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/

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Like Many Things, the Promise of Light and Portable Drug Testing Depends Entirely on Context

images-pills-modern-cover-photo-fbI noted in my last blog entry on the dubious technology “drink spiking detection” devices — such as coasters, test cards, and other reagent-coated bar ware — that both false positives and false negatives are too high to make the technology useful. I also suggested that if such user-end technology — thus far deployed without much real consumer interest — were to become more popular, the imprecision associated with such products could instill a dangerous reassurance to people situationally suspicious enough to test their drinks, while creating undue fear, accusations, and other kinds of serious ramifications in the case of false positives.

But in another realm, there’s already a darker side to false positives in quick field tests. Nationwide concern in the US is beginning to pick up about the sometimes life-altering problems associated with inaccurate or inconclusive field tests used by law enforcement agencies. Field testing technology for drugs on the scene (say, at a vehicle stop) hasn’t developed much since its inception in the 1970s; it appears that what is new is the recognition that cross-reactions with any number of other ordinary chemicals and compounds produce unacceptably high levels of false positives. The New York Times Magazine reported in July that widely deployed reagent field tests have routinely produced false positives for methamphetamine and cocaine. But enter “field drug test” or “drink detector” into a search engine on line, and you’ll find little recognition of the cross-reaction problems that have been known for years.

Furthermore, the necessary visual interpretation of chemical testing results (it turned blue, it turned sort of blue, it turned light blue…) remains a key moment in decision-making in forensic detection and is fraught with the tendency to over-certainty and over-confidence.  This problem has been well-known since the most rudimentary lab techniques were developed in the early 1900s, and remains a problem for cheap, easy field deployables. The cobalt thiocyanate tests used to test for cocaine, for instance, will also turn blue with a number of over-the-counter medicines and cleaning products.

Technically, in order for a positive field test to lead to criminal conviction, it has to be confirmed in a lab by more precise tests. But circumstances rule. Most people arrested for drugs don’t have access to private lawyers or even readily available bail or bond money, and pleas before confirmation are the norm.  Some period of incarceration may ensue anyway, just enough to disrupt the stability of more vulnerable citizens. The Times article chronicles the downfall of a Louisiana woman arrested in Houston and saddled with a felony conviction for crack cocaine, which turned out to be a fragment of the over-the-counter aspirin and caffeine pill that she insisted it was. Having lost her steady home and job as a result, she didn’t even realize that she’d been part of a wave of similar exonerations until the Times informed her, years later.

But on-site drug testing can be used by consumers of drugs, as well. In a different context, the technology, even with its flaws, can prevent harm rather than inflict it. There is a well-functioning model out there – and it comes from the rave scene. In rave and electronic music settings, there’s actually a solid network of nonprofit drug testing that can analyze drugs on the spot. The DanceSafe outfit is probably the best known of these harm reduction groups, but the technology to provide such a service is widespread. MDMA, commonly known as Molly or Ecstasy, is one of the more widely adulterated illicit drugs. On August 3, Lauren Frayer reported on NPR’s All Things Considered radio show that on-site testing had been arranged for a larger music festival in the UK. Due in great part to advocacy on the part of researcher Fiona Measham of Durham University, a legal path has been cleared for the process, to encourage event goers to subject their drugs to testing. In the process, they can discuss the results with a trained counselor. In the US, DanceSafe sells testing kits to consumers, but can’t provide on-site testing and counsel due to risk of attendees’ arrests. (This organization and others are advocating for legal and enforcement-practice reform that would enable this service in the US.)

Online drug commerce has advanced the prospect of user-initiated testing, as well. A firm called Energy Control in Barcelona tests any drug sent to it and provides a report. It now receives government support in the interest of harm reduction, although it started out with a single doctor, Fernando Caudevilla, who posted to the now-defunct Silk Road darknet platform, offering testing and advice. The testing is highly precise but not immediate – with at least a few days’ turnaround time. The company takes Bitcoin payments to enhance anonymity.

A number of drug cryptomarkets have emerged in the wake of Silk Road’s closure in 2013, when it was seized by the FBI as part of the indictment of its founder, Ross Ulbricht. The market for online illicit drug transactions is growing rapidly, according to a newly-released RAND report.

So you can assume that there is a latent demand for user-end testing products, for people that use drugs voluntarily, and have the resources to buy them discreetly. People who purchase drugs in hand-to-hand transactions aren’t the same as those who buy on line. It’s unclear whether this sort of simple re-agent technology would be used widely by those who purchase street drugs.  Energy Control reported that cocaine was much purer in online samples than street ones, suggesting that a bifurcated market remains — starkly by economic resources — and perhaps also the interest in drug content verification. In any case, having users make contact with neutral testers and advice-givers seems all to the good, in terms of enhancing public health and at the same time adding to the research body of knowledge about illicit drug trends. Increasing awareness of the fallibility of light-and-portable tests — and resisting the “gee whiz” style of reporting on technology — also seems useful to everyone.