the researchers note, "routinized DFSA is improbable as a widespread crime; it involves a stranger extracting an individual from her social group unnoticed, administering a substance undetected, precisely controlling drug effect, and reliably erasing memory of the experience."

Importantly, this "date rape drug" narrative does not describe a date rape; it describes another form of stranger rape. This time, the rapist isn't jumping out of the bushes—he's jumping out from below the bar-stool to sprinkle odorless powder in your drink before dragging you to an undisclosed location. As the study notes, "the media tend to represent drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) as a significant and widespread problem, to the extent that newspapers have appropriated the phrase 'date rape' to refer to this crime." This is the most dangerous aspect of the frenzy over "date rape drugs"—the way the myth has managed to completely co-opt the conversation about acquaintance rape. Instead of concerning ourselves with the disconcerting fact that most rapists are known to the victim, the public has been told to turn its attentions to yet another outlandish crime scenario that does not pose a significant threat to women.

How has the "date rape drug" myth gained so much traction in the public consciousness? The study floats a theory: The worry over "date rape drugs" helps "give shape to otherwise nebulous threats," in turn"allowing us to displace worry about other, less manageable threats." We drum up concern over the risk of "date rape drugs"—then devise strategies for managing that risk—because it's easier than actually doing the business of preventing rape. It's easier to keep your thumb over your bottle than it is to stop your boyfriend from raping you. It's easier to take your drink to the bathroom than to understand why a person you trust would assault you. It's easier to tell grown women what to do than to teach our children not to grow up to be rapists. And it is a whole lot easier to avoid a crime that rarely happens than to prevent the type of sexual assaults that occur every single day.

This is why the "date rape drug" myth arose hand-in-hand with public awareness of acquaintance rape. While society has begun to recognize rapes against wives, girlfriends, friends, and co-workers as serious crimes, it has failed to embrace the idea that husbands, boyfriends, trusted friends, the guys in your office, and other seemingly normal men can be rapists. We're still much more comfortable thinking of rapists as men who lurk in the shadows, guys who only emerge in polite society in order to secure another rape victim. The news that most rapists aren't easily-identifiable as villains—men hunch-backed from crouching in the bushes, their hands caked with sedatives—has failed to inspire solutions aimed at preventing men from raping.

The public is similarly slow to accept that most victims don't fit the storybook stereotype of a buttoned-up virgin sipping on hot cocoa. Thankfully, the requirement that victims be the model of chastity has eroded a bit in recent years. Now, society is ready to accept that a rape victim is still a rape victim if she goes out to a bar with her girlfriends and has a few drinks—as long as her intoxication is capped off with a surprise roofie. The more likely scenario—that a rape victim goes out to a bar with her girlfriends, willingly ingests alcohol, and then is raped—is more difficult for the public to swallow.

As the idea of "acquaintance rape" and the myth of the "date rape drug" rose, so did another trend society wasn't ready for—women who drink like men. Female drinking has increased rapidly in recent years (though we're still far outstripped by the boys)—in 2006, 15 percent of women engaged in binge-drinking, compared to 30 percent of males. As the study notes, society has failed to process its discomfort with girls who drink: "Despite greater gender equality when it comes to public drinking, there is no clear language through which the female experience can be discussed, let alone celebrated in the manner that remains central to masculinity. . . . female drinking is widely seen as challenging gender norms, either as a deviant subversion of ideals of femininity or as part of a broader project of female emancipation."

The idea that women who drink are an affront to the "ideals of femininity" has contributed to the widespread perception that drunk women are less-than-perfect rape victims. The perception that female drinking is a conscious sexual subversion on the part of women is problematic on a number of levels. First, it tells women who drink that they're asking for it; that if they are raped, they are somehow responsible for the crime committed against them; that it is their deviant decisions that caused them to be raped. Second, it tells rapists that women who drink are not valued by society; that they are considered "lesser" women; that everyone knows drunk girls are down for sex, and no one will believe they can be raped. In other words, it points out exactly who rapists ought to target in order to avoid the consequences of their crimes. This is how rapists have historically gotten away with raping their wives, and raping prostitutes, and raping fat women, and raping promiscuous women—because society has told them over and over again that these women cannot be raped.

I hope that our culture's outlandish fears over "date rape drugs" go away for a very, very long time. And I hope we replace the fears over drink spiking with educational solutions aimed at teaching men and women how to recognize consent, respect each other's bodies, and really, truly prevent rape. Consider the testimony of one inventor of "date rape drug" detectors: "I knew somebody who was date raped, and I couldn't believe nobody had a product to stop it," he told the press. The problem of date rape can't be solved with roofie-sensitive drink coasters. It can only be remedied by changing attitudes.

