Alcohol as a ‘Date-Rape’ Drug

11 Sep

The facts suggest that alcohol is the most common drug used to facilitate sexual assaults and rape[i]. Although drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB have received much attention internationally as ‘date-rape drugs’, in Ireland, there has been no evidence to suggest that they are used with regularity in incidents of sexual assault[ii]. The recent Rape and Justice in Ireland study did not identify conclusive evidence of the use of such substances in medical records of complainants of rape between 2000 and 2005.[iii] Alcohol, however, was found to be present in the majority of rape complaints in Ireland.[iv] While these facts do not discount the possibility that perpetrators of sexual assaults may use a variety of drugs to facilitate an assault, there is strong indication that alcohol is the most common date-rape drug. Furthermore, the social acceptance of alcohol consumption as a facilitator of sexual interaction reduces recognition of the substance as a potential ‘date-rape’ drug.

How alcohol functions as a date-rape drug:

‘Any substance that is administered to lower sexual inhibition and enhance the possibility of unwanted sexual intercourse is potentially a date rape drug’.[v] Western expectations of the effects of alcohol include lowered sexual inhibitions, increased sexual arousal and greater sexual aggression among men. As discussed in the third addition of this series, these expectations may increase the likelihood of sexual violence occurring, particularly among acquaintances who have consumed alcohol.[vi] Further, the physiological effects of alcohol, such as confusion, sedation, poor motor function and loss of consciousness, lower the capacity of potential victims to physically resist a sexual attack and may incapacitate a person rendering them incapable of consenting to any sexual act. Alcohol, therefore, functions as effectively as Rohypnol or GHB as a ‘date-rape’ drug but is more readily available and more easily administered.

A sexual predator may use alcohol in a number of ways to facilitate a sexual assault. A perpetrator may target a person who has become intoxicated voluntarily and is less capable of defending themselves, they may surreptitiously strengthen the drink of a person who is voluntarily consuming alcohol in order to impair or incapacitate, or they may pressurise an intended victim to consume alcohol or consume more alcohol than they wished in order to impair or incapacitate them to facilitate a rape or sexual assault.

Evidence of the use of alcohol as a date rape drug:

The prevalence of the use of alcohol to facilitate rape is difficult to ascertain. In Ireland, alcohol is present in the majority of reported rapes[vii]; however, alcohol may be a co-existing factor rather than used to intentionally facilitate a rape. For instance, a forcible rape may be committed where the victim and/or the perpetrator have consumed alcohol, yet alcohol was not used intentionally to facilitate the rape. In contrast, a perpetrator may intentionally target a person who is voluntarily intoxicated as they are seen as an ‘easy target’. However, distinguishing between these two situations is difficult without co-operation by the perpetrator.

A perpetrator may also use alcohol, for instance by spiking a drink or adding extra shots to a drink voluntarily consumed, in order to incapacitate an intended victim. Victims’ of such acts may never know ‘for sure’ that this occurred and evidence for using alcohol in this way is consequently weak.

Rape and Justice in Ireland identified that as many as 10% of reported rapes involved victims who were incapacitated due to alcohol.[viii] However, whether this incapacitation was voluntary or involuntary is unknown. Nevertheless, sexual acts with someone who is incapable of consenting due to intoxication, whether this intoxication is voluntary or not, is legally recognised as rape.

Who uses alcohol to commit rape?

The Rape and Justice in Ireland study found that in 74% of complaints in which the victim was so intoxicated that they were unable to consent to sexual activity, the defendant was an acquaintance. A further 12% of defendants in complaints of such incidents were strangers.[ix] These findings are in-line with studies from outside Ireland that confirm that the majority of incapacitated victims were not romantically involved with assailants.[x]  The use of the term ‘date-rape’ is therefore largely a misnomer – the vast majority of those who use alcohol to facilitate rape are non-sexual acquaintances with whom the victim was socialising.

Studies indicate that coercing an intended victim to drink in order to facilitate rape is a common strategy of perpetrators.[xi] Convicted rapists have admitted to researchers that they will ‘get a woman drunk’ in order to facilitate intercourse.[xii] The social acceptability of alcohol as a facilitator of sexual interaction results in a tolerance for the use of alcohol to facilitate unwanted sexual activity. Societal acceptance of alcohol consumption diminishes recognition of alcohol as a potential date-rape drug.

Unlike date-rape drugs such as Rohypnol or GHB, alcohol consumption is socially acceptable and often occurs in full view of the public. Few would be alarmed to see someone buying a drink or multiple drinks or ‘topping up’ an alcoholic drink for an acquaintance. Alcohol is readily available and easily administered. Furthermore, in pubs, clubs and parties in Ireland, intoxication is common, and would be unlikely to raise concerns. Alcohol is thus ‘protected’ from recognition as a date-rape drug due to the acceptability of alcohol consumption and intoxication in Ireland.

 In addition, the expectation that alcohol consumption will increase sexual interest and diminish inhibitions, may lead to under-recognition of the potential of alcohol to be used to victimize.  Finch and Munro’s 2007 study found that mock jurors normalized the use of alcohol in socio-sexual interaction, even where alcohol was surreptitiously administered. Participants in the study distinguished between ‘taking advantage’ of an intoxicated woman and ‘rape proper’, with the former seen as less serious. One participant even commented that if a man who surreptitiously administered alcohol to a woman in order to have sex with her was guilty of rape, ‘so must hundreds of thousands of others, probably tonight’. However, the same behaviour elicited a strong recognition of rape from participants in the study when alcohol was replaced with a more commonly recognised date-rape drug, such as GHB or Rohypnol. [xiii] This evidence suggests that the social acceptability of alcohol as a facilitator of socio-sexual interaction results in a tolerance for the use of alcohol to facilitate sexual aggression, diminishing the seriousness of experiences of sexual violence facilitated by alcohol and the culpability of perpetrators of sexual assaults and rapes against intoxicated victims. Furthermore attention directed at alcohol facilitated rape often focuses on the victim and not the perpetrator; this reinforces victim blaming and therefore the silence around the issue. In addition this focus assigns responsibility to the person who is the target of actions and therefore relatively powerless in the situation, rather than the relatively powerful instigator.

