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Decluttering and Its Discontents

The anti-decluttering caucus of the terminally online “I am the Main Character” take-havers got a big boost this week. Bestselling tidying expert Marie Kondo revealed in an interview that having her third kid put straightening up around the house as a lower priority for her and her family than it had been, given her profession. The ongoing, frankly mysterious backlash against Kondo’s decluttering method started in earnest in 2016, after the 2014 English translation of her 2011 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

It was weird from the beginning, since it seemed to focus on Kondo to the exclusion of dozens of other self-help offerings. “Her famous philosophy, in which she invites us to purchase and keep only the items that ‘spark joy,’ is frequently misinterpreted as a brutal demand that we throw out the majority of our belongings in pursuit of inner peace,” Kylie Cheung wrote in Salon. It’s true that if your book says it offers “life-changing magic” then perhaps the stakes are high already, and some pushback is inevitable. But in my estimation, the backlash so routinely misinterpreted her advice that I can’t see it as anything but willful and probably meaningful error. Her critics defensively insist that every item they own is full of meaning and fulfilling use and display a lot of paranoia about being “oppressed” by the mere existence of this slim self-help volume. They grab hold of their children’s artwork and treasured books defensively, as if she were coming for them. Meanwhile, the rest of the world that took a shot at the KonMari method got rid of, instead, a bunch of mismatched, unusable plastic containers and donated way too much unworn clothing and outgrown kids’ toys. Something lost in translation? Doubtful.

You can tell already that I find the backlash against decluttering suspiciously over-wrought, that it smacks of otherwise-low-stakes concern trolling (to tidy or not to tidy) and has basically gone altogether to a bad place. The concern troll is one who must problematize other people’s subjective takes and the sharing of them. Why would anyone care that materially overwhelmed people used Kondo’s advice to manage excess? As for anti-Kondoism going to a bad place, as both Cheung and Margaret Dilloway noted, some critics seem to be on a weird borderland between linking Kondo, in a convoluted manner, with cultural appropriation and actual xenophobia. Kondo’s critics, in some cases, complained about her doing Shinto wrong, or trafficking in Orientalism. The overlap here is both intriguing and disturbing.

Of course, there are also other reasons. SEO-driven concern trolling animates the strength of pundit reaction in a platformed world to some extent — there are a herd of situated takes with the words “Marie Kondo” in them that are probably just designed to pull in eyeballs. Many of them are tediously similar. There’s the common phoned-in critique that insists that other people’s decluttering efforts are solidifying an oppressive reign of minimalism, of either the aesthetic or perhaps anti-consumerist sort. The constant re-appearance of the term “shaming” doesn’t help, either. Aesthetic minimalism as a self-help goal isn’t a part of the Kon Mari message, as many have pointed out.

In our fraught consumer, housing, and cost-of-living-crisis environments, there are clear and provocative discomforts at being asked to look at the things you have in a serious way to see if they are serving your needs. But I also suspect there’s something about the KonMari method itself that’s driving it, too.

Having made my own piles and thanked a few hundred items for their service, I have a suspicion. There’s a deep, visceral reaction to the prospect of looking all your stuff square in the face – stuff that you accumulated or spent money on in a not-always-conscious way — and figuring out if you actually still want it. Believe me, the feeling is even more striking when you actually do it. To — yes, in homage to the phrase that launched many funny memes — see if the items are really “sparking joy” versus taking up space. But worse yet, once you get started, you end up contemplating how you (and I mean me) managed to get it, store it, not really use it, and yet keep it. Too much of it, everywhere, such that I couldn’t find the stuff I liked and wanted. I doubt I’m alone in this.

While decluttering literature generally presents itself as apolitical, neither it nor the backlash really is, after all. The backlash’s tendency to associate decluttering with aesthetic minimalism enables detractors to laud resistance to it as a badge of personal authenticity. My stuff, myself! Clutter, ergo, must mean joie de vivre! A busy and efflorescent mind! Right … right? Intentional or not, this precludes any fundamental questioning of the wisdom in the continued expansion of unprecedented personal accumulation — and its links to the very measurable, society-wide durable goods wave that has been accelerating since the mid-20th century.

