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In the mid-1990s, concerns were raised in the U.S. about drugs that posed a ‘special threat’ to women. Drugs such as GHB, Ketamine and Rohypnol ‘were said to be used to immobilize unsuspecting victims for sexual exploitation’ (Jenkins 1999 p. 2). Before long, the media alerted Australian women that they too faced this threat. The first major story of drink spiking in Australia broke in 1998. This story related to a serial rapist who offered women rides home from nightclubs, giving them a hot drink spiked with the pharmaceutical sedative Rohypnol and then sexually assaulting them. The perpetrator, dubbed ‘the hot chocolate rapist’ in the media, was never caught (Silvester, 1998). In this essay I ask: Have press narratives of drink spiking failed to offer an accurate account of drug and alcohol facilitated sexual assault? Further, has such coverage both reinforced constraints on women’s social behaviour and effectively ignored the role of perpetrators in sexual assault by emphasising the role of ‘date rape drugs’?
Recent legislative changes across Australia have made drink spiking a crime itself punishable by up to two years. Further, the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) was also recently amended as a result of extremely low rates of conviction in sexual assault cases. Finally, in response to the perceived threat of drink spiking, women are now required to engage in extensive behaviour modifications in order to reduce their risk of victimisation. Given the amount of attention paid to drink spiking in Australian media, their role in narrating the debate is worth examining.
I will begin with a brief depiction of the youth culture frequently associated with the use of the same drugs implicated as ‘spiking agents’. I will then discuss the ways in which the threats of sexual assault and drink spiking are internalised by women, effectively placing restrictions on their social behaviour. I will then analyse two recent press articles covering the issue of drink spiking. Finally, I will briefly illustrate prosecutorial perceptions in cases of sexual assault, to illustrate the extent to which widely held perceptions have the potential to negate the potential for sexual assault victims to achieve justice. In doing so, I will argue that media reports of drink spiking have failed to provide an accurate account of drug and alcohol facilitated sexual assault by emphasising the role of ‘date rape drugs’ and ignoring the role of perpetrators — with the added consequence of constraining women’s social behaviour.
The Panic/Chronotype of ‘Party Drugs’
In the 1990s, the youth subculture associated with ‘raves’ or ‘parties’ was evolving into a more mainstream youth culture. The use of drugs such as ecstasy ( and more recently GHB) is so closely tied to this youth culture that they came to be widely referred to in the media and by the public as ‘rave’ or ‘party’ drugs (Desenberg 1997). Desenberg (1997) argues that media ‘discourses’ involving ecstasy are ‘based primarily on moral panic’ which ‘is based on sub-culture mythology’ (p. 1). Desenberg suggests that media portrayals in Britain which linked ecstasy to ‘dangers of sexual violation’ were ‘reminiscent of the way black Jazz musicians had lured white women with Jazz and marijuana during the Reefer Madness of the 1920s’ (p. 3).
Jenkins (1999) argues that the portrayal of ‘rave’ drugs is so ‘wildly disproportionate to the scale of the problem’ with claims about the pervasiveness and effects of such drugs so ‘exaggerated’ that the concept of ‘panic’, or ‘synthetic panic,’ is justified (p. 4). Jenkins suggests that coverage of ‘party drugs’ in the U.S. has ‘clearly been linked to the concept of rape drugs’ used to comatose women to facilitate sexual assault (p. 161). Jenkins acknowledges that certain drugs have been used to facilitate sexual assault, however, ‘the coverage of the incidents in the late 1990s implied a pervasive threat from rape drugs, with the media advocating defensive measures that appear grossly excessive’ (p. 161). The notion of using drugs for ‘sexual purposes’ certainly ‘dates back to the opium scare of the late nineteenth century when sinister Chinese were said to use the drug to coerce white women into sexual slavery’ (p. 176).
Moore & Valverde (2000) argue that the ‘date-rape-drug’ model of ‘complex risks and paranoid safety tips has a logic which owes more to the War on Drugs than to women’s experience of sexual violence’. Rather than relying on the concept of moral panic (which they argue has the potential to ignore the experiences of those who are victims of sexual assault associated with drink spiking), they conceptualise perceived risks associated with rape drugs as existing primarily within the ‘chronotype’ of the ‘club/rave/large youth party’ (p. 517). The ‘chronotype’ concept suggests that:
Certain sets of events that do not loom threateningly most of the time are regarded as probable on that particular chronotype; among them, women are thought to be at risk of being drugged and raped even by their good friends. This logic is chronotype specific: the use of drugs for rape purposes is never portrayed as happening in the daytime in coffee shops or in doctor’s offices (p. 517).
