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.

Caroline Heldman and Baillee Brown, “A Brief History of Sexual Violence Activism in the U.S.” Ms. Magazine Blog, August 8, 2014,