Impact on victims of the use of alcohol as a date rape drug

The effects of the use of alcohol as a date-rape drug on victims are notable. Evidence from Ireland and elsewhere indicates that women who experienced incapacitated or alcohol-facilitated rape are less likely to report their rape to the authorities.[xiv] Some evidence also suggests that they are less likely to seek mental health services after the rape.[xv]

Self-blame and feelings of stigma are also common for victims of incapacitated and alcohol-facilitated rape. [xvi] Stereotypical views of alcohol and sex may portray the consumption of alcohol as an indication of consent to later sexual acts, particularly for a woman drinking with a male acquaintance.[xvii] These views may lead to victim blaming in the case of an alcohol-involved rape. Such attitudes may be internalized by victims of alcohol-facilitated and incapacitated rape leading to self-blame.[xviii]

Alcohol as date-rape drug

Alcohol is without doubt implicated in the majority of rapes in Ireland. The intentional use of alcohol to facilitate rape and the targeting of intoxicated victims for rape are common tactics used by perpetrators of sexual violence. However, the social acceptance of alcohol and intoxication has sheltered alcohol from being labelled as a potential date-rape drug within the media and society more generally, while expectations regarding the effects of alcohol and attitudes towards women who consume alcohol diminish recognition that alcohol-facilitated and incapacitated rape are serious crimes.

In order to reduce the prevalence of rape in Ireland,

  • the role of alcohol in facilitating rape and sexual assault must be acknowledged.
  • Rape risk reduction messages that focus on alcohol must critically address the excuse that alcohol provides for rape.
  • Ensure that rape prevention messages do not result in the misplacing of ‘responsibility’ on girls and women who were intoxicated at the time of their rape. Such messages reinforce victim-blaming and rape-facilitative attitudes

Ensure recognition that having sex with a person who is seriously impaired or incapacitated due to alcohol, whether voluntarily consumed or not, is rape.

[i] Girard, A.L.  and Senn, C. Y. 2008. The Role of the New ”Date Rape Drugs” in Attributions About Date Rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 23: 3 p. 4

[ii] Finch, E. And Munro, V. 2007.The Demon Drink and the Demonized Woman: Socio-Sexual Stereotypes and Responsibility Attribution in Rape Trials Involving Intoxicants. Social & Legal Studies 2007 16: 595

[iii] Hanly, C., Healy, D., and Scriver, S. 2009. Rape and Justice in Ireland:  A National Study of Survivor, Prosecutor and Court Responses to Rape. Dublin: Liffey: 319

[iv] Hanly et.al. ibid.

[v] Weir, E. (2001). Drug-facilitated date rape. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 165: 80

[vi] RCNI. 2012. Sex Related Alcohol Expectancies: mediating rape and alcohol consumption. Available at: https://rcni.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/sex-related-alcohol-expectancies-mediating-rape-and-alcohol-consumption/#more-110 accessed 2nd August, 2012.

[vii] Hanly, et.al.:137-138.

[viii] Finch, E. and Munro, V. (2007) The demon drink and the demonized woman: socio-sexual stereotypes and responsibility attribution in rape trials involving intoxicants. Social and Legal Studies 14(4):595.

[ix] Hanly et. al.ibid.

[x] Littleton, H., Grills-Taquechel, A. And Axsom, D.  2009.Impaired and Incapacitated Rape Victims: Assault Characteristics and Post-Assault Experiences.Violence and Victims, Volume 24, Number 4: 452

[xi] Mosher, D. and R. Anderson (1986) ‘Macho Personality, Sexual Aggression and Reactions to Guided Imagery of Realistic Rape’, Journal of Research in Personality 20: 77–94.; Abbey et.al. 2001, ibid.; Finch and Munro, 2007, ibid.

[xii] Abbey, A., T. Zawacki, P. Buck, A. Clinton and P. McAuslan (2001) ‘Alcohol and Sexual Assault’, Alcohol Research and Health 25(1): 43–51.

[xiii] Finch and Munro, ibid: 603-604.

[xiv] Hanley, et.al, ibid.:141-142; Kilpatrick,D. G., Resnick, H. S., Ruggiero, K. J., Conoscenti, L. M.,&McCauley,

J. (2007). Drug-facilitated, incapacitated, and forcible rape: A national study. Charleston, SC: National Crime Victims Research & Treatment Center; Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C. H., Warner, T. D., Fisher, B. S., & Martin, S. L.(2006). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study: Final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice.Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

[xv] Kilpatrick,D. G., Resnick, H. S., Ruggiero, K. J., Conoscenti, L. M.,&McCauley,J. (2007). Drug-facilitated, incapacitated, and forcible rape: A national study.Charleston, SC: National Crime Victims Research & Treatment Center.; Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C. H., Warner, T. D., Fisher, B. S., & Martin, S. L.

(2006). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study: Final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice.Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice,National Institute of Justice.

[xvi] Stormo, K., A. Lang and Q. Stritzke (1997) ‘Attributions about Acquaintance Rape:

The Role of Alcohol and Individual Differences’, Journal of Applied Social

Psychology 27(4): 279–305;Wenger & Bornstein, 2006; Littleton et. al. ibid: 452

[xvii] RCNI. 2012. Ibid.

[xviii] Littleton, et. al. ibid.: 452.

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