  • Former Staffer

    A. Someone tried to put something in my girlfriends drink at the MGM in Las Vegas, while she was at the blackjack table and I was playing poker. Thankfully the dealer noticed and security kicked his ass before calling the cops.

    B. I was at Hamilton's two weeks ago and overheard a woman say to the bartender "Back when GHB first came out I used to do it recreationally." WTF? I enjoy comatose semi-amnesiac states...a discredit to women everywhere, she was.

    Urban myth my ass.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    First of all, I'm sorry about what happened to your girlfriend. Second, I've heard about people using that drug recreationally, too---though not first-hand, so it's possible that the widespread recreational use of GHB is part of the mythos surrounding the drug in general. According to the first Google hit I found (so proceed with caution), "effects of GHB at recreational doses are physically quite similar to those of alcohol." Maybe it has less calories.

  • Nikki

    Its like heroin that you can drink. If you are looking to get comatose a cap full of GHB is better than snorting when your nose is stuffed up and its better than shooting up when you can't find a vein. Cheaper too.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    Next time I can't find a vein ...

  • chris

    My girlfriend was drugged with GHB at a club in February of 2008, in Edinburgh, UK when she was studying abroad.

    Only whoever did it put far too much in her drink, and she spent the next 8 hours vomiting and having graphic hallucinations much to the anguish of myself, her family, friends, etc. A blood test at the hospital confirmed that GHB and some other rank shit was in her system.

    I agree with this article, that "roofies" can distract folks from the more prevalent threats of aquaintance rape, etc. But come on, "urban myth"? Actual incidences of GHB poisoning = crocodiles in sewers?

  • TJ

    Although I agree that drugging women's drinks may not be as widespread as we are lead to believe, there has got to be some truth to it. My GREAT-GREAT aunt was the first person to tell me to never leave my drink unattended, and if I do, buy another drink. This was a lady who used to drink like a man and carry a pistol with her in her coat pocket, just in case. But I digress...

    She told me that someone tried to put something in her drink waaaaaaaaaaaaay back in the day, and that was what prompted her to be extra cautious from that point forward. The fact that it happened to her back in the 40s and 50s says a lot.

    Also, could it be that it isn't a wide-spread problem BECAUSE of the precautions and "modifications" in our behavior?

    And using the drug recreationaly? Really? That falls along the same lines as these stupid kids choking themselves to the point of passing out for the "thrill." That's just dumb...

  • C

    I will never know if it was GHB, but one night I had 1 drink (just one), blacked out, and woke up next to an acquantance who had sex with me without my consent. My best friend (studying abroad on a different continent) was date-raped, remembered enough of it to go to the police, and was tested and found positive for GHB. One of my cousins was also raped with GHB, although I don't know as much about her story.

    Were these all acquantance rape? Yes. Did they all involve (or likely involve) GHB? Yes. If it happened to me and two other people I know of, it doesn't seem likely we were all just "isolated" experiences.

    That said, I agree with some of your points -- pretty much all of the stuff you hear about keeping your thumb over the neck of your bottle is also bs. I left my drink with a friend to go to the bathroom; it should have been safe. My bf's drink was bought and brought to her by her date. I don't know how to solve these problems, but marginalizing them or denying they exist won't help, either.

  • Amanda

    What about the fact that alcohol ITSELF is used to DRUG women to make them vulnerable to rape? You write about women drinking a lot as though it's always their choice to do so. Oftentimes men are serving them these drinks in pushy ways- and in copious quantities- to render victims incapable of consent. I don't think ""date" rape drugs" (I prefer the language "non-stranger") are an urban myth--I just think it's a myth that the majority of the 'drugs' are other-than-alcohol.

  • Emily H.

    Thank you for writing this; I couldn't agree more. Why on earth would feminists be "depressed" or disapproving about a study that shows bars aren't filled with psychopaths trying to roofie every woman's drink the second her back is turned? Also, it's pretty clear none of these writers bothered to read the original paper, just the (simplistic & misleading) Daily Mail article, & thus missed the researchers' point. The Daily Mail piece made it sound like yet another condemnation of women who can't admit they got themselves raped because they're drunken whores, whereas the quotes you discussed made clear it's just the opposite. So I appreciate your thoughtful engagement with Burgess, Donovan & Moore's paper.