You can certainly recoil at the visual language of spareness of some upscale interior design magazines as a conspicuous display of excess space in a housing market that has reached crisis-level unaffordability. Can’t and won’t argue there. But the widespread perceived problem of having too much — and thus the appeal of Kondo and other self-help gurus — seems to be coming from a roughly middle-class environment – thus the popularity of decluttering. Rent and daily life money are what we have too little of; plastic containers and half-functional furniture, though – too many.

IKEA’s sustainability officer suggested in 2016 that we were at “peak stuff” in the West, prompting new strategizing on the company’s part. If its customer base for cheaply made, some even say semi-disposable, furnishings sours on buying more of its kind of durable goods, where would that company be? IKEA may or may not follow through on its plans to retrieve, repurpose, and recycle its own products and re-orient supply materials from more sustainable sources, but one suspects they see something in their numbers warning them about a maximum being reached. Indeed, this may have to do with other factors beyond sustainability.

There’s a parallel here to Juliet Schor’s observation about the scholarly literature on consumption and culture, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, that took on a celebratory cast. What began as a pushback against the overly broad and often condescending claims about mass consumerism that came before it ended up precluding any serious questioning of consumption’s detrimental effects on well-being or the planet. This phase of cultural critique associated questioning of consumerism with joyless, abstemious finger-wagging. Though, mercifully, this particular moment in arts-and-letters has become passe, it seems to have been awakened in recent years in more public-facing publications. The simultaneous, but not identical, rise of lifestyle minimalism on the one hand and decluttering self-help books like Kondo’s and the also popular 2018 book by Margareta Magnusson, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, on the other provided the background to this notable backlash.

Whether in popular venues, or on a purely scholarly and analytic level, we need to make room to understand why Americans get, spend out for (often using credit), and retain items at a much higher level than other post-industrial, developed countries — the citizens of which are no slouches when it comes to overconsumption, either. Even with more space and larger homes than these other places, we soon find ourselves knee-deep in objects of dubious use and charm. It should really be okay to ask these kinds of questions about our material lives – planetary, psychological, and just practical. After all, it is clear from the popularity of both the lifestyle minimalism and decluttering genres that plenty of people are, in fact, asking those questions. And they were doing so even before the pandemic, a time which enabled many, for better or worse, to spend more quality time with our stuff.

Part of the problem, currently experienced by both declutterers and donation-bombarded thrift stores, as a direct result of the KonMari trend, is a kind of collective material overwhelmia. Kondo is actually blunt about this: “If you have lived in Japan or the United States all of your life, you have almost certainly been surrounded by far more than you need.”(p 124) Self-help approaches like Tidying Up and other similar advice systems constitute attempts to address an actual tangible macro-level problem that people experience on micro-level in their own lives.

Certainly, all of the usual concerns about such a distribution of critical and psychic attention pertain – individual and household decisions don’t tell the whole story. It’s a little churlish, however, to pretend that people trying to find practical ways to cope with the totality of this global problem are simply dupes of the world’s most bloodless interior designers or puritanical self-deniers. They’re probably also not somehow mistaken that they’ve got too much stuff they don’t like, can’t use, and don’t enjoy in their houses.

*      *       *

And a shoutout to a comic classic rejoinder to it all, by Felipe Torres Medina.

