Forget the Screaming Headlines about Drink Spiking on Campus

The news and screaming headlines surrounding the release of a new research study on drink spiking focused on what was hailed as a surprising new discovery about the problem. Women’s Health noted that the percentage of people victimized was appalling, and Cosmopolitan seemed both horrified and somehow relieved that it wasn’t just “an urban myth.” I wonder what number of drink spikings might be taken in stride – I do hope the answer to that remains ‘none’ despite all the misleading fanfare. But you can’t blame the press entirely here. As a social science researcher and writer, I know that it’s very hard to control the media spin on your research, but a press release about the study issued by the American Psychological Association (APA) dodges the study’s limitations and also, oddly enough, its strengths.
“Just a Dare or Unaware?” by Suzanne Swan and associates is being published in the research journal Psychology of Violence. The featured findings do sound pretty dire. But taking a more granular look at the research — and giving better attention to the toxicology and other public health literature, should temper the creepy press enthusiasm a little here.
The researchers developed a pretty interesting survey data set on drink spiking, which suggests that about 7.8% of the college student respondents believed they’d been given drug-spiked drinks. It was an impressively large, multi-campus survey in the US (just over 6,000 respondents.) More than 1% said they’d spiked other people’s drinks. Swan and her associates carefully note that there’s no way to know whether the respondents were really drugged, or whether they mistook their symptoms of excess alcohol for something more sinister. As we can see, the press doesn’t seem to see that as much of a problem, and assumes that suspicion of drugging is indicative of it. It isn’t.
Most toxicology studies — including all of the ones briefly cited in “Just a Dare” — strongly indicate that most people who believe they’ve been drugged and seek help at emergency rooms have not been. Most commonly, they present with extremely high blood-alcohol levels, and sometimes common street drugs. If you want to read a good summary of this research, David Grimes article in The Guardian explains much of the consensus in the field, and reiterates scientists’ plea to pay greater attention to alcohol itself. (And here is a starter bibliography I put together for my recently published book on the topic, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History, from Palgrave Macmillan.)
That aside, it seems to me that the press, and to some extent the researchers, have kind of buried the real striking findings here. First, the new study sheds fascinating light on the myriad reasons for drink spiking — both the reasons as interpreted by people who suspect it was done to them and those that say they drugged others. It doesn’t actually refute the urban myth analysis; indeed, it largely supports it. The researchers unfortunately insist on using Weiss and Colyer’s 2010 article in Deviant Behavior and the article I co-authored in 2009 with Adam Burgess and Sarah E.H. Moore in the British Journal of Criminology as a kind of fake touchstone for an “it’s all an urban legend” trope, against which they present what they claim is their own “no, it’s not” data. But both of these articles were about the date rape drugging scare, and in particular the scenario by which a stranger slips a drug into a drink at a bar or party and then hauls off the compromised victim to a private place to sexually assault them. Other social scientists (Valverde and Moore; Berrington and Jones) have pointed out problematic aspects of this scaremongering, early on, from a gendered violence standpoint.
Also buried in Swan’s study is the finding that in a sample of 6,064 students, 67 report being drugged and then subject to unwanted sex (acceding to verbal coercion or hectoring, such as the threat to end a relationship), or actual forced sex. That’s 1.1% of the total sample, and 14.5% of the students who report a suspected drugging experience. (It looks like an additional 13 students suspect sexual victimization, but weren’t sure.) In other words, most people attribute drugging incidents to motives other than the chemically-facilitated rape that the press has touted as an omnipresent danger for more than 20 years. The “date rape drugs” scare has contributed to attempts to breathe new life into the War on Drugs and has people focused on so-called “predator drugs” that are mostly consumed voluntarily, for pleasure or to manage other drugs’ let-down symptoms. According to the respondents in Swan’s study who suspect they were drugged — about a third of whom were male — the some commonly surmised reasons were variations on intended fun and recreation (such as “to loosen me up” and “to have more fun.”) Some said it might have been for malicious reasons, or a mistake. A surprising number (47 respondents) said they just didn’t know.
As for the study’s claim that 7.8% is “higher than expected” — I suppose it all depends on how you see it: That’s honestly lower than even I would have expected, given the hype of the last two decades. I certainly can concur with Swan et al.’s conclusion that public health and public safety interests need to focus on developing interventions that “move beyond the exclusive focus on sexual assault and should address the varied motives of those who drug others.”

[15 scientific studies on drink spiking]   [a summary of scientific consensus on spiking]

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