    "The worry over 'date rape drugs' helps 'give shape to otherwise nebulous threats.'” This makes sense to me. It's a bit like the worry over razor blades in Halloween candy, which lets people tie their fears of danger to something specific (and extremely lurid), then lets them think they do something specific to stop it. As far as I know, death by razor blade candy is even rarer than drink roofie-ing, to the point where it may never have happened -- but lots of parents go to all sorts of extreme measures, like having their kids' candy x-rayed. There's an obvious appeal to believing scanning your kids' candy will keep them safe, just like there's an appeal to thinking there's a "product" to prevent rape.

  • Former Staffer

    Where do these people get GHB to begin with? It's not like it's readily available at the Giant.

  • http://masochistanonymoous.blogspot.com Bill Roberts

    My friend got drugged in a club in Leeds, if we had not been with her all night who knows what could happen, i think it's important to notice that no one is denying that it happens but that it's not as widespread as people make out. Typically these incidents can be avoided by being cautious, after working in a bar for many moons I'm still amazed at how many people leave their glasses unattended, especially since the smoking ban.

    Yes GHB can be used as a recreationa drug, this usually involves small measured amounts that don't knock you out but make you more frisky.

  • C

    Amanda - I agree that, yes, alcohol is used to force women far more often than GHB, and yes, we need to have a lot more publicity on that. But that doesn't mean GHB and what happened to me and the other women I know is an "urban myth." My own story is not a myth. It happened. Your title and your reaction to my comment makes me feel like you're calling me a liar and dismissing my experience as a media-distorted fairy tale.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    C, just to be clear, the person commenting under "Amanda" isn't me. It must be another Amanda.

  • C

    Oh, gtn. Thanks.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    C, I also want to make clear that I don't think women who have been drugged and raped, or drugged with the intention of being raped, are exaggerating, lying, or misreading drunkenness as drugging. I do think that the media is lying to women, however.

    Unfortunately, the Daily Mail article on this issue uses these findings to suggest that women who have been drugged are liars, but that's not a suggestion I saw in the study. The study was mainly saying that women have a lot of fear and hear a lot of stories about drug-assisted rape, but the fears surrounding the practice far outstrip actual experiences.

    Something that I didn't address in my piece---since I was mostly focusing on how the overblown media treatment of date rape drugs affects the general rape conversation---is that there are still some issues that may prevent police from getting accurate numbers on date rape drug use. 1, some women don't report being drugged, and 2, sometimes the drugs are not able to be detected by the time the woman does go to the cops. However, given the stigma around drinking---and the widespread attention given to drug-assisted rapes---I'd guess that it's a lot MORE likely for a woman to report a rape if she had been drugged than if she had simply had a few non-spiked drinks.

    That being said: I can see why you take issue with the title of the post, but I hope through the context of the piece I made it clear that I do believe that the "experiences of women who have been drugged should not be discounted"---but that the media needs to work to reflect the experiences of all rape victims.

  • http://abyss2hope.blogspot.com abyss2hope

    Emily H wrote: "Why on earth would feminists be “depressed” or disapproving about a study that shows bars aren’t filled with psychopaths trying to roofie every woman’s drink the second her back is turned?"

    You are misinterpretting the backlash and you are missing a huge flaw in the research since the assumption about the small rate of spiking using certain drugs is not reliable. If a sample was taken after GHB or rohypnol is usually undetectable not finding those drugs is meaningless.

    Also when people describe their belief that they were roofied and a drug not on the short list of date rape drugs was found some studies use that data to classify that person as not having been drugged against their will when the test may be proving the person was in fact drugged against their will.

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  • Em

    I agree that "urban myth" is taking it a bit far. Shark attacks are way less likely than the media portrays them, but I'm assuming a shark attack victim would have a bit of a beef with you for calling it a myth.

    It depends on the environment your in. I know at my college, certain fraternities made it a habit to drug girls' drinks and lock them upstairs. I have friends who have been drugged in these scenarios...I agree that the problem is probably exaggerated in the media and can lead to misperceptions, but "urban myth" suggests it's not a problem and it is. When I was in college, I never accepted a drink from anyone unless I watched them make it. I don't think that was paranoid or that society tricked me into doing it. I think it was a prudent decision to avoid the escape from the party and eight hours of vomiting (something that happened to one of my friends).

