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21/01/04

Just Plain Drunk 

Leo McKinstry 

The Spectator

Pubs are supposed to be havens of relaxed conviviality. But certain self-appointed guardians of our safety seem bent on transforming them into places of anxiety and suspicion. When I visited one of my locals in Essex last weekend, I was greeted at the bar by an array of posters, all warning of the dangers of spiked drinks and their link to rape. ‘Make Yours a Safe One,’ screamed one message. ‘Never accept a drink from someone you don’t know,’ said another, thereby urging us to overthrow centuries of English good manners.

 ‘hundreds of men have been attacked after having their drinks spiked by gangs drinking in pubs

As an 18-stone, fortysomething, happily married, grey-haired Irishman, I must be an unlikely target for a drug rapist, but apparently few of us are free from the risk of such assaults. Only last month the Observer warned that ‘hundreds of men have been attacked after having their drinks spiked by gangs drinking in pubs’. According to the Roofie Foundation, which runs campaigns to promote awareness of drug rape (‘roofie’ is street slang for the sedative Rohypnol, the substance said to be favoured by assailants), about 15 per cent of the calls made to its helpline are from men.

Inevitably, however, women are the victims in the overwhelming majority of the alleged instances of drug rape. More than 6,000 cases have been reported to the Roofie Foundation since its creation eight years ago, but, given that many women are reluctant to go to the police about this crime, the foundation believes that there have been probably more than 13,000 victims.

To carry out their assaults, rapists surreptitiously put narcotics such as Rohypnol, ketamine (a form of anaesthetic) and GHB (known as ‘liquid ecstasy’ and banned by the government in July 2003) into the drinks of their intended victims, rendering them more vulnerable.

 The police in Wiltshire have stated that ‘drug-assisted rape is one of the UK’s fastest-growing crimes’.

Such obscene methods are apparently becoming ever more common. It is frequently stated that about 20 per cent of all rapes have been facilitated by drugs. The police in Wiltshire have stated that ‘drug-assisted rape is one of the UK’s fastest-growing crimes’. With the help of lottery funding, a public-information film which highlights the problem has been produced and is being shown at cinemas. ‘Now rapists don’t have to use force to get what they want. Who’s watching your drink?’ runs its slogan. Almost every toilet in Greater London now has a poster showing a grisly little rodent squatting atop a glass with the warning, ‘Watch out, Spike’s about!’

But do such lurid claims match reality? Is the public really being menaced by an army of testosterone-fuelled drink-spikers? The evidence hardly supports such a picture. In truth, the drug-rape crisis appears to be little more than one of those panics which occasionally grips the British public, like the garrotting frenzy of 1862, when a few random attacks encouraged the press to warn that anyone venturing out at night was in danger of being strangled in the street. The fact is that for all the hysteria generated by the Roofie Foundation and the police, there is precious little support for the idea that drink-spiking plays a large role in rape.

Over the past decade there has been only a handful of prosecutions for so-called drug rape, while the Metropolitan Police admits that, of the 2,800 allegations of rape it received in 2002 (the latest year for which figures are available), just 192 — or 6.8 per cent — were claims of drug-induced assault. Even more damningly, the Forensic Science Service last year investigated 450 allegations of drug rape, a far lower total in itself than the 900-plus claimed by the Roofie Foundation. Of these 450 cases, just 1 to 2 per cent yielded any positive drug identification. And a survey by the Institute of Biomedical Science found that ‘despite a large number of requests for flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) analyses, very few positives have been found’. So the institute concluded, ‘It is felt that its use in “date rape” is vastly overestimated.’

much of the spiked-drinks campaign relies on bogus statistics to create a mood of fear.