New article by V. Campion-Vincent on the needle-spiking scares in UK and EUR last year

What became of the needle-spiking scares of 2021 and 2022? Neither a crime wave nor a hoax, it turns out. Veronique Campion-Vincent considers, with meticulous context, the overlooked problem of ostention (life imitates legend) and “pure … aimless, aggressive behavior” – a reality that always seems to be in our analytical blindspot. In the most recent issue of LITERATURA LUDOWA — Journal of Folklore and Popular Culture. Open pdf at: https://doi.org/10.12775/LL.3.2022.004 #sociology #folklore #criminology

Interview with BuzzFeed’s Lara Parker, October 2022

Here Are The Symptoms I Wish I’d Known Beforehand”: This 23-Year-Old Had Her Drink Drugged, And She Is Sharing Her Story To Help Others

The problems stemming from ongoing, poor understanding of this public health issue has impacts on practical safety and society-wide policymaking. — PD

“Labeling certain drugs ‘date rape drugs’ is not only inaccurate (any drug can be used this way, including over-the-counter drugs like diphenhydramine, also commonly referred to as Benadryl) but has also been derailing state-level attempts to decriminalize small amounts of drug possession. It has also created misunderstandings when larger drug seizures take place.”

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Is self-storage at a saturation point? Probably not.

October 18, 2022

This blog post is part of an occasional post on the topic of self-storage in America, part of my larger research project in progress – PD

As the Coronavirus pandemic first threatened, and then failed to negatively impact the self-storage industry, a cyclical concern about oversupply re-emerged in the business publications. Continued acquisition and construction in the sector worried some analysts, who at this point simply bring up potential oversupply as a theoretical risk – something you feel obliged to mention in a SWOT report or presentation to investors. Surely there is some level of supply that is adequate? Some X number of storage units that will demonstrate a saturated market? Logically, yes, but we haven’t found it yet in the United States.

Demand continues to outpace supply in most parts of the country. In the relatively rural area that I live in, neighbors on social media complain about not being able to rent a storage unit. And I’ve counted about 10-12 facilities of various sizes in roughly a 25-mile radius. Storage facilities don’t aim for 100% occupancy, as it leaves them little flexibility. Nonetheless, nationally, the norm is well above 80% and usually more like 90%. Add to that the fact that most facilities’ breakeven point is at about 60-65% occupancy, and a picture begins to emerge of a sector that has to really try hard to screw up in order to not make money. This is true both of mom-and-pop stores, who see relatively little overhead, and the ones owned or managed by large REITs, who generally return double-digit gains each year to investors.  However, the perspective of the locally owned facility and the big national firms are different. Investor-run enterprises are concerned that if a facility’s occupancy is too high, it isn’t charging high enough rent on each unit. Coming from the perspective of investments spread out over literally tens of thousands of facilities, the ability to raise rents – even by small amounts each month – is central.

But mom and pops may not see it this way. First, many local concerns have built units as an adjunct to other enterprises on land they have already acquired. The books-balancing equation, combined with limited oversight staff, is thus much simpler. Plus, particularly in rural areas, personal trust is valuable. Potential customers in more wide-open areas have more options to simply NOT rent a unit or remove their stuff to a neighbor’s garage or shed if needed. Suggestions by self-storage advisor publications to continually raise rents, even by small amounts, once occupancy reaches a certain level, is less useful advice to the small, independent facility.

Nationally, renters continue to pursue storage. People are finding more incentive to rent units for themselves, not less. What’s behind this? Although we can tell some things about demand from the newer kinds of storage unit use emerging (microenterprise, workshops, pop-up retail, music studios, etc.), what makes potential residential users different from even a few decades ago? That is to say, what makes storage so attractive a solution, even though it is costly?

