In the aftermath of the festive party season, Sarah Doran investigates the link between drink, drugs and date rape
T’was the season to be many things according to the numerous photo albums uploaded to Facebook; jolly, broke and absolutely ‘trollied’ ranked amongst the most popular choices of album title.
The mortifying photos on Facebook which screamed “DE-TAG!” or the grim realisation that yes, you had scored that godawful trainee Garda in Coppers served to remind many that perhaps that last drink or ten had not been such a wonderful idea after all. However, for some it may not have been just that last drink but what had been slipped into it that ensured that the night out proved eternally memorable. Date rape is arguably one experience that no de-tag can erase.
Rape is classed as forced or coerced sex between; partners, dates, friends, friends of friends or general acquaintances. It can be coerced both physically and emotionally with perpetrators employing tactics ranging from threats to reputation to accusations that the victim brought it upon themselves or really wanted it to happen.
Nevertheless, date rape is a form of sexual assault. If an individual has had too much to drink or has been placed under the influence of drugs, they cannot consent to sexual activity. Those who engage in sexual activity with those under the influence can legally be charged with committing a crime of rape.
An article in the Irish Independent described date rape in 2004 as Ireland’s ‘dirty little secret’, with experts agreeing that the crime was ‘vastly underreported’. This reality can often be largely attributed to the fact that the perpetrator of the crime is frequently acquainted with the victim. In fact, date rape is also labelled acquaintance rape, as incidences of the crime do not necessarily occur in an actual date setting.
According to statistics published by the Young Women’s Christian Association in the USA, date rape is the most common form of sexual assault, with one in four girls expected to fall victim to rape or attempted rape before they reach 25. The organisation alleges that three out of five instances of date rape occur before a woman reaches 18. However, women are not the sole victims of this crime: men can be and are regularly the victims of this type of sexual assault. Social taboos can often prevent men from coming forward and reporting instances of this vicious act.
Date or acquaintance rape is associated with DFSA or drug-facilitated sexual assault. Perhaps the most infamous drug associated with date rape is rohypnol. More commonly known as roofies, these pills are prescription sedatives or depressants. This drug is tasteless and has no distinguishing colour or odour. Therefore, when it is crushed it can be added to any drink without detection: a drink as simple as water can easily be spiked using this particular pill. The most common symptoms include a loss of inhibition and amnesia: the drug can take effect within only 20 minutes after ingestion by the victim.
Following the controversy of the late 1990s regarding its popular use as a date rape drug, the manufacturer of rohypnol voluntarily altered the formula of the drug. It would now change colour upon contact with liquid: those who had their drinks spiked could identify this change in colour. Despite this advance, it is still easy to find rohypnol in its original generic formulation.
It is hardly surprising that an incident in May 2009 in which 80,000 rohypnol tablets were amongst a consignment of prescription drugs that had been stolen from a pharmaceutical company in north Dublin inspired panic amongst those in the capital and indeed countrywide. Chain-mail text messages and e-mails were swiftly circulated amongst secondary school and college students in order to raise awareness.
However, rohypnol is not the only drug available to would-be attackers; gamma hydroxy butyrate, more commonly known as GHB, liquid ecstasy or EZ Lay can also be administered through drink spiking. This odourless and colourless liquid can easily be mistaken for water and affects the central nervous system: GBH begins to take effect within ten to 15 minutes. GBH acts as a depressant and can even induce anaesthesia.
The death of 15-year-old Samantha Reid in the USA following an overdose of GBH in 1999 evidenced the horrific consequences this drug can ultimately have. Reid’s death inspired the Hillory J Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000, which banned the drug in the United States.
GBH is also illegal in Canada and many parts of Europe. Perhaps the most menacing aspect of this drug is the fact that pharmaceutical companies do not produce it: it is made in illegal drug labs or by amateur chemists in their homes and can easily be produced by those with basic chemistry skills and the correct ingredients.
Another drug associated with date rape is ketamine hydrochloride. More commonly known as Vitamin K or Special K, this legal drug is sold as a veterinary sedative or hospital grade anaesthesia. It can act as a dissociative anaesthesia, meaning that the user is rendered vaguely aware and yet comfortably detached from all bodily sensations. The most common effects of the drug include delirium, vivid hallucinations and delayed reaction time. When consumed orally, the drug can take effect within 20 minutes.
The tasteless, odourless and colourless nature of these three substances makes them virtually undetectable and therefore desirable to predators. Any trace of these drugs will leave the body within 72 hours of ingestion and they cannot be detected in any routine toxicology screen or blood test unless they have been specifically targeted. The drugs render the victim unaware but responsive and often cause them to act without inhibition whilst it remains in their system. The passive victim can, however, still play a role in this horrific tale, often acting in a sexually or physically affectionate way with their attacker.
Tragically, the victim can often be unaware that they have been raped. However, some individuals have clear memories of the attack, their incapacitated bodies rendered physically compliant though their minds are mentally resistant: such a horrific experience can inflict mental wounds that prove understandably difficult and impossible to heal.
Yet perhaps controversially, the most common date rape drug is alcohol itself. In 2007, staff and students within the Forensic and Legal Medicine team at the University of Ulster conducted a study that revealed the role played by alcohol in cases of date rape. The team examined toxicology results compiled from victims of alleged sexual assaults over a six-year period from 1999 to 2005. Their findings demonstrated that the average alcohol levels at the time of the alleged assaults were almost three times the drink-driving limit.
In an article in Science Daily in 2007, Dr Janet Hall, who examined the Forensic Science Northern Ireland toxicology database, said: “This research confirms the findings of other studies in the UK, US and Australia – that alcohol is a major contributor to vulnerability to sexual assault in social situations and acquaintance rape.”
Though the study failed to find any trace of specific date rape drugs such as GHB, rohypnol or ketamine, it did caution that delays in reporting alleged assaults or in taking samples could mean that these substances could no longer be detected. Dr Hall explained how “given the very high levels of alcohol consumption by some alleged victims, the findings also raise the question of what constitutes valid consent to sexual activity. The capacity to give informed consent at these levels of alcohol consumption is very questionable.”
Indeed, in recent years it has been asserted that a number of those who have claimed to have their drink spiked have actually been suffering not from the effects of drug ingestion, but rather excess alcohol consumption. This fear that they will not be believed can prevent those who truly have fallen victim to drink spiking from coming forward and contacting those who will offer help and support to victims.
The situation presents a stark and unfortunate reality, which ensures that the issue remains highly contentious. Is drink spiking actually an urban legend? Or is it a reality that many continue to silently fall victim to?
Regardless of the statistics, the reality is that rape continues to impact upon the lives of thousands of survivors, both male and female. Simple steps can be taken to attempt to prevent attacks from occurring. The rules are simple: do not leave your drink unattended and do not accept drinks from strangers. Furthermore, ensure that friends who seem too intoxicated from what they have taken get home safely.
On a night out, these rules may seem tedious and unnecessary but the simple steps taken by one person could ultimately change a life. If you found yourself in a situation where your drink had been spiked, you might be glad that your friends would do the same for you, even if they did tag you in that dodgy photo in the taxi home.
The Rape Crisis Centre can be contacted on their free 24-hour helpline at 1800 778888.