  • http://guyinism.com DirkJohanson

    The President is excoriated for playing basketball, and academicians and female commentators bemoan that fewer women than guys engaging in binge drinking as somehow being a nefarious reflection of gender inequality. Then women are shocked that their credibility on gender issues is so shot that a lot of people, both guys and females, don't take even the drugging and raping of a child seriously anymore.

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  • Barbobaggins

    So, if I understand Dirk correctly, commenting that the President doesn't include many women in important social networking activities and that the idea that binge-drinking is unfeminine which allows people to excuse the rape of intoxicated women as "something they had coming" is the reason why Polanski is being excused and not any underlying sexism in society? Therefore, when his apologists speak about her prior sexual history or the fact that she had some wine as negating his responsibility they are merely not taking it seriously because of some articles released this week and are not at all influenced by any sexist undercurrents of our community?

  • http://abyss2hope.blogspot.com abyss2hope

    Dirk, I don't know what you are reading but I haven't seen any feminist: 1) "bemoan that fewer women than guys [are] engaging in binge drinking" 2) see this difference as any "reflection of gender inequality" let alone a nefarious one.

    If you don't understand the practical issues related of excluding women from casual social interactions of course you are going to view complaints about a White House basketball game as nonsensical. But there is a difference between your lack of understanding and a criticism being without merit.

    If you "don’t take even the drugging and raping of a child seriously anymore" then the responsibility for that is yours, not some other group like feminists -- even if your opinion of feminists were accurate. Same goes for those other men and women who don't take certain rapes seriously. But I can understand why you would need to shift all responsibility for your lack of empathy onto feminists and would need to find rationalizations for doing so.

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    Not being as widespread as reported is not the same as being an urban myth. It happens.

    Don't ever leave your drink unattended. I take mine to the bathroom sometimes but that's just because I'm frugal - I don't want someone to take it while I'm gone.

    As for doing roofies for recreational purposes, sure. It's like doing a quaalude: you do a roofie, drink three or four beers, & you're as drunk as you'd be if you'd had twenty drinks. Another plus is that you don't have to go to the bathroom all the time. Plus, you save money on alcohol & you save time on getting obliterated.

    It's really a good way to get wasted. Still, it's only for voluntary consumption.

  • http://guyinism.com DirkJohanson

    Barb, Abyss, I have to admit you girls are right. What was reported, but I'm about to leak to you after reading your posts, is that all 150 million of us guys in the United States were playing in that basketball game, not just the Congressmen, many of whom represent majority-female districts. In fact, Barry (his name around us guys) personally awarded me a $40 million defense contract, so I'm quitting my $65,000 a year government job and am going to start making tanks. Oh, and my friend Jim was named Secretary of State - Hillary will still hold the official title, of course - it is, after all, politics, but Jim will be making all the important decisions and making announced and unpublicized trips to meet world leaders - unless, of course, he is stuck dealing with customer service issues at his hardware store in Elkhart, Indiana.

    You girls really should have been there....

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  • Emily

    I don't really care if you used the term urban myth -- the content of this article is what's important, and it's a well-thought out, nuanced piece. Thank you for this:

    " t’s easier to keep your thumb over your bottle than it is to stop your boyfriend from raping you. It’s easier to take your drink to the bathroom than to understand why a person you trust would assault you. It’s easier to tell grown women what to do than to teach our children not to grow up to be rapists. And it is a whole lot easier to avoid a crime that rarely happens than to prevent the type of sexual assaults that occur every single day."

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  • Frankie

    Thank you for writing this article. I have to admit when I first read the title I was a little startled and mentally preparing myself to defend the reality of 'date rape' drugs, having been the victim of them myself. However, reading through the article I have to agree with everything you wrote.

    Women do have their drinks spiked with the intention of being raped, the same as men do drag women unknown to them into the bushes and rape them. It happens and it is a terrifying prospect, but it's not the whole story about rape. Far more people are raped, assaulted and abused by people they know and you are right, because that reality is too scary and difficult to face it's far too easy to focus on less common and more easily defended against crimes.

    When I was younger I used to carry a 'rape alarm', I went to self defense classes, I learnt that you should call 'fire' and not 'rape' if you are attacked and I never left my drink unattended. Yet I still had my drink spiked - by the trusted male friend I'd asked to look after it. I was still abused by my father, because rape at home can't be defended against by tactics developed to reduce your risk of being raped in the street by a stranger.

