Drug date rape: how much danger do women really face?

Spiked cigarettes are the latest weapon reportedly employed by rapists in British pubs and clubs. But the first national conference on drug-induced date rape will consider whether excessive drinking is the real culprit. Sophie Goodchild examines the evidence
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The Independent Online

Go into any bar in Britain and you will see something new, and disturbing: young women with hands placed over their drinks. They are not abstaining from alcohol, just trying to avoid being drugged. The same now goes for those who refuse to accept the offer of a cigarette in case it too has been spiked.

Go into any bar in Britain and you will see something new, and disturbing: young women with hands placed over their drinks. They are not abstaining from alcohol, just trying to avoid being drugged. The same now goes for those who refuse to accept the offer of a cigarette in case it too has been spiked.

Fear of drug date rape is growing, and was fuelled again last week by reports of a sinister new method of entrapment: a cigarette laced with embalming fluid, which apparently enabled the rape of a woman in Swansea.

South Wales police say they have arrested a 39-year-old man who has been released on bail. But officers are quick to stress that cigarette spiking, known in the US as "fry", is just one among many lines of inquiry being followed.

So are women right to be worried about a rise in date rape using drugs? Or is it, as some people argue, an urban myth invented by rape victims who have simply had too much to drink?

No official statistics exist on drug-assisted sexual assault and only 15 cases in Britain have been successfully prosecuted in the past five years. Next month police forces across the country will begin the first detailed investigation into the prevalence of the crime, with a six-month survey across seven forces attempting to determine what drugs - if any - sexual predators are using.

Some police officers currently dismiss many of the claims as the result of binge-drinking. They say alcohol is the most common date-rape drug, not Rohypnol or GHB. The first ever conference to be held on the crime, which begins in Manchester on Tuesday, will hear scientific evidence that drink is more often associated with rape than drugs. A new study will show that the number of rape victims who have consumed alcohol before their attacks has more than doubled in a decade, and the amount drunk has also risen.

But rape crisis centres and women's protection groups say the crime is on the increase and that every year thousands of people are reporting drink-spiking. Women Against Rape and the Roofie Foundation say that police present the main obstacle to tackling the extent of drug-assisted rape. They both blame the low conviction rate on officers failing to carry out the necessary tests that would detect date-rape drugs. Substances such as Rohypnol and GHB are notoriously difficult to trace in the body and show up only if samples are submitted within hours of an assault. And the majority of victims are so traumatised that they do not call the police until it is too late.

The new study, backed by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), will be carried out by the forces in Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Northumbria, West Midlands, Derbyshire and Leicestershire as well as the Metropolitan police. From November, they will examine blood and urine samples taken from every victim who comes forward to report a drug rape even if he or she does not intend to proceed with a criminal complaint. Posters will also be placed in clinics to urge victims to report attacks early to increase the likelihood of gathering accurate forensic analysis.

Detective Chief Superintendent David Gee of Derbyshire police, who will head the Acpo study, said a culture of uncertainty and doubt continues to dictate the way police handle allegations of drug-assisted rape. "Sexual assault centre managers feel much of this is mainly due to excess of alcohol and binge drinking," he said. "By April next year we will be in a better position to see the extent of incidents where drugs have been involuntarily administered. There is currently no empirical data on this type of offence."

This week's conference will hear that researchers from the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University (LMU) analysed more than 3,500 rape and sexual assault cases and found that 41 per cent of those in the sample, who had a forensic examination, had alcohol in their system and only 15 per cent had drugs. However, the LMU study also found that victims are more likely to report the crime if they are not drugged.

In addition, Dr Cath White, director of St Mary's sexual assault referral centre in Manchester, has analysed 270 rape cases. Her results show that while a decade ago, 31 per cent of victims had been drinking, this compares with 73 per cent this year, with the average alcohol consumption of rape victims rising from 7.3 units in 1994 to 10 units in 2004.

Dr White acknowledged that the numbers of reported drug-facilitated rapes were rising but also said that alcohol remains the overwhelming link.

"Binge drinking among people in their mid-20s is increasing among women," she said. "Women aren't the perpetrators. But you are at an increased risk if you are completely hammered."

However, the Roofie Foundation says it has overwhelming evidence of a shocking escalation in the crime. Last year 1,000 of the people who contacted the agency's helpline said their drinks had been spiked.

"Rape is the most under-reported crime in Britain," said Graham Rhodes, chief executive of the agency. "Until the police address the issue as to why people don't want to report it, they are never going to get a handle on it. That is not just for drug-rape victims. That is for all victims."

