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Drink-spiking scare: shots of anxiety

A new police study finds little evidence of drug-assisted rape. So why are awareness-raising campaigns getting into full swing?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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According to a survey by More magazine, 23 per cent of young women say they have had their drink spiked, and two thirds say that a friend has had their drink spiked (1). The Roofie Foundation, an organisation campaigning about the dangers of drink spiking, claims that around 900 people are drug-raped every year in the UK.

Christmas partygoers are apparently like lambs to drink-spiking wolves. Fears abound that revellers will be drugged – with substances like rohypnol, ketamine, or liquid ecstasy – then raped, robbed, or worse. Campaigns across the UK are warning people to beware. In Newcastle, volunteers are handing out protective stoppers for club-goers to put over their bottles. Norfolk Police have launched a campaign to warn people not to leave their drinks unattended – dubbed ‘Operation Enterprise’, the force is inviting youngsters to come up with catchy drink-spiking-awareness designs and slogans (2).

London’s Camden Police will be handing out a brand of drink stoppers known as ‘spikey’ to people queuing for clubs and bars; and Wrexham police and council are trawling bars, leaving warning green foam ‘spikes’ next to unattended drinks, to warn their owners that they could have been had. A number of bars across the UK – four in Hartlepool, eight in Tyne and Wear – now stock ‘spikey’ drink stoppers.

Graham Rhodes, founder of the Roofie Foundation, estimates that there are ‘up to 50’ awareness campaigns running this Christmas. He says that these kinds of campaigns started around 2001, and since there have been ‘increases every year’. But more needs to be done, he tells me: ‘A drink spiking detector kit should be given to every policeman and paramedic; there should be one behind every bar.’

But all this owes more to media hype and urban myth than to hard evidence. Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Gee of Derbyshire police is currently overseeing a UK-wide study into the issue. He is sceptical about surveys such as that in More magazine: ‘Where does that figure come from? Okay, so somebody thinks they were a victim – that’s easy to allege, difficult to prove’. He notes that one Channel Four Dispatches programme on drug rape ‘went around with vox pops, mainly talking to girls who had had a lot to drink’. The Roofie Foundation’s stats come from calls to their helpline, rather than verifiable blood tests.

Drink spiking does happen. There have been a handful of successful prosecutions: one man in Edinburgh was convicted of a sexual attack after spiking a drink; a woman in London picked up men in West End bars, took them home, drugged them, and relieved them of their wallets. But is it going on in bars and clubs across the land?

Hardly. Dave Gee’s study identified some 130 cases of suspected ‘drug rape’, and brought alleged victims in for early tests and questionnaires. The report hasn’t yet been published, but Gee tells me that most of these cases involve ‘high levels of voluntary intake of alcohol’ – ie, women who got themselves drunk. Liquid ecstasy was found in a few cases, and the women concerned denied having taken it voluntarily. But there was ‘not a single case of rohypnol’, the notorious ‘drug rape’ substance. So it appears that many women who think that they were drug raped were just plain drunk.

It’s easy to see why the drink-spiking scare had legs. These drugs are often colourless and odourless, and leave the system quickly, so are hard to detect. And the symptoms they cause – blackouts, memory loss – are similar to that of excessive alcohol consumption. The common self-delusion after a night out (‘I didn’t even drink that much! I don’t know why I passed out then went home with him’) is given a new twist.

The Roofie Foundation gives the following as an example of suspected drug rape: ‘if you’ve woken up in a strange place with your underwear scattered around the room, if you have physical evidence on your body, if you have sore genital areas, or bruising, you probably have been raped. Equally if you wake up in your own bed with no idea how or when you got there – its also possible that the drug rapist took you home and had sex with you in your own bed.’ (3) Perhaps you have been drug raped – or perhaps you just had a riotous Saturday night.

Drink spiking is even being used as a defence in legal cases. A woman accused of smashing a window of a pub in Ely, assaulting a police officer, and ‘using words or behaviour that could cause harassment, alarm or distress’, argued in court that she could have had her drink spiked (4). The court is investigating.

These drink-spiking awareness campaigns aren’t just wrong-headed, though. They play on people’s anxieties. The message is: he seems nice but can you really trust him? Look who’s behind you (‘Who’s watching your drink?’, is the advert for the ‘spikey’ stopper). The Roofie Foundation advises revellers to ‘appoint a drinks-watcher’ in your group of friends, ‘never accept a drink from anyone you do not completely trust’, ‘do not share or exchange drinks’, ‘don’t leave your drink unattended’, ‘think very carefully about whether you should leave…with someone you’ve just met’, ‘do not accept a cigarette from anybody. Only light and smoke your own’ (5).

All this puts something of a dampener on a night out. Pubs and bars are the last bastion of uninhibited social interaction. By day, people walk through public spaces in their own bubble, regarding others with suspicion. In the dark of clubs, loosened by alcohol, they strike up conversations with strangers and let themselves go.

That’s what makes bars and pubs such rich pickings for the scaremongers. We’re on our guard on the Tube, but at night the guards come down. ‘Awareness raising’ seems to be about keeping people on perpetual alert, on the lookout for their safety. Graham Rhodes tells me: ‘Having stoppers in bars creates awareness. Every one that is out there is an awareness item – it says, “I’m worried about my drink being spiked”.’ It’s not just a women’s issue, either, he says: ‘we estimate that 70 per cent of drink spiking is done as a joke or to commit robbery. Beware of drink spiking, because there are a lot more issues than drug rape. We need to make men realise that they are equally targets.’

These campaigns are doing their damage. The More survey found that 77 per cent of women claimed to keep hold of their drink even when they go to the loo; only eight per cent said that they ‘leave their drink on the table and hope that no-one touches it’. On one youth chatroom a young woman said: ‘I wasn’t worried [about drug rape]…until I took a first aid course a couple of weeks ago! My first aid tutor told us that there is date rape happening in this area!…. I think this is a much more widespread problem than I could have imagined and it does make me worried to go out to nightclubs.’

This is a campaign looking for an argument. When evidence about date-rape drugs looks shaky, campaigners switch focus to drink spiking with…alcohol. In the More magazine’s survey, the figure of 23 per cent figure included women who had their drink spiked with strong spirits. Indeed, alcohol spiking was the focus of the Newcastle drink-spiking campaign.

By these accounts, somebody slipping an extra shot into your drink – or just buying you more drink than you asked for – is ‘drink spiking’. The ‘What is drink spiking?’ section on the Leicester Student website reads: ‘alcohol can also be used as a substance to spike drinks – it can alter someone’s mind. Therefore asking for a double shot instead of a single without gaining the consent of the person who you are buying the drink for, is in fact illegal.’ Buying someone a pint rather than a half might be seen as generous gesture, getting into the spirit of things. Now, apparently, it’s a sinister form of manipulation.

There’s no evidence for a mass of predatory drug-wielders, on the lookout for unsuspecting victims. We do need to keep our wits about us this Christmas – not guarding our drinks, but guarding ourselves from drink-spiking campaigns.

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Topics Politics

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