By placing themselves in the chronotype, women are essentially putting themselves at ‘risk’ and as ‘good neo-liberal subjects’ it is up to them to ‘save themselves through constant risk-management’ (p. 517). Moore & Valverde go on to argue that the ‘worst possible risk’ in neo-liberal society is that of losing the capacity to manage one’s own risks. They suggest that this explains a large aspect of the date-rape drug fear, as well as earlier panics involving ‘knock-out drops,’ ‘opiates’ and ‘Mickey Finns’ (p. 526).
Sexual Assault and Social Control
...we could remind women that taking their vaginas out to venues with them is ‘risky’...(Lawson & Olle 2006 p. 50).
Smart & Smart (1978) argue that women are subjected to ‘continual socialisation’ which causes them to internalise the ‘implicit threat of rape’. Newspapers are one source of this socialisation insofar as their portrayals of sexual assault ‘perpetuate and reinforce specific naturalistic assumptions and stereotypes about women and female sexuality’ (p. 100). News reports often include a ‘warning or caution’ which advises women of certain places, activities and behaviours they ought to avoid. Ultimately, portrayals of this nature remind women about the consequences of breaching the ‘boundaries of socially approved behaviour’. Moreover, press reports have a propensity for associating the ‘superficial details’ (such as a woman’s profession (see for example Oberhardt 2008), voluntary consumption of drugs or location) of the sexual assault with the ‘central topic’ (the offence itself). Consequently, it often eventuates that the ‘conventional wisdoms concerning rape are upheld, namely that women who get raped are in some sense responsible for their own fate, could in fact have avoided their suffering by not putting themselves at risk by entering the specific social space or territory within which the rape occurred’ (p. 101).
Lawson & Olle (2006) argue that by relying on the surreptitious act of slipping a drug into the drink of an unaware person, the drink spiking archetype uses imagery, ‘reinforced in news items,’ which overemphasises the importance of the spiked drink — effectively diminishing the significance of sexual assault (pp. 47-48), the implication being that drug and alcohol facilitated sexual assault is about the woman’s behaviour rather than ‘someone else violating their right to be safe’ (p. 50). They argue that Australian media continually implores women to engage in ‘hyper-vigilant’ behaviour modification to avoid victimisation with ‘countless news items offering tips on how to prevent drink spiking’ and quoting authorities who support this model of prevention (p. 47).
Moreover, the media is also ‘reluctant to discuss perpetrators and prefer the spiked-drink-as-offender paradigm’ (Lawson & Olle p. 48). According to Lawson & Olle (2006), the common inclination of media reports to distinguish ‘between premeditative and opportunistic perpetrators’ is ‘erroneous’ (p. 50). This distinction suggests that ‘real rape’ is premeditated, reinforcing notions of opportunism which focus on women’s behaviour — and the idea that men are unable to control impulsive sexual urges (p.50). Naeme (2003) suggests that this portrayal of drink spiking is ‘concerning because it resurrects an old stereotype of women lying about consensual sex that they later regret’ (p.1).
The concept of drink spiking is open to ‘traditional victim-blaming stereotypes’ (Naeme 2003 p. 1). Stereotypes of this nature rely on ‘risk’ factors to assign a level of responsibility to women for sexual assaults against them. Wearing a short skirt or similarly revealing clothing is one example of an earlier ‘risk’ which was used to make assumptions about a victim’s character and ultimately to portray her as having played an active role in her assault based on her choice to wear a particular item of clothing (Smart & Smart 1978). Naeme argues that media portrayals of ‘alcohol induced sexual assault’ have led to the ‘recall’ of these stereotypes within the discourse of drink spiking (p.1). It is distressing to note that one indication of the influence wielded by media portrayals of drink spiking and drug and alcohol facilitated sexual assault is the extent to which they are internalised by victims. According to Lawson & Olle (2006), women who contact sexual assault services usually report that;
… they were out drinking and don’t know what happened to them. They are often reluctant to talk to anyone or report to police because they feel stupid and responsible for what happened, because they were voluntarily drinking. Few women talk about their right to drink alcohol without fear of being sexually assaulted… These women have made a distinction between real victim and not-real victim and they do not see themselves as genuine victims of crime(pp. 48- 49).
