Previous research has suggested that the risk of being drugged is an overblown urban myth. But a new study says that drink spiking is very real and often leads to sexual assault for women on college campuses.
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When Suzanne C. Swan, a psychology and women's studies professor at the University of South Carolina, asked her students if they had ever been drugged at a party, she wasn't expecting nearly one-third of her class to raise their hands. "I had no idea that [drink spiking] was happening until students started bringing it up from time to time," she said over the phone. "Since there's hardly any research in this area, I decided to get some data and figure out what was going on."
Published in the American Psychological Association's Psychology of Violence journal, the resulting study—"Just a Dare or Unaware? Outcomes and Motives of Drugging ('Drink Spiking') Among Students at Three College Campuses"—asserts that drink spiking is a very real threat to women on campus. Before Swan began conducting her research, one of the only other reports on the prevalence of drink spiking on college campuses was a 2009 study that purported the phenomenon was an "urban myth," arguing that "young women appear to be displacing their anxieties about the consequences of consuming what is in the bottle on to [rumors] of what could be put there by someone else."
Swan and a team of researchers surveyed over 6,000 students across three universities—the University of South Carolina, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Cincinnati. They first asked how many times the student suspected they had been drugged, with the options ranging from "zero" to "over six times," and asked follow-up questions from there, including the location of the drugging and consequences.
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The results were, in a word, disturbing. Nearly eight percent of all students said they had experienced being drugged with Rohypnol ("roofies"), Xanax, or other substances. That's about 462 students. And of those students, broken down by gender, 16.8 percent of women reported that they had had "unwanted sex" after being given a spiked drink.
When the survey asked those students why thought they had been drugged, the majority of women responded grimly. "To rape us," one respondent said. "Myself and the other girl I was out with were drugged, and then confronted behind the bar on the patio and one of the three men said 'I'm going to get in your pants tonight.'"
"Well this guy my friend and I kinda knew made us drinks, and we both blacked out to where we didn't remember anything," said another. "I think he wanted to take her home, and I just got caught up in it, because I was drinking the same stuff as her."
"Guys do it when a girl tells them she won't hook up with them," noted a third woman.
Male students who were drugged tended to have more jokey answers. Twenty-six percent of men who thought they had been drugged at one point said spiking someone's drink was a way "to have fun" or to be "funny." Swan said that men were more likely to drug each other—for occasions like 21st birthday parties—as pranks.
Another survey question asked if the students had drugged someone or knew someone who had drugged a person. Eighty-three survey participants—or about 1.4 percent—admitted to spiking someone else's drink. Gender differences were also reflected in the respondents' answers. One man who presumably drugged someone said, rather ominously, "I put happiness in their drinks." And others responded that they or someone else had done so for "jokes," "for fun," and "hilarity."
Though some women also said that they or someone they knew have drugged someone "for fun" and even just to "see what happened," it was at a much lower rate than men. Women were far more likely than men to say they knew someone who drugged another student and then sexually assaulted them. "I know a guy that did that so he could get girls to sleep with him," one said.
There's clearly a huge gap in the way students think about drugging and the actual consequences. "We didn't follow up with these people, so we don't really know if someone who said they drugged someone 'for fun' ended up sexually assaulting someone that night, or something like that," Swan said. "But it did seem like, for some of the men, they did not see spiking someone's drink as a big deal. For most of the women, it was pretty serious. They did not think that drugging someone was amusing or trivial at all."
This isn't exactly a new problem, but it's one that needs to be talked about in a new way, Swan says. Most colleges focus on telling students to "watch their drinks" and not drink a beverage that has been left unattended; you might remember those boring college orientations that touched on the risks of accepting a random drink at a party. Swan recommends an approach that's less focused on victims and more focused on potential perpetrators. "We need to start thinking about the point of view of the people who are doing the drugging," she told me. "That's why I wanted to have these kinds of questions in the survey. If a lot of those people think, Oh, this is just for fun, to liven up the party, I'm guessing that a lot of those people aren't trying to be malicious. So one of the messages we need to try to get across is that even if you [yourself] don't intend to harm someone, you don't know what someone else can do once that person is passed out."
Naturally, she also sees this as a consent issue. "Just as you don't have the right to do something sexual to someone else without their consent, you should not be putting substances in someone's body without consent either," she said.