Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Hysteria Over Date Rape Drugs

Yet again, the press treats a rare problem as an epidemic.

Three Florida high schoolers won this year's Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge with a plan to make a straw that detects date rape drugs. The device would change color when it finds ketamine or GHB in a drink.

The project sounds great. The reporting on the project does not. The practice of slipping date rape drugs into drinks is nowhere near as common as many reporters seem to think.

The Miami Herald claims that using "so-called club drugs to facilitate rape is a decades-old problem that seems to have intensified in recent years." Teen Vogue reported that "one in 13 college students say they have been drugged, or suspect they have been drugged, in the past academic year." The Teen Vogue writer backed up that statistic by pointing to a flimsy study full of caveats published last year in the journal Psychology of Violence.

The study, from a team led by psychologist Suzanne Swan of the University of South Carolina, used data from about 6,000 students at three universities. Early in the paper, the authors admit there are huge issues with estimating the prevalence of "drugging victimization"—that is, having drugs slipped in your drink without your consent. Various drugs, such as Rohypnol and GHB, exit the system at different rates (72 hours and 10 hours, respectively), so toxicological tests don't always yield accurate results. Meanwhile, since the person being drugged is unaware of what's happening, they can only rely on the experienced effects to judge whether their drink has been tainted.

In previous studies, subjects have suspected they've been drugged, but these fears haven't always been accurate. A 2010 study reported that only 49 percent of suspected victims actually returned positive urine test results. In a 2007 study, only 19 percent of suspected drugging and drink-spiking cases tested positive.

So when Swan's team reports that 1 in 13 students "suspected or knew that someone put a drug in their drink without their knowledge," that information could mean almost anything. Suspicion is not always rooted in reality. Sometimes somebody drugged your drink; sometimes you're simply drunk.

The Miami Herald and Teen Vogue pieces also make the mistake of implying that a drugged drink must lead directly to sexual assault. As Swan and her colleagues point out, the current literature suggests the opposite: Somewhere between 12 percent and 33 percent of drugging victims reported resulting rape in the studies they reviewed. In their own study, they found that a little more than five percent of the drugging victims also reported forced sexual intercourse.

So even if the "one in 13" number were true, a much smaller percentage of those victims would also be sexual assault victims, statistically speaking––and that low prevalence remains consistent from study to study. Of course, any sexual assault is awful and traumatic. But it's good news that drugging is less common than many people assume think, and unwanted sexual contact even less so.

Swann and company concede that "research in the area of drugging is nascent" and based "almost exclusively on anecdotal data." Their own effort is no exception.

Stories like these have a lot of appeal. They feed off fears of sexual danger. They reaffirm the belief that drugs only manipulate or harm users. And on the positive side, they show empowered young people taking up broadly palatable causes for the common good. But in the process of doing so, they perpetuate myths about sexual assault and how it's carried out.

In reality, sexual assault is usually committed by acquaintances who manipulate trust. The chief drug involved is alcohol, not GHB or ketamine. And date-rape-drug-detecting straws already exist—they're just rarely used. It's great that these high schoolers see the value in consent, autonomy, and creating a safer world for those around them. But let's think twice before we pretend the problem they're tackling is a common and "intensifying" threat.

Photo Credit: Nik Frey/Creative Commons 2.5

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Jerryskids||

    Cool! This is good news for me - I manufacture drinking straws made out of Rohypnol.

  • Crusty Juggler - Elite||

    Oh, some Liz Wolfe! She is, as the kids saw, kewl beanz.

    Stories like these have a lot of appeal. They feed off fears of sexual danger. They reaffirm the belief that drugs only manipulate or harm users. And on the positive side, they show empowered young people taking up broadly palatable causes for the common good. But in the process of doing so, they perpetuate myths about sexual assault and how it's carried out.

    Nice.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I don't give a shit what the kids "saw," but Liz Wolfe is better than a-ok in my book. If Reason hadn't filled Robby's space with an intern, maybe they could see their way to publishing more of Ms. Wolfe? Just a thought.

  • Crusty Juggler - Elite||

    I don't give a shit what the kids "saw,"

    Talk to the hand!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    [snaps fingers while moving head like a cobra]

  • Crusty Juggler - Elite||

    Home skillet is hella trippin'.

  • Robert||

    Ultimately all this feeds off fears of sex, period.

  • Crusty Juggler - Elite||

    "13 college students say they have been drugged, or suspect they have been drugged, in the past academic year."

    Uhhh, yeah I have also maybe been drugged within the past year. That's the ticket.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    The drug sniffing product is to be named "The Cosby Strawsby"

  • Zeb||

    "13 college students say they have been drugged

    Assuming that is correct, it's still a really tiny number. Shouldn't the fact that the number is so small be seen as good news.

    Of course, millions of college students deliberately dose themselves with the most common date rape drug of all: alcohol.