Lawson & Olle (2006) cite media reports following the release of results from a Western Australian toxicology study which indicated that ‘real’ drugs were rarely present in reported cases of drink spiking. News reports suggested that these findings equivocally meant that drink spiking was an ‘urban myth’ perpetuated by women who later regret poor choices made after having too much to drink (omitting the fact that participants of the study were people who suspected their drink had been spiked with no further victimisation) (p. 49). The drink spiking archetype necessitates the presence of ‘real’ drugs to constitute ‘real’ rape, to the exclusion of alcohol. A positive toxicology result becomes ‘proof’ that a sexual assault has indeed occurred (p. 49). Likewise, Naeme (2003) argues that while the primary concern of sexual assault services is the sexual assault itself, the primary concern of the criminal justice system is the collection of evidence to support a woman’s claim of having been sexually assaulted. Consequently, toxicology tests become ‘tests of victim credibility’ (p. 2).
There has been increasing international interest in the toxicology results of women reporting drug and alcohol facilitated sexual assault, particularly in relation to drink spiking. The common finding of many existing studies points to alcohol as the drug most consistently present in victims at the time of their assaults (see for example Horvath & Brown 2007; Hindmarch & Brinkmann 1999). In contrast to the stereotypical media portrayal of a predatory male ‘slipping a drug’ into the drink of ‘an unsuspecting woman’ to facilitate sexual assault (p. 417), Horvath & Brown (2007) found that ‘voluntary consumption of alcohol by the victim’ was the most frequent means of intoxication in reported cases of sexual assault (p. 426). In response to the labelling of Rohypnol as a ‘date rape drug’ in media reports, Hindmarch & Brinkmann (1999) conducted a toxicology study of 1033 urine samples of victims in the U.S. from 1996-1998. The primary focus of their study was to determine the presence of Rohypnol in victims of sexual assault. They found that .6 per cent of the sample contained Rohypnol while 37 per cent of samples contained alochol (p.229). GHB, also frequently portrayed as a ‘date rape drug,’ was found in 85 out of the 1033 samples(p. 227-229) .
Media Portrayals of Drink Spiking
On 1 September 2008, the Frankston Standard/Hastings Leader published an article headlined ‘Sexual Assault Outrage.’ In this article, journalist Clifton-Evans (2008) quotes Victoria Police crime statistics which indicated an 85 per cent increase in sexual assaults over the course of a year in the Western Port/Mornington Peninsula region. Clifton-Evans then goes on to quote a young woman who claims to have had her drink spiked in a Melbourne nightclub the previous year with what she ‘believed’ was GHB, with no further victimisation resulting from the incident. There is no direct link made in the article between the region’s sexual assault statistics and the reported incident of drink spiking which occurred a year before in Melbourne, aside from the young woman quoted being a resident and welfare worker from Western Port. In other words, the incident in which she ‘believed’ her drink was spiked with GHB occurred in Melbourne, not in the Western Port/Mornington Peninsula Region. In addition, the young woman reported that she experienced no further victimisation (Clifton-Evans 2008).
This article is concerning insofar as it makes it impossible to understand what is actually behind the rise in sexual assaults in addition to reinforcing the ambiguity surrounding ‘drink spiking’. Another concerning element to this article is that it perpetuates victim stereotypes. The young woman is portrayed as a respectable, professional woman. She was holding her ‘drink of water the whole time’ (emphasis added) (Clifton-Evans 20080). This suggests that the young woman was not voluntarily consuming any mind-altering substance and allows her to fit the stereotype of a ‘good woman’ through her temperance (Kirkby p. 1997 ). Moreover, she was ‘lucky’ that she had friends with her who ‘protected’ her against further victimisation (Clifton-Evans 2008). The implication here is that adherence to the risk-management strategy of relying on friends will protect women from sexual assault (Moore & Valverde 2000 p. 517).
A few weeks later the same local paper published another article headlined ‘Use cards for drug test- Coasters tell if drinks are spiked.’ Journalist Morris (2008) reports that:
A Frankston night club has introduced coasters that can detect if a drink has been ‘spiked’... [with] the drugs GHB or Ketamine... Sen-Sgt Caroline West... said the cards “are a great idea”... “From my knowledge, we’ve had the odd problem, but spiking hasn’t been an issue in Frankston. However, it’s good for people to be aware”(Morris 2008 p. 1).
