Thursday, October 29, 2009

Examining Evidence Behind Spiking of Drinks With Date-Rape Drugs As Urban Myth

The Daily Mail has an article about this supposed myth with a headline which reads: Date-rape drug? No dear, you just had too much to drink.

Date-rape drugs are largely an urban myth used as an excuse by women who booze themselves into a stupor, it has been claimed. They are willing to 'hide behind' the idea that a stranger poured poison in their drink - rather than face up to the fact that they had simply been binge drinking.
Rather than go into more detail about this article's bad and dangerous interpretation of the research which led Daniel Martin of the Daily Mail to write this article in the way he did, I want to look at the press release from the university where the research originated.

According to research led by the University of Kent and reported in the latest issue of The British Journal of Criminology, the perception of a drink spiking threat has become so pervasive that students think it is a more important factor in sexual assault than being drunk, taking drugs or walking alone at night. Rituals to protect drinks from contamination with sedative drugs, such as taking drinks to the toilet in clubs and bars and buying only bottled drinks, have become commonplace. The fear has also created a market for products designed to prevent drink spiking or reveal the presence of hypnotic drugs.

The research team, led by Dr Adam Burgess from the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research[1] at the University of Kent, set out to investigate why there was such a pervasive belief when systematic police investigations have found no evidence that drink spiking is commonly implicated in sexual assaults. The researchers surveyed and interviewed students in three UK locations and one in the USA about the threat. They discovered that female students regularly judged certain 'bad-night-out episodes' (loss of memory, blackouts, ill feeling and dizziness) as likely to be related to tampering of drinks rather than the quantity of alcohol consumed. [emphasis mine]
The highlighted word shows how the Daily Mail article transformed a discussion about what is or is not common into a discussion of what is or is not possible. To conflate these is irresponsible and is harmful to those who have had their drinks spiked and who are likely to be met by smug certainty that they are deluded or lying.

The problem however goes deeper than a misreading of the press release about this research. It extends to the survey itself and the assumptions used to interpret the survey results. What the press release said is "no evidence that drink spiking is commonly implicated in sexual assaults." The key here is implicated.

The researchers seem to be conflating the failure of the toxicology tests to detect date rape drugs with proof that date rape drugs are not being used to facilitate sexual assaults. I don't have access to the entire study so the study might address this and if it does that's great but it doesn't undo the false impression contained in the press release.

As a coworker at IBM once told me when we were discussing something we didn't know how to measure, "If you can't measure it, it doesn't exist." That mindset seems to be at work in studies of police toxicology tests where drink spiking might be alleged. I highlighted one of the studies of toxicology tests in Feb. of 2007 and the glaring flaws I saw then which led researchers to make unfounded claims against those who believed their drinks had been spiked are just as glaring in the way the Kent University press release refers to toxicology reports.

The premise that spiking a drink with date-rape drugs is nothing more than an urban myth is provably false, in both the general sense and when it comes to specific drugs most identified as date-rape drugs.

Evidence of spiked drinks have been found. Below are just a few examples.

A testing kit showed positive in Texas prior to the intended victim ingesting the drink and the man, a reserve police officer, who was seen spiking the drink was arrested for cocaine possession and other charges.

GHB was found in toxicology tests after a chiropractor and his friend were caught dragging a woman to his car. And in that case a bottle of the drug was also found in the doctor's possession. This was a non-stranger crime.

A woman who had GHB and Klonopin slipped in her drink was raped and then died from the effects of the drugs. This was a non-stranger crime.

After 2 women working at a bar saw a man spike a drink with what turned out to be zalepron, a prescription sleeping drug sold as Sonata, they interceded before the intended victim drank. This was a non-stranger crime.

The pattern of verification I see in these examples and in most other cases where the spiking has been proven is that the drug was detected because someone saw wrongdoing early on, long before a forensic exam toxicology test would have been done, or the victim died.

Many of the cases don't fit the popular narrative that drinks are spiked by lurking strangers. Drinks can be spiked by non-strangers and they can be spiked by people you might trust to watch your drink for you and who you might trust to help you get home safely if you need assistance for any reason.

A case in Santa Barbara ended with guilty verdicts earlier this week where Steven Neff was found guilty of injecting 2 women (1 a jogger who didn't know him, 1 a co-worker) with Ketamine before sexually assaulting them. He skipped the drinks and forced the drug into his victims' bodies directly. He admitted to 2 earlier druggings for which he couldn't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired before the police connected him to those crimes.

What Neff did sounds like an urban myth, but it was real. I can easily see friends or the police getting a true report of this type of drugging and absolutely refusing to believe it and then responding with slander against a victim who told the truth.

Unfortunately, the assessing of study subjects accuracy of judgment in their survey responses is little more than guesswork. This study could not do a verified measure of this accuracy or inaccuracy. Even if they surveyed only those who had drug testing this would not be proof that no additional drugs had been given since the timing of a toxicology test can be critical in detecting date rape drugs.

This raises the question of whether all those who believed they'd had their drink spiked were automatically assumed to be liars or deluded. If that's so then this injects corrupting bias into the study's conclusions.

The only way to test perception versus the actual contents of the drinks would be to have a blind study where participants were given spiked or non-spiked alcoholic drinks. However, the ethical problems with such a study would be immense.

Here's information on another study, this time in Northern Ireland, which looked at toxicology tests.
Dr Janet Hall undertook a Masters research project with supervisors Dr Tara Moore and Professor Edward Goodall on drug facilitated sexual assault within Northern Ireland. They examined toxicology results compiled from victims of alleged sexual assaults over a six year period from 1999 to 2005. The findings demonstrated that the average alcohol levels at the time of the alleged assaults were almost THREE TIMES the drink/driving limit.

