Date rape: The <i>real</i> problem

Kits to prevent assaults are useless, say scientists. Drink, not drugs, is the real problem
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Drink-spiking tests that were hailed as fool-proof protection against date rape are putting women at risk by giving inaccurate or misleading results.

The DIY kits include dip-sticks, credit-card size coasters and litmus paper-style strips that are designed to change colour on contact with sex assault drugs such as Rohypnol and gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB). These devices have been endorsed by police forces and rape charities that say they enable women to safeguard their drinks against spikers.

But a study by the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University has found that some types of kits produce such unclear results that anyone in a dimly lit bar would find them hard to read. Other tests produced inaccurate results; one kit tried out by researchers in laboratory conditions identified the presence of drugs in fewer than half of cases. The same test also gave false positives or unclear results in around a quarter of cases where no date-rape chemicals were present in the drink.

The Liverpool study, which will be published later this year in the journal Addiction, raises concerns about how useful testing kits are in avoiding drug-related sex assaults.

Dr Caryl Beynon, lead author of the report, said that these tests may give women false reassurance that their drink is safe - or unnecessarily scare them that it is not. She added that getting people drunk or secretly topping up their drinks with shorts is still a far more common method of spiking than using drugs.

"Public concern about the use of illegal drugs in sexual assaults can take the focus away from the most commonly used date-rape drug, alcohol," said Dr Beynon, an expert in drug misuse. "Buying someone larger drinks, encouraging them to drink beyond their capacity or slipping shorts into lower alcohol drinks are a far more common and effective way of drink spiking."

No national figures exist to give a clear picture of whether drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB are a common feature in sexual assaults. More than 754,000 women in the UK over the age of 16 are estimated to have been the victims of rape, but there have been only 15 successful prosecutions for drug-assisted sexual assault in the past five years.

The Government has promised action, with a review by its drugs advisers of the classifications of both Rohypnol and GHB, which are currently class C drugs. Some experts endorse the view, however, that alcohol is more significant. A study by the University of Surrey, published in 2004, found that alcohol played a role in three out of every four date rapes or sexual assaults. They concluded that alcohol was used by those intent on sexual assault, with attackers more likely to take advantage of victims who had been drinking.

The Roofie Foundation, which has a helpline for victims of drink spiking,says that testing kits can help combat the crime, and endorses a device called the Drink Detective, one of many kits on the market. Its spokesperson, Graeme Rhodes, said the kits can also help with the gathering of evidence when a woman has been attacked.

A Victim's View: 'Education in safe drinking is the key'

Juanita Berry was drug-raped in her home three years ago after inviting friends round for her 35th birthday. She says safe-drinking education and police resources are needed, not drug-testing kits.

"I was asked by someone to endorse one of these products, but I refused because they are not the solution," said Ms Berry, who is waiving her right to anonymity, to highlight the issue. "It's a money-making thing and it shows desperation on the part of police to back them."

Ms Berry, who is divorced with three children, said her attacker was a man who had turned up uninvited. She had drunk moderately with her friends and was sober when they left her cottage in Fife, Scotland, at around 11pm. She woke up hours later, naked and covered in bruises.

Charges were dropped for lack of evidence despite her injuries; a police surgeon threw away her urine sample, which could have yielded vital drugs evidence. "I think back to when I was 19 and I would never think twice if someone bought me a drink," she said. "Now you have to be careful."