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  • http://skylardaterapeawareness.blogspot.com/ Cathleen Boyle

    Dear Amanda, Reading your message was so powerful and moving. It speaks the "real" truth about the heart of the date-rape drug issue--prejudice and stereotyping. It is truly about perceptions. My daughter died after she unknowingly ingested a drink that someone spiked with Ghb. I know her situation is unique but Ghb related deaths happen. She died within 6-7 hours of ingesting Ghb. I am trying to raise awareness through my blog named after my daughter. (http://skylardaterapeawareness.blogspot.com/) It has taken me many years to recover from what happened to my daughter. It happened at a music studio in San Francisco and the men responsible for the drugging were never charged because there were no witnesses. It is a heartbreaking story but I hope that I can makes a difference in the lives of other young women. Thank you so much for your insightful contribution to fighting ignorance and raising awareness. Cathleen Boyle

  • Shaun S

    My g/f was at a Haloween party in 2006 and said she had 2 drinks (shots). She said she remembered everything up until about 10 p.m. She claims she woke up in her bra and underwear in a strangers bed. He swore they did nothing. He told her over and over he "saved" her. She wound up getting his phone number. She claims she called him a few times to find out what happened and he kept saying he saved her and didn't do anything b/c she couldn't even walk. She still says she believes he raped her. Deep down she says she knows.
    Well after all these years, she finally admits to me that after a few days, she agreed to go out with the guy. She wound up going to his house, having dinner and then she slept with him. She claims she slept with him a few other times too.
    Has anybody ever heard of this? Sleeping with somebody you suspect raped you?
    Keep this in mind too. She already has admitted to sleeping with 10 guys while we've been together the past 4 years. This includes a stripper at a gay bar in san diego, personal trainers, and some guy 20 years her senior. She doesn't have any reason to lie about this particular guy. She also faked cervical cancer to cover up an abortion she had in 2004. Clearly not a healthy person.
    My biggest question is has anybody ever heard of a woman going back to a guy and having sex with him after she suspected that he raped her?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2009/10/28/the-date-rape-drug-is-in-an-urban-myth-lets-put-it-to-rest/ Shaun McKinney

    This is a dangerous article. It WILL cause women to let down their guard. My daughter is a good girl -23 years old. She and two girlfriends (life long friends I might add) went to a yuppie bar last Saturday on High Street in Columbus Ohio. They were all drinking at the same rate, as they have done before. They had two drinks an hour over three hours. She had been approached by a couple of guys in the bar. My daughter said she felt strange and out of control. Her friends called my oldest son to come and help get her out of this bar. He brought her home and they followed in another car. She had no muscle control, excessive vomiting, ramblings, etc. She was loosing conciousness so we took to the ER where my wife works. She was ther for about 6 hours, had three liters of fluids. She was sick for a day and half, and does not remember anything from the point she mentioned to her friends that she felt wierd till just before she left the emergency room. There are predators out there. Please don't write it is okay for a woman to leave her doors unlocked at night. That would be just as dangerous as the article you wrote above.

  • Mrs. D

    So did they find anything in her system? I mean, if she got to the ER within a few hours of ingesting the drugs, they would have found them in her system (up to 5 hours after for blood and 12 for urine).

  • Scared in New York

    There is no myth here, this stuff is for real. I just got off the phone with the poor girlfriend who was stuck with me last night, and it was a horrible story. I have no doubt that there was something in my drink, and I very stupidly left it alone several times. Thank God I had a friend who was brave enough to see me through the night and protect me. I did not even know where I lived! I had two glasses of cider over several hours, then all of a sudden, I went into very erratic behavior, I said things that made no sense at all, I was screaming at my friend, she said I had a very blank look on my face. She even had to talk a cop out of bringing me in after I upset a taxi driver who called to complain. I am a law abiding citizen, and a nice person, all of this crazy behavior is totally out of character. My friend told me that there was some guy at the bar who was trying really hard to get me to go home with him. I know I was drugged. Eventually she got me to a friends house where I passed out hard on the sofa, she said it was nearly impossible to wake me, she was worried I was nearly comatose. I have no recollection at all of any of these events. I was an easy target, I was in a cast with a crutch, I could not have gotten away from anyone. I am terrified now, to think of what could have happened to me, WOW. Ladies, do not be like me, watch your drinks and be careful.

  • MayorAdamWest

    My girlfriend was roofied...not a fun experience. I wish you could hear the voicemail she left me because you'd know right away that she was.

    Girl's night out will never be the same. And to the ducking losers who do this to chicks, rot in hell.

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