The research undermines claims that the use of ‘date-rape’ drugs or ‘spiking’ of drinks is the major factor involved. The study failed to find any trace of specific date rape drugs such as GHB, Rohypnol or ketamine, although it did caution that delays in reporting alleged assaults or in taking samples could mean that such drugs could no longer be detected.
Notice the caution. This is important. The researchers don't note how long after the suspected drugging these samples were taken so it is unknown whether there was any reasonable possibility of finding any traces of these specific date rape drugs in any of these toxicology tests.

The number of cases where high or very high levels of alcohol were found in the alleged victims increased over the same period. Although the involvement of drugs, other than alcohol, in the samples doubled in the six year period, their contribution to the assaults remain unclear. Many of the drugs detected were either prescription drugs or recreational drugs. Some drugs which could have been used to spike drinks were detected, but they also may have been simply prescribed for use by the alleged victim.
Again what the researchers don't know is immense. The amount of alcohol seems to be assumed to all have been ingested by choice, but the first drink spiking I was ever warned about involved alcohol. Just as non-alcoholic drinks can be spiked with booze alcoholic drinks can be spiked to increase the percentage of alcohol in the drink. This study mentions that drugs not classified as date rape drugs can be used to spike drinks which means their presence needs to be counted toward potential evidence of drink tampering.

So basically, these studies tell us nothing about the commonness of spiking drinks with specific date rape drugs or spiking drugs in any way except to highlight what is not known.

If the inconclusive results of toxicology tests weren't given far more weight than they deserve, the Kent University survey could be useful at getting people to look at trends in perceptions of risk including why and where people decide to be hyper vigilant and why and where they decide to not be vigilant at all. It could also be useful in sparking a widespread examination of why the problem of alcohol and/or drug facilitated sexual assault is so focused on the actions of victims and potential victims instead of being focused on the actions of rapists and those who might be tempted to rape.

We need to be more focused on the role of alcohol in sexual assault perpetration if we are serious about effectiveness of preventing rape. The heavy drinking of men has a much more direct relation to sexual violence than the heavy drinking of women does.
When the victim was sober, the greater the perpetrator's intoxication, the more likely she was to be physically injured during the assault. However, when they both consumed alcohol, intoxication (victim's or perpetrator's) was unrelated to victim's injuries. These findings suggest that when the victim is sober and the perpetrator is intoxicated, her resistance strategies may anger him and lead him to use more force, thereby producing more injuries.
This goes directly against what many people say about drinking and sexual violence. A popular narrative is that if you are sober you are less likely to be hurt. But this is only true if you have not been targeted by a rapist.

What I've seen of the Kent University study raises serious questions about the effectiveness of any repeated warning to girls and women about specific dangers even when those dangers are known to be real. No amount of caution by potential victims is going to guarantee they won't be raped. Those who believe it does are assuming that rape is something that happens by accident and if men aren't tempted with women unable to defend themselves they simply wouldn't rape.

If instead rape is something with a root cause other than the actions of victims then the number of people willing or eager to commit rape remains constant. If vulnerability is their trigger then those who work in a hospital are likely to violate hospital patients if they can't get their sexual violence fix elsewhere.

It is much more effective to seek to change the general conditions which help rapists succeed and to seek to change the rationalizations of those who want to commit rape. If drinking a six-pack helps a man who likes to rape let go of what normally stops him from raping then it is more important for him and others like him to be told not to drink.

By keeping the focus on those who have harmed others or who plan to do so then fewer rapists will be excused or forgotten simply because their victim didn't follow 1 or more popular anti-rape warnings.

As long as the victim's or potential victim's behavior is the primary focus then rapists benefit.

The author of the Daily Mail article and too many others who examine toxicology test results unfortunately want to maintain this non-perpetrator focus by blaming rape on girls and women's binge drinking and positioning girls and women as unreliable based on flawed analysis of flawed data.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 12:03 PM   3 comments links to this post


At October 29, 2009 1:30 PM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

The Daily Male (sic) has a deliberate agenda and that is consistently holding women accountable for men's violence committed against them. This is why the flawed research was used to support this misogynistic newspaper's claim that 'drug rape does not exist, because women supposedly drink to excess as a way of justifying their sexual behaviour.'

If alcohol does indeed faciliate male sexual violence against women and the male perpetrators deliberately consume alcohol in order to remove their 'natural inhibitions with regards to raping an woman/girl, then yes men should be constantly warned not to consume any alcohol because such consumption will cause them to rape a woman/girl.

But of course alcohol alone does not cause male perpetrators to rape women/girls because many males drink alcohol and do not then rape a woman/girl. Males who drink alcohol and then rape a woman/girl know that by consuming alcohol society will minimalise their responsibility and accountability, whilst simultaneously continuing to hold women and girls responsible for those men who make a free and informed choice to commit rape and/or other forms of sexual violence against women and girls.

At November 01, 2009 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leave it to a feminist to completely miss the point. The article is very clear. Women are misjudging the danger of simply being drunk versus getting a spiked drink. Nobody is saying drugging doesn't happen.

And here you go saying that druggings must happen frequently yet you give no evidence. You just know this as a fact? The mindset of fundamentalist Christians is strikingly similar to feminists. They seems to know all the answers regardless of the facts against them.

At November 01, 2009 5:23 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Anonymous, you are the one who is missing the point. I didn't say drugging must happen frequently, what I said is that the supposed proof that drugging is uncommon or rare is no proof of this claim at all.

I doubt you read my entire post since if you did you would know that delays in reporting can result in drugs which were in someone's bloodstream not being detectable in the sample. This means a negative result is not proof that a particular drug was not placed in a drink.

You say that nobody is saying drugging doesn't happen, but the headline of the Daily Mail article proves your claim to be false. It makes the flat out claim that "you just had too much to drink."


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