The use of coasters to test drinks for ‘rape drugs’ firmly places the responsibility on women to manage the risks associated with going out, given the implicit potential for women being required to re-test their drink before every sip (particularly when, as in the previous story, one can fall prey to involuntary ingestion of ‘rape drugs’ even when holding one’s glass of water the whole time). This article is one example of how women are encouraged to prevent harm associated with their being in an environment, such as a nightclub, where their mere presence is indicative of women placing themselves in a risky environment (Moore & Valverde 2000 p. 525). Further, Morris (2008) refers to the drugs as being ‘odorless,’ and ‘tasteless.’ This demonstrates one way in which coverage of ‘drink spiking’ displaces the ‘moral properties from assailants to problem substances’ as if ‘the substances are themselves devious’ (Moore & Valverde 2000 p. 524; see also Lawson & Olle 2006; Naeme 2003). Finally, the article quotes a local police authority who claims that drink spiking ‘is not an issue’ in the area (Moore 2008). This is in stark contrast with the earlier article which portrays drink spiking as being largely responsible for an 85 percent increase in sexual assaults in that very area (Clifton-Evans 2008).
The journalists in both of these articles perpetuate the myth that the drugs are perpetrators (Lawson & Olle 2006), engaging in the use of a ‘drugs as weapon’ metaphor (Naeme 2003 p. 9). This metaphor ignores the reality that people often use drugs and alcohol voluntarily (see for example Desenberg 1997 p.2 ) and in doing so, excludes the possibility for sexual assault to occur in ‘situations involving voluntary ingestion’ (Naeme 2003 p. 9). In focusing on illicit drugs such as GHB and Ketamine, these articles also support Naeme’s (2003) assertion that media portrayals fail to consider that ‘unexpectedly high levels of alcohol present in victim toxicology results might indicate drink spiking with alcohol’. Jenkins (1999) suggests that despite alcohol being the most common drug used in ‘date-rape’ incidents, its ‘legal status immunizes it from consideration alongside other drugs’ (p. 176).
... achieving justice?
Assuming that one means of gauging the extent to which an issue is conceptualised by society is to examine how the institutions within a given society respond to that issue, I will now examine prosecutorial practices and legislative framework of sexual assault (without suggesting that the two align). Kosse (2007) describes the relationships between media portrayals, public perceptions, legislative frameworks and victim internalisation of perceptions as follows:
The media’s rape narratives also affect how people think of rape, and reactions to these rape narratives possibly perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions. The effect of this is quite damaging because it results in society failing to address the real causes and issues underlying rape. A misunderstanding of rape may produce faulty policy and laws as well as unjust law enforcement. Finally, if the media continues to use inaccurate narratives, real victims may become reluctant to share their own personal rape narratives, especially if they conflict with media stories and themes’ (p. 3).
Lievore (2004) explains that sexual assault is difficult to prosecute due to the frequent absence of corroborating evidence (such as a witness or forensic evidence) (p. 1). For this reason, a victim’s credibility comes into question in the course of prosecuting sexual assault cases. After interviewing a number of Crown Prosecutors in Australia, Lievore discovered existing views amongst them that ‘juries take a moralistic view of victim behaviour that could be perceived as ‘rough,’ such as drinking, willingly going with a stranger, or showing interest in a man' (p. 5). Some of the prosecutors felt that ‘even where there is corroborating evidence, some juries are likely to believe that ‘she asked for it’’ (p. 5). It is precisely these sorts of beliefs that require urgent and persistent challenge; especially given that the Crimes Act 1958 clearly indicates that a woman is incapable of forming free agreement (consenting) when she is intoxicated, regardless of the means by which she became intoxicated. As Naeme (2003) argues, sexual assault ‘in the context of voluntary ingestion is not a harm resulting from women’s intoxication; it is a crime resulting from men’s disregard for a lack of consent or recklessness in ascertaining whether consent is present or can even be formed’ (p. 10).
The way in which drink spiking is portrayed in Australian media frequently fails to offer a realistic account of drug and alcohol facilitated sexual assault. Indeed, coverage of issues such as a rise in the number of sexual assaults can be quite damaging when that coverage suggests, without relevant evidence, that the underlying problem is drink spiking. Media coverage of this nature promotes the false view that (usually illicit) drugs are to blame for sexual assaults rather than focusing on the actual perpetrators of the crime. Further, media narratives which suggest that drink spiking is widespread and can occur in numerous settings ultimately results a restriction of women’s rights — in that they are required to continually engage in harm prevention strategies to reduce the likelihood of sexual assault. Another consequence of these inaccurate portrayals is that they perpetuate the belief that women who voluntarily use drugs or alcohol, or put themselves in certain settings, are active agents in assaults committed against them. This is clearly at odds with consent as it is legally defined. Consequently, an environment emerges in which women who are victims of sexual assault are often unable to achieve any sense of justice in terms of the crime committed against them.