Rape drug claims researched

"Date-rape" drugs such as rohypnol are “an urban myth” according to a front-page story in The Daily Telegraph. The Daily Mail also featured the controversial headline, “Date-rape drug? No dear, you just had too much to drink.” It claims that the “excuse” is used by women who “drink themselves into a stupor”.

These reports come from a survey of a number of university students in the UK and US that looked at perceptions of drink-spiking and the possibility of drug-related sexual assault. The researchers said there was a high level of awareness of the issue despite there being very little evidence to support the view that drink-spiking with date-rape drugs is common. They also say that some women’s vulnerability may be related to the high level of alcohol they consume on nights out.

As a survey of public opinion, this research tested attitudes only, and cannot prove what roles drink-spiking or alcohol consumption may play in sexual assault. While the press reports were dismissive of the perceived dangers, the researchers conclude that it is still a good idea to take measures to prevent having your drink spiked.

Where did the story come from?

The story comes from research entitled, “Understanding Heightened Risk Perception of Drink Spiking” by Adam Burgess and colleagues, published in the British Journal of Criminology. The UK portion of the study was supported by the British Academy Small Grant.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This cross-sectional research involved a survey and subsequent interviews among university students in both the UK and US, with the aim of exploring beliefs about drink-spiking and the threat of drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA).

The research was inspired by the heightened awareness of potential drink-spiking using rohypnol among young people, in spite of the lack of recorded evidence of the scale of the threat.

The Chief Executive of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust (a charity that advises on personal safety against crime) said that although there has been no academic research into drink-spiking fears, worry over having drinks spiked is a relatively common anxiety among young women in the UK and US.

The idea of DFSA is first said to have appeared in the US in the mid-1990s and has a higher profile now in the UK and Australia. The media is reported to have enhanced this fear through both news reports and television dramas.

However, the research says that the conclusions of scientific and police investigation suggest that this is a very limited threat, with alcohol being the substance most commonly found in the blood and urine of women suspected to be victims of DFSA.

The researchers conducted 200 surveys, 20 in-depth interviews and four focus groups at three UK university campuses (Kent, Sussex and London) during the academic year 2006-7. Most interviewees were female, with an average age of 21.

The 21-item survey aimed to explore student’s perceptions of the date-rape drug, whether they or someone they knew had been a victim, whether they had altered their behaviour as a result, and also their attitudes regarding alcohol drinking, binge drinking, and their responsibility for personal safety. An additional 334 surveys were conducted on students at a US university.

What were the results of the study?

Very few of the participants reported having a drink spiked (10 out of 236 in the UK sample and 17 out of 334 in the US sample) and none reported being the victims of sexual assault. However, almost all had heard of date-rape drugs, and substantial numbers (55% in the UK, 17.1% in the US) also claimed to have first or second-hand experience of drugs being slipped into others' drinks.

UK respondents, particularly females, were more likely to express fears about DFSA than any of the other crimes they were asked about (such as being mugged). The survey also showed that 75% of participants felt that they were at highest risk of sexual assault when their drink was spiked, followed by 72% when drunk and 70% when walking alone at night. Interview questions particularly noted fears of nights out and of leaving drinks unattended.

Despite this perceived threat, only one participant in the UK and three in the US reported limiting their alcohol intake in response to the threat of drink-spiking. However, a large proportion said they took action related to protecting their drinks, such as not accepting drinks from strangers.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers conclude that awareness and fear of having one’s drink spiked in a club or party appears to be high among the university students that they questioned, and that many attribute accounts of sexual assault to be related to drink-spiking rather than the alcoholic drink itself.

They suggest that “the drink-spiking narrative has a functional appeal in relation to the contemporary experience of young women’s public drinking”. In other words, the idea that loss of control and awareness of your own actions could be attributed to a drug administered secretly by another, rather than one’s own alcohol intake, is an appealing one.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This survey of a number of university students in the UK and US has highlighted the high level of awareness and fear, among young women in particular, of drink-spiking and the possibility of drug-related sexual assault.

The researchers and related organisations and charities have noted that this belief is supported by very little recorded evidence that drink-spiking with date-rape drugs is especially prevalent. Although large numbers of those questioned claimed to have known victims of drink-spiking, the circumstances and events surrounding these reports are not known. The researchers suggest that vulnerability to sexual assault may be more commonly linked to the high level of alcohol consumed by many young women on nights out.

Although the prevalence of drink-spiking and drug-related sexual assault cannot be quantified by this survey, the research again highlights the need for people to take care of their own and their friends' behaviour when drinking alcohol. The hazards of excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking are well-known, not just in terms of general health problems, but also in the impairments of judgement they can cause.

While there are few documented cases of sexual assaults after drug-spiking, the researchers did say that remaining vigilant to potential drink-spiking “seems to be reasonably prudent”.

NHS Attribution