Women Against Rape is dismissive of the Acpo study and is calling for more comprehensive investigations into individual rape cases. "This is what they are supposed to have been doing all along," said a spokeswoman. "It's not more research that's needed. They just need to investigate each rape case properly."

Elizabeth Udall, author and Cosmopolitan magazine's expert on sexual assault, says that the police are often "quite disbelieving" of victims who report drug-rape attacks.

"It's a massive issue for women and the number of cases we are hearing about is climbing," Ms Udall said. "You feel that you are not going to be believed. Also by the time you do report it, the evidence has gone. The police need to be doing more; there needs to be blanket awareness across frontline staff."

Until the results of the Acpo study are published, the extent of drug rape will remain unclear. The message for women will always be: keep an eye on your drink.

Additional research by Malcolm Fitzwilliams

Stephanie's story

'I just knew I'd had sex, but I thought, I couldn't have'

Stephanie, 24, was allegedly raped by two men in October last year. The attack happened after the men, whom she had met before, invited themselves round to her house for a nightcap. The nursery nurse remembers that the men turned up with alcohol and made sure they poured the drinks, including hers.

I remember being sat on the bed, and one was sat next to me and one was standing up. So I've gone for this one glass, but they said, 'No, don't have that one, have this glass instead.' And then I started to feel dead funny and weird. I just felt dead tired and didn't know what was going on.

I woke up about one o'clock in the afternoon. I went to the toilet and just knew I'd had sex but I thought I couldn't have because I don't remember it, and I don't remember saying yes. I didn't know what to think, didn't know what to do. I didn't even want to say the word.

I called the police, who started taking the glasses, the bedding, my clothes I had on. I thought they would have taken a test, like a wee test or something, but they didn't. I went to the toilet, but I didn't know that I shouldn't go to the toilet. Not until I went to the hospital later on. And they said, 'If it was in your system, it could have cleared out.'

The urine sample was taken five hours after the police arrived, a delay which meant the opportunity to test for one of the most common date-rape drugs had passed. The Crown Prosecution Service later dropped the case because there was insufficient evidence against the men. Stephanie, whose name has been changed, was talking to a reporter from the Channel 4 programme 'Dispatches'

Rachel's story

'I was aware of him on top of me. But that was it'

Rachel, 49, was drug-raped last November after going for a drink with a male friend.

I'd known him two or three years and he offered to take me out for a drink. We went to a local pub one Friday afternoon. He ordered the drinks and said, 'Sit down, I'll bring them over.' It must have been then that he slipped something in my glass of wine.

I started feeling a bit odd. I didn't feel drunk, I just felt different. When I went to the toilet I couldn't find the right door. I felt like I was in Alice in Wonderland, seeing this maze of doors. It was so strange. I wasn't feeling groggy, just a bit high and euphoric. Suddenly he said, 'Come on, get your coat, we're going.' The second we got into the car he started kissing me as though he was going to eat me. And I went with it. It seemed like the most acceptable thing to do in the world.

We drove off and parked in a side street. He unzipped his trousers and I just did whatever he wanted. It sounds horrific now, looking back on it. All the tea-time traffic was going home, but I just couldn't care less.

Next thing I remember is going home and him coming in. I was burning hot. I sat down on the settee and the room felt so unfamiliar. Then he took his jumper off and the next thing I remember is lying on the bed. I remember opening my eyes once and I was aware of him on top of me, but that was it.

After he went I felt really odd. I thought I must be horrifically drunk. I went to bed and woke up at two. I was really hyped up, burning hot. My instincts started to tell me I'd been drugged.

The following day I tried to ring him but he wasn't answering.

I rang the rape support groups but they didn't know anything about drugs. They knew all about normal rape cases but didn't know what to say to me. I was told that I would have needed a blood test within three hours, but no one suggested a urine test. I rang place after place and kept on hitting a brick wall.

As a last resort I rang Cosmopolitan because I'd read an article about someone who'd been drug-raped in there. They told me to ring the Roofie Foundation, and they told me I'd been given GHB.

I didn't go to the police. It wouldn't have stood up in court. He could have done me for slander. They just win hands down.

About a fortnight after it happened he rang me. He said I'd just got drunk - I'd had four glasses of wine. I knew I'd had two. He wouldn't admit it, obviously.

I was angry. I wanted to know why he'd done it. You have to start doubting everyone, which is an awful thing to do.

Drug rape: the numbers

754,000 women in the UK over the age of 16 have been the victims of rape

6 per cent of defendants whose rape cases get to court are convicted

40 drugs have been used in known date-rape cases

70 per cent of drug rapes are by people the victim knows

12 hours after being taken, the drug GHB is undetectable

400 per cent is the increase in recorded cases of date rape over the past decade