A straightforward answer is their sheer availability and accessibility. They are costly, but they circumvent other problems. While self-storage marketing continues to focus on the needs of those experiencing the 4Ds – dislocation, downsizing, divorce, and death — these facilities have, more recently, become attractive to consumers for adjacent reasons. Temporary, amidst-a-move storage becomes longer-term storage. Inter-generational conflict about the disposition of furniture and other stowaway goods is eased by a storage unit rental. A unit first rented to house a motorcycle is large enough to accommodate some excess items from the house, and then maintenance of the rental for that purpose continues. Commercial uses have, in turn, communicated the potential creative uses available to the non-commercial renter, such as: Santa’s closets, man caves, rehearsal spaces, and craft spaces. So once the niche expanded for more practical reasons, it quickly became a multi-solution space that people thought of in comparison to a number of other options. Alternatives – that is, what we would do with extra stuff if storage units weren’t available include: stowing things at home, stowing things with another household, selling or giving away items, and trashing them. Storage units’ ubiquity enables us to set aside, defer, or bypass these options. Keep in mind that these alternatives, which most people still use to some extent, engender significant emotional reckoning and a series on ongoing interpersonal negotiations. A ten-by-ten unit, on the other hand, has little to say back to you.

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Slides from ESS 2019: paper – Decluttering and Its Discontents

Eight trash bags full of clothing to be donatedMuch like the other attendees and presenters at the 89th Annual Meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society in Boston (March 14-17), I had a little set of slides to go with my paper, but technology in the meeting section of the hotel was spotty. So we improvised, gathering around the digital hearth (my rickety laptop) when we couldn’t get the projector to talk to any devices. This paper is part of my larger project on self-storage in the US. A summary: from Paper Session 322: Status and Consumption. US national publications fielded a spate of anti-decluttering, first-person essays in the past two years, preoccupied with the problem of “clutter shaming.” There’s very little work in sociology in the US on stuff management. Self-help literature, paradoxically, advises individual-level management techniques but treats it as a social problem. Growth of the self-storage industry is often cited. Self-storage industry’s marketing materials (to potential customers and investors) have increasingly picked up on similar defensive themes about the too-much-stuff problem. It tries to enlist academic psychology in the process, awkwardly.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” gets the Silent Treatment from Some Radio Stations


The debate over the perennial holiday song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” heated up this year, rather than just withering away in the face of sheer insignificance, as I had hoped. In fact, the only thing possibly more annoying than nixing a perfectly good song is the ensuing whining about political correctness that it provokes. I’ll grant that it’s hypocritical to single out “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for criticism. Anybody who enjoys literally any genre of popular music with lyrics should probably start with a bunch of other stuff if they are intent on being censorious.

My book, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History (2016) only deals with the newfound discomfort with this song in passing. I haven’t written about it extensively; I’ve only commented to my friends I found the whole campaign against the song wrong-headed. Since then, there’s been some very good writing about the topic. Mainly: listen more closely.

I liked  Cammila Collar’s take on this at Medium, which rightly recommends listening closely enough to realize that the female singer is looking for a way to stay, not to leave, and that she’s joking around when she asks, “what’s in this drink?” Collar and other writers on the topic, some of whom I mention in my book, also plead for greater attention to the historical context of the song, where ideas about shame and propriety greatly thwarted women’s desires and leisure activities. In the ensuing years, not surprisingly, role-reversing renditions have emerged, keeping the original lyrics intact. (If you want a little soundtrack for this  blog post, I recommend the Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2013 version.)

Let’s also understand the drugs-and-alcohol-related context of the joke the duet singers share. It’s true, as Collar and others said, that “what’s in this drink?” was a common joke at the time when people wanted to account for their own bolder-than-usual, sillier-than-usual, or more-at-ease-than-usual behavior in all kinds of social settings, not just in potentially romantic or sexual ones. Throughout the song, she’s also mocking and rejecting an expected gender role: appointed schoolmarm of the evening, disciplinarian of the wily male. The song also came about during a new era of pharmaceuticals, and with it a new post-Prohibition sense of ease with alcohol, too — and sometimes a blithe attitude about their combination. And thus, jokes.