  • BYODB||

    And, to top that off, they have little experience with alcohol and thus have no idea if that feeling they're having is because they just downed six shots in a row or if it's because one of the shots had a date rape drug in it. The adults they talk to are preprogrammed to expect them to have been drugged when the majority of the time they simply can't hold their liquor and end up acting on their hormonal impulses.

    This effect is essentially multiplied the more sheltered the kid is, and in todays environment of extreme protectionism for children you can understand how this can perceived as being 'out of hand'.

  • Zeb||

    If you know your limits and drink somewhat responsibly, it's easy to forget what a powerful drug alcohol can be.

  • SIV||

  • Eman||

    You know there's a problem when the Ramones are being the adults in the room.

  • YeupiGee||

    Who wastes their drugs giving them to the unwilling? I know that when I was a GBL (a GHB prodrug) addict that the only person who got any was myself.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    +1 forget-me-now

  • ||

    I know that when I was a GBL (a GHB prodrug) addict that the only person who got any was myself.

    I have an idea for a product. It's a straw that turns colors once you've added enough GHB to your drink. I plan to sell it in a two-pack with a regular straw. If the regular straw turns colors, you've had enough GHB.

  • damikesc||

    That the media might exaggerate the issue of "rape" is something I have never considered before now.

    The study, from a team led by psychologist Suzanne Swan of the University of South Carolina, used data from about 6,000 students at three universities.

    As a grad, if the Univ of S. Carolina was one of the universities used for the study, the girls they drank themselves to oblivion weekly. Drugs were not remotely needed.

  • ||

    odds are at least one of the students was hopped up on ritalin or adderal that was initially recommended by a teacher.

  • Zeb||

    That's nice. But those would make terrible date rape drugs.

  • Eman||

    Depends who's taking it.

  • Number 2||

    "Three Florida high schoolers won this year's Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge with a plan to make a straw that detects date rape drugs. The device would change color when it finds ketamine or GHB in a drink."

    Hold on. Don't feminists react with outrage whenever someone suggests measures to prevent being drugged -- something about being "sick and tired" of having to modify their behavior and men needing to be taught not to rape? Didn't a student editor of a college newspaper get vilified for that reason when he suggested bringing your own cups to frat parties to avoid having a drug slipped into your drinks?

    Sounds like these three high schoolers should have been flamed on Twitter, boycotted and fired from their part-time jobs rather than being given awards.

  • Zeb||

    Doesn't matter what you do, some feminists will react with outrage to it.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    If the media were (successfully) enjoined from pushing stories about rape and drugs based on hysteria, the majority of media outlets would close like a cheap mousetrap.

  • HaroldA||

    I don't understand the desire to minimize what is a real (even if slightly smaller than many people think) problem. If 1 in 13 (~8%) college students *annually* believe they've been drugged that horrible. Even if that is overstating the problem four-fold, that means 2% of college students each year are being drugged without their knowledge or consent. Why do you seem to think that that's trivial? If 2% of people were the victim of mugging annually we'd rightly call it an epidemic.

  • Trainer||

    How many of those who think they've been drugged were actually drugged? 80%? 50%? 0%? If you think it's pretty much 0% (and I do- alcohol is enough to get what you want without seeking out and buying an illegal drug and risking jail time before you even get any) then it is very, very trivial. Add that this is just college students and not the population at large as in your mugging example and we don't really seem to have a problem.

  • Ankah||

    it is never 0%. There is always a legit case some where. perhaps not nearly as much, but enough.

    I do not understand the point of the article and the reaction here. Is the criticism towards the inventors, the Miami Herald or the study?

    "In previous studies, subjects have suspected they've been drugged, but these fears haven't always been accurate. A 2010 study reported that only 49 percent of suspected victims actually returned positive urine test results. In a 2007 study, only 19 percent of suspected drugging and drink-spiking cases tested positive." I get the point that most women were wrong, but I do see an increase of 30% from 2007 to 2010. I would call it intensifying.

    She ends by saying "But let's think twice before we pretend the problem they're tackling is a common and "intensifying" threat." Why does she care? if they invented something (which already exists? Bummer for them), it is because they felt there was a need. If the market buys into it, then they are justified. And why does she care if women decide to buy the straw? Even if you tell me there is only 1 case per year, that may be enough for a lot of women to purchase the product, because no one wants to experience rape.

  • Eman||

    When people just give percentages it makes me think the actual numbers are meaninglessly small. Just saying.

  • HaroldA||

    Then you, my friend, are no statistician.

  • MarkLastname||

    "Then you, my friend, are no statistician."
    Neither are you. His point is valid. 50% doesn't mean anything in itself. 1 out of 2 is 50%, but has very little statistical power; it's basically meaningless. 10,000 out of an n of 20,000 is of course reliable. Journalists absolutely should report the actual numbers.

  • HaroldA||

    I'm entirely with you, Ankah. I don't understand either the point of the article, it's tone, or the tone of the commenters. Apparently there is some acceptable percentage for drugging strangers and rape.

  • HaroldA||

    Remember when Reason used to have a lot more of said?