So much of the spiked-drinks campaign relies on bogus statistics to create a mood of fear. A classic example of this comes from Birmingham, where one local paper, the Sunday Mercury, reported in 2003 that ‘almost 600 women in the Midlands have fallen victim to drug-assisted rape attacks in the past year’. Quoting a figure of 594 drug rapes in 2002, the paper stated that this ‘represents a frightening 32 per cent increase on the previous year’. The only thing that is frightening is the mathematics. The Mercury had been influenced by the usual scaremongering from the Roofie Foundation, but what the foundation’s statistics actually show is that there have been only 450 drug-assisted rapes in the West Midlands since, wait for it ...1940. According to the Roofie website, this figure includes 144 drug rapes since 2001. The Mercury — no doubt keen to have a spicy headline including sex and drugs — seems to have conflated these two sums to create 594 and then ascribed this total to 2002, creating a wholly misleading picture.

The infrequency of drug rape in Britain is backed up by other studies from overseas. In Western Australia, for instance, the police’s Forensic Science Laboratory conducted an 18-month-long study of the problem but, according to their toxicologist, Robert Hanson, ‘Of all the samples where the victims have requested police involvement, we have yet to find any drug — or sedating drug — which would be indicative of drink-spiking crime.’ Crucially, Hanson said that all the cases of drug-spiking could be blamed on excessive alcohol consumption. A similar study in New Zealand produced the same results. In September 2003, the Institute for Environmental Science and Research reported that, of the 162 sexual-assault cases it had been handed by the police to investigate for drug rape over the previous two years, not a single one contained either the notorious GHB or ketamine.

What is certain is that many cases of so-called ‘spiking’ can really be put down to nothing more than drunkenness.

What is certain is that many cases of so-called ‘spiking’ can really be put down to nothing more than drunkenness. The Roofie Foundation claims that ‘everyone is aware of their own personal tolerance to alcohol’ — an absurd statement, especially when applied to the young. Almost any of us who drink can look back in shame on incidents when we have collapsed, not through drugs, but through sheer inebriation. I was once woken up by two German tourists at 4 a.m. while lying face down on the pavement at Holborn Circus; I think the curry and 14 pints of lager, rather than any drugs, may have been responsible for my state. In its present, increasingly laughable campaign against drink-spiking, the National Union of Students warns that the symptoms of this problem include a feeling that ‘you are losing control’, ‘acting with less inhibition than usual’, and the display of ‘unfamiliar traits: aggression, incoherence and drowsiness’. So how on earth do any of these symptoms differ from plain intoxication? As Robert Hanson, the Western Australian toxicologist, puts it, ‘We’ve basically declared that drink-spiking is an urban myth. We believe that it is just an excuse to hide abhorrent behaviour or inexperienced drinking.’

All the organisations involved in the creation of this panic, including the police, the media, the National Union of Students and the pressure groups, have a vested interest in its expansion.

All the organisations involved in the creation of this panic, including the police, the media, the National Union of Students and the pressure groups, have a vested interest in its expansion. The greater the number of cases, the more they can justify their existences, their campaigns, their interventions, their demands for funding. But not everyone in the drug-rape industry is a source of inspiration. The Drug Rape Trust, for example, had to close down after it was exposed for accepting money from Roche UK, the manufacturers of Rohypnol. And Graham Rhodes, the chief executive and founder of the Roofie Foundation, is also a scriptwriter, erotic artist and self-styled performance poet who delights in reciting his verses about ‘sex and drugs and rock-and-roll’ — not exactly the credentials one wants to see in a campaigner against drug rape. One of his poems, about a blow-up sex toy — a rather disturbing parallel with an unconscious woman — begins: ‘Excitable Sadie/The Inflatable Lady/Arrived through the post yesterday./So I undid the wrapping and pulled out the packing/And took her upstairs to play./I pumped and I pumped and on her I jumped.’

Rape is, of course, a monstrous crime, second only to murder in its viciousness, terror and brutality. But the fight against it is not helped by misguided, often self-interested, scaremongering and empty propaganda. There are two remarkable paradoxes at work here. One is that our society has never been more relaxed about drugs than it is now; yet, faced with the real scourges of widespread addiction and drug-related crime, we are whipping ourselves into a hysteria over a virtually non-existent problem. The second is that, in an age of women’s professional advancement, we appear to be encouraging a mood of irresponsibility and victimhood among women in their social lives by exaggerating both their vulnerability and the predatory instincts of unscrupulous men.

 

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