In my book, I wrote: 

After Prohibition, the liquor industry sought to re-domesticate the image of alcohol as a wholesome accompaniment to a social evening at home. While drinking slowly became more acceptable for middle-class women, the consumption gap [where men drank considerably more than women in the US] of pre-Prohibition returned. In advertising, women were often shown serving alcohol rather than consuming it. In this milder way, women once again seen as limiters and keepers in alcohol-serving environments – not people who were at risk, except under exceptional circumstances, of overindulging themselves, but not the grim-faced disapprovers of the Temperance era, either. A permanent shift had taken place in norms around drinking and women’s propriety. There was, by and large, nothing now deviant about it.

[See Lori Rotskoff’s history, Love on the Rocks: Men, Women and Alcohol in Post-World War II America

Beginning in 2012 and reprised every holiday season since, a sort of silly claim has emerged that the 1944 Frank Loesser holiday tune,“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is actually “rapey” in part because the dialogue contained the line, “what’s in this drink?” In its own context, this actually makes no sense. First, it’s clearly not a song about someone genuinely worried about being drugged, but simply someone teasing her companion and humoring her own increasing desire to stay with him longer. Her quarrels (and ultimately mocking tone) are with the shaming voices that might disapprove. What it does reveal is both a relaxed attitude about her freedom to go or to stay, and about alcohol itself, and the mild disinhibition that everyone seeks from it. The drink (plus the “half a drink more” that she asks for) seems to make her go through the motions of propriety, in an increasingly joking way, of the what-will-people-think variety without diverting her from what she really wants.

It is difficult, however, for modern ears to pick this up unless you have an understanding of both transitioning gender roles at the time and perhaps a maybe too relaxed attitude about alcohol, drugs, and mixing the two at the time for both sexes. Barbiturates and chloral hydrate still appeared in a number of pharmaceutical products, and at the time there was still generally too little concern about their mixture….While I’ve suggested that this may have a lot to do with lessening fear of alcohol itself and its rekindled association with sociability rather than social pathology, it also has to do with the techno-utopian view of tranquilizers coming onto the market. [pages 89-91]

The mass marketing of tranquilizers in the post-war period (as this song gained popularity) created a halo around these products, and it was not yet common for doctors to warn patients sternly about mixing these drugs with alcohol.

Enthusiasm and ensuing carelessness about meprobamate [Miltown] is difficult to overstate …. Comedian Milton Berle, in the 1950s, once joked with his audiences that he was planning to change his name to Miltown Berle. There were even Miltown cocktails variations on the Bloody Mary and Martini that required a dose of the stuff. No worries! [pages 91-92]

[Also: See Andrea Tone’s book, The Age of Anxiety]

From a caution-bound contemporary standpoint, such practices (and jokes about them) seem reckless rather than “so very nice.” But that wasn’t how people saw it back then. We don’t have to see drinking, drugs, or even flirting exactly the same way to understand it. Kudos to the stations that have kept it in rotation.

E-book sale at Palgrave, now through Cyber Monday

“Alcohol is the number-one date rape drug”: a phrase that tries to be all things to all people. It doesn’t clarify much.
More about this in chapter 8 of my book Drink Spiking & Predatory Drugging: A Modern History.
The E-book is only 15 $/€/£ today (11/23) through CyberMonday,


#sociology #drughistory

[Book title is Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History. Image of cocktail glass with mysterious swirl in it.]

The Life and Times of the term “Date Rape”

A lot of people are wondering about the origins of the weird, one-size-fits-too-little term “date rape.” I got a good sense of where it came from when I was researching my book, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

While it is a confusing and maybe not so useful term, (and one that has been mangled beyond all recognition by the very misleading phrase “date rape drugs,”) the original coiners of the term, in the mid-1980s, meant well. They were trying to focus more attention on the ordinary-life occurrence of rape, and away from the image that many people had from media images of stranger rapes. It was at this time that we learned how common acquaintance rapes were on college campuses.

Below are some excerpts from my book (pages 138-140) for a little context:

The popularity of the term “date rape” no doubt stemmed from the need to shift the imagined problem away from the stranger lurking in the shadows, and toward the much more common acquaintance. In many non-stranger cases, the assailant is someone who the victim was socializing with (date, friend, classmate, fellow partygoer) when the assault took place, either by force, threat, or lack of ability to consent. [….]

