The Real Date Rape Drug

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Should young women worry about “spiked” drinks and “date rape” drugs?  A new study published in the British Journal of Criminology including surveys of both American and British coeds suggests that the real problem is what’s already in the glass, not what a surreptitious date or stranger might add to it.

“The students who took part in our study saw drink-spiking as the most significant ‘risk factor’ in sexual assault,” says corresponding author Sarah Moore, a lecturer in sociology at Queen’s University in Belfast, UK, explaining that the young women ranked it as a greater threat than drinking alcohol, taking other drugs and even walking in a high crime area.

In fact, the use of “date rape” drugs on unwitting victims is extremely rare.  Studies of blood samples of rape victims in both the U.S. and the U.K. find that the majority have high levels of alcohol in their systems, but few unexplained drugs. One recent study of those visiting an ER because they believed their drinks were spiked found that only 3% had sedatives in their systems that they had not taken themselves.

Reviewing the research, a leading expert wrote, “These data clearly indicate that there is no evidence of widespread use of flunitrazepam in sexual assault.”  Flunitrazepam—that would be the drug better known as rohypnol (“roofies”), which is rarely mentioned in the media without the tag “date rape” drug.

Says Moore, “What’s immediately interesting about this is that it runs counter to what we know about sexual assault: alcohol is frequently a factor in recorded sexual assaults, drink-spiking rarely. Not only this, but most recorded assault does not involve a shady, anonymous drink-spiker, but an acquaintance or intimate.”

The result is that young women don’t recognize the risks related to heavy drinking.  Moore’s study found that only 3 of 219 American college women surveyed had limited their alcohol intake as a response to the perceived threat of drink-spiking.  Because alcohol is the real “date rape” drug, this would be the most effective way to reduce risk.

So why do we worry instead about strangers with drugs?  One reason is that alcohol is familiar—people have seen it around them since childhood and they believe they can predict how much they can drink safely.  Those with little experience with alcohol can badly miscalculate, mistaking the effects of alcohol for those of an added drug.

Even experienced drinkers can get it wrong, however:  alcohol’s effects can vary wildly depending on one’s stress levels, hormones, the setting where someone is drinking and many other factors.  How drunk someone gets is even affected by the people around them.

Of course, rape is caused by rapists and being intoxicated is no reason to blame the victim.  But we need better education around alcohol, not panics about rarely-used drugs that don’t empower women to understand actual risks and suggest that bars are filled with men who would commit premeditated rape.

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