  • MarkLastname||

    If someone sells bear traps in New York city and a bunch of journalists start peddling fear of the rampancy of bears in the city, it is entirely appropriate to criticize the hysteria. It's irrational. Sure, there is a nonzero probability of a bear getting into your yard in Staten island, and after all, no one wants to experience being mauled by a bear. So why make fun of the people who are so worried about being mauled by a bear? It's their choice, right?

    it is their choice, and they have the right to make it. But I'm still going to mock them for being idiots and worrying about an eventuality of negligible probability.

    The analogy is only slightly hyperbolic. The vast majority of women who claim to have been drugged weren't actually drugged, and if the sample population wasn't randomized, that further skews things. Much like sex-trafficking and serial killers, it's a rare thing that happens occasionally, and sensible people are trying to tell everyone to calm down, and you are coming along saying 'who cares if they over-exaggerate, even one is too many' or whatever. If you feel that way, better go get your bear trap.

  • Trainer||

    Against the study. Mountain, molehill.

  • HaroldA||

    I personally know 3 women to whom this has occurred. After one small drink they found themselves BEYOND drunk, unable to stand/walk on their own, barely coherent, etc. This absolutely does happen and they were not college students at the time. And no, alcohol is not enough to "get what you want" when you're a vile rapist who enjoys taking advantage of strangers in scenarios where they can't say no.

    "just college students" You sound like a real heartless kind of individual. I hope that your life is never touched by something like this.

  • MarkLastname||

    "I personally know 3 women to whom this has occurred. After one small drink they found themselves BEYOND drunk, unable to stand/walk on their own, barely coherent, etc."
    1) Random person on the internet says they know someone blah blah blah isn't an argument. 2) There are half a dozen more logical explanations than getting 'suddenly drunk.' Like alcohol interacting with other drugs (legal or illegal) your friend was on; her drinking more than you saw her drink or admitted to drinking, etc.

    But whatever; you seem like the kind of person who "listens and believes" and thinks 3 out of 2 men are rapists and every bachelor above age 40 molests children in his basement.

  • Trainer||

    "Just" meaning the *numbers* were only college students not that they were unimportant. And you incorrectly assume two things- that I'm heartless when the issue was your inability to understand a word in context and that "something like this" has not already touched my life.

    And I don't for an instant believe that you know 3 women this has happened to. You can say what you want but you have no proof- just like the original study.

  • Qsl||

    Given the youngins these days tend to have a pretty substantial online record of their lives, this could potentially backfire when their homoerotic (or heteroerotic... I don't judge) experimentation surfaces and there is clearly an unchanged straw in the background (except for those freaks who want a little more with their rum and coke).

    Remember kids, if everything is safe and secure, you alone bear the totality of your bright idea of a belly-dancing smurf wearing a diaper.

  • JayWye||

    LOL. I doubt many young women are going to admit to strangers that they've been drugged and raped. Even for a survey.

  • MarkLastname||

    Yeah, I bet the response rate was low; it's probably like 100% of women have been date raped. We need task forces! More Title IX investigators! Chastity belts! It's a crisis!

  • Barbara Yarhead||

    I fail to see why people need drugs to rape a date. Now, if they got a hankering to rape a prune....

  • Devastator||

    Lost a friend because I called her out on her bullshit. She swore up and down someone must have slipped her something at a party when she woke and didn't remember anything. I was like "no, we watched you down about 10 shots worth of liquor over about an hour and you weigh about 90lbs and you were sick as a dog and then passed out". I think probably what a lot of this is. She wasn't that great of a friend anyway, and she was lucky to have people watching out for her while she got trashed.

  • MarkLastname||

    I weigh over 150 and one glass of wine makes be stagger a bit. 2 and I'm ready to go to sleep; I don't have much tolerance but I'm not a total non-drinker. It also varies considerable from one time to the next, how drunk you get.

    I'd be willing to bet that in general >90% of women opining they have been drugged is them not understanding their own alcohol tolerance (or the variance thereof), not keeping track of how much or how fast they drunk, mixing with prescriptions, etc.

  • JuanQPublic||

    The most shameful thing about the practice of media hysterics is that it conveys wrong ideas about social problems, thus removing any realistic understanding about more possible dangers, which muddies the conversation and doesn't help protect anyone. In many cases, it does the exact opposite.

    People in the US have a greater chance of being killed when, say, someone is texting and driving than, say, a terror attack by foreign nationals. But of course, we know which scenario is going to get the disproportionate coverage and hysteria. Or the old stranger danger tropes.

  • p3orion||

    1 in 13 claims they have been date-rape drugged. That would be about 8%. Does that suspiciously close to the probable enrollment of Women's Studies courses?

  • Africanis||

    Why would anyone send their daughter to a coed college, it's a big rape-fest! According to Rolling Stone and the media, every .2 seconds a woman on a college campus is raped. This includes willing participants in orgies. Besides I thought the real date rape beer goggle drug was alcohol. Isn't that the most used drug that impairs women to sleep with guys who couldn't get laid in a whore house?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online