The term “date rape” emerged alongside a highly noted study by Mary Koss and her colleagues, whose results were published in both Ms. Magazine and peer-reviewed journals. It was a large, multi-campus survey that found that 15.4% of college women had experienced an assault that met the legal definition of rape since age 14; another 12.4% had experienced an attempt at this type of assault (attempts are also felonies). Forty-two percent had never disclosed the assault to anyone. Eight percent of college men admitted to engaging in acts that met the legal definition of rape or sexual assault.

Immediately, some confusion emerged among both advocates and critics: some erroneously thought that this meant that one in four college women had been assaulted while in college. Others did not realize that respondents had described incidents to the interviewers, and then the interviewers categorized the incident as an assault, using legal definitions.

Some critics seemed to object to researchers making these decisions, but also seemed to object to women themselves calling something “rape.” Subsequent surveys found similar numbers from year to year, so it is unlikely that the methodology was faulty. [Alexandra] Neame’s review (2004) of this period of backlash points out that as sound social science, the research has not been challenged.

Most of the backlash, however, was a reaction to the impact of the research in the broader culture. [….] In the long run, though, the activism and research of the 1990s did succeed in changing perceptions of the typical rape.

It appears that at a certain point, though, the gains associated with a more thorough understanding of the commonality of sexual assault among non-strangers peaked and then stalled. Perhaps too many assumed that once we all knew that this was the more common circumstance than the man jumping out of the bushes, then we would see greater consequences for sexual assailants. But instead, since the 1990s, it appears that neither reporting rates (the likelihood that a victim will report an assault to the police) nor conviction rates have systematically improved. In some ways, perhaps caution was warranted in this matter. Given what we already knew about the circumstances under which women were more likely to report sexual assault to the police (by a stranger, if there were other physical injuries, if the assailant used a weapon), the likelihood that non-stranger rape reporting would increase drastically was low to begin with. Still, the almost complete lack of improvement in reporting is troubling.

The social consequences of reporting have remained high, and now go beyond stigma, minimizing, and disbelief. The digital age poses new kinds of threats to assault victims who come forward – harassment, threats, and doxing from strangers. It’s not surprising that reporting of rape and sexual assault remain low. But the secrecy fostered by a low-reporting situation also leads to all kinds of second-guessing and misinformation.

References and Links

M.P. Koss, C.A. Gidycz, N. Wisniewski, “The scope of rape: Incidence and prevalence of sexual aggression and victimization in a national sample of higher education students,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 1987, 162–170.

Alexandra Neame, “Revisiting America’s ‘date rape’ controversy,” Family Matters, 68, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Winter 2004.

Lynn Langton and Sofi Sinozich, Rape and Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014. http://bit.ly/2PMNW3C

Caroline Heldman and Baillee Brown, “A Brief History of Sexual Violence Activism in the U.S.” Ms. Magazine Blog, August 8, 2014, http://msmagazine.com/blog/2014/08/08/a-brief-history-of-sexual-violence-activism-in-the-u-s/

The Cosby conviction avoided a common pitfall – illicit drug mystique

In my previous post about the role of drug testimony in the Cosby trial, I noted that the skepticism on both sides about the effects of diphenhydramine (commonly sold in North America as Benadryl) was unwarranted and was contributing to a kind of unhelpful illicit drug mystique that hovers around allegations of predatory drugging. Given the storied length of time between the incident (2004) and the first criminal trial (2017), it should have been obvious from the beginning that there would probably never be any certainty about what, exactly, Bill Cosby handed Andrea Constand that evening to help her relax.

In the end, as it should have been, the path to conviction was simpler: the deposition and Cosby’s own words about how he deployed methaqualone (Quaaludes) during his interactions with women. Even if his intended inference was that “back then” a great deal of drug-taking was consensual, and therefore the pills flowed like candy, this does in no way erase the consent and capacity issue. In fact, he said in the deposition that he did not take the drugs himself, essentially implying that he sought tactical advantage through chemicals. This theme permeated the criminal complaint filed in 2015.

I thought once Judge O’Neill permitted the deposition material in the current trial, the Cosby legal team might persist with what I think of – and I have seen this before in serial drugging assault cases – as the “demimonde defense.” The idea is that the accused and the alleged victims were involved in the same subculture that sanctioned recreational drug use, excess drinking and multiple sexual encounters. Therefore, it is often implied – and this has to be just shadow-sketched, not fully spelled out – that everyone involved should have known what to expect, that norms and boundaries are present but not conventional, and that the accused was a peer participant rather than a criminal predator or exploiter. The short hand in this case has been something like: well, it was the 70s and these were Hollywood people, or aspired to be.

But it’s not the 70s, and Andrea Constand was a child then. Even if one were to countenance such arguments to counter the testimony of prosecution witnesses brought in to build an argument that Cosby had engaged in a distinct pattern of criminal behavior dating back decades, Constand was certainly no part of such a demimonde. The defense veered away from it, and instead tried to raise some doubt about when the alleged incident occurred, which also had the potential advantage of throwing the statute of limitations into question.

Indeed, by day 8 of the trial, defense attorney Becky James affirmed the irrelevance of Quaaludes use in the 1970s, as it was clear that it cast a shadow over the specifics of the drug issue in the current matter of Constand’s testimony, and wasn’t helping Cosby at all. Constand reported feelings of weakness, disorientation, and a sense of paralysis after taking the tablets. Cosby says he gave her Benadryl. Obviously, Cosby intended this to be exculpating. Unfortunately, many people, including the press, seem to also think of diphenhydramine as a cuddly little antihistamine that couldn’t possibly produce the same effects as a now off-market legendary tranquilizer like Quaalude. Even the defense’s expert, Dr. Harry Milman, insisted that Benadryl wouldn’t have those effects, and that government regulators would have dealt with the drug more harshly if it did. It seems that Dr. Milman was drawing upon a rather a quick and apparently not very successful Google search.

But Cosby need not have given Constand methaqualone, or any specific CNS depressant, to get the desired incapacitated effect. Enough Benadryl would in fact do that – as would any other number of anti-anxiety or insomnia medications – if given in heavy doses. And the prosecution witness, Dr. Timothy P. Rohrig, explained this on the stand. Jon Hurdle of the New York Times reported that

Under direct questioning from M. Stewart Ryan, an assistant district attorney, Dr. Rohrig said Ms. Constand’s testimony that she became disoriented and lost the use of her arms and legs matched the effects of diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl.

Dr. Rohrig said the effects include sleepiness, blurry vision and dry mouth. “Benadryl will do that, plus a hangover effect,” he said. “All the symptoms and the timing are consistent with the ingestion of diphenhydramine.”

Dr. Rohrig said diphenhydramine has been used in numerous cases of “drug-facilitated sexual assault.” He said the effects of Benadryl would take 15-30 minutes to begin, and would reach their peak in one to two hours. The drug has been produced in round, blue pills, like the ones Ms. Constand said she took, but has also been available in oblong or oval shapes, Dr. Rohrig said.

Rohrig’s job was to explain how this drug can be (and has been) used in incapacitating assaults, but it should also remind us that in a world of pharma-ubiquity, no cleverness or illicit market prowess is needed engage in this kind of predation. Broken trust and opportunism come first. Any number of readily available substances – let’s not forget alcohol — can assist, but they can’t plan, plot, assault or exploit on their own.

Cosby was found guilty; his lawyers say they expect to appeal the conviction. — May 2018

Get my book, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History for only $9.99 as an e-book (all formats) on May 17, 2018 as part of Palgrave’s Daily Deal.

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