A female friend recently woke up on the floor of the toilets in a Melbourne nightclub, dazed and disorientated. She’d had two drinks that night. One had been covertly drugged — most likely with the potent sedative Rohypnol which can cause blackouts and unconsciousness.
The friend she’d been out with awoke in her car, her memory of the night a complete blank. Luckily, as far as they could tell, neither woman had been sexually assaulted.
Assuming the venue manager would want to know what had happened on their premises, I rang the club, located in the busy inner city suburb of Fitzroy. But I was wrong: "We’re not responsible," he replied immediately. I assured him I wasn’t blaming the venue, just alerting them, and asked if he could perhaps let his staff know. He showed no interest and swiftly ended the conversation.
Sarah, 27, had two beers in a St Kilda pub with a girlfriend. The last thing she recalls is four friendly young men introducing themselves. Five hours later Sarah awoke on her doorstep, her face scratched and grazed, unable to recall the past few hours. A medical scientist, Sarah realised she’d been drugged and so stored a urine sample.
Her female friend wasn’t so lucky: she woke up in a strange bed in an unfamiliar suburb with a stranger asleep next to her and no memory of the preceding hours. She fled the house and hailed a taxi, but was so disorientated and woozy that she later had no idea what suburb she’d woken up in. The physical signs suggested she’d been raped and/or sexually assaulted.
When the two women went to a police station to make a report, the police on duty initially refused to take their statements. "They were especially harsh towards my friend," says Sarah. "They accused her of lying."
Drink spiking is disturbingly common in Australia, but research consistently shows that it is underreported. In fact, one of the most recent major studies
into this crime, undertaken by RMIT in 2007, found that 85 per cent of victims don’t report it.
Why not? "Many [victims]are not sure they’ll be believed. Some are uncertain, embarrassed, or afraid they’ll be blamed," says RMIT’s Bridget McPherson, who ran a world-first online survey of 800 young people on their attitudes to drink spiking. The group included both victims and perpetrators — the former were predominantly female, the latter male.
One per cent of survey respondents admitted to having covertly drugged a drink, and many more admitted to adding alcohol surreptitiously to someone’s glass. Their motivations ranged from "fun" to gaining control over the victim to increase their chances of having sex with them. Most perpetrators saw this behaviour as acceptable and many knew their victims personally.
The study also found that guarding your drink may not significantly reduce risk as spiking is a split-second act. But more importantly, argues McPherson, her research points to the need for a rethink: the onus for curbing this crime must be placed on potential perpetrators — not on victims. "Many [males]don’t know the boundaries of consent," she says. "We need to educate them, clarify that this is problematic, dangerous and unacceptable behaviour."
There’s a popular misconception that drink-spiking is actually over-reported. But a negative drug-test means little: drugs like GHB and Rohypnol exit the body within hours, so samples must be taken soon after spiking has occurred — which is often impossible, given the victim’s disorientated or unconscious state. What’s more, the commonly used basic screening tests can’t detect every "date rape" drug.
Ask around any group of young females, and you’ll find that suspected spikings are disturbingly common. And not all of them happen in nightclubs. Anna, a 21-year-old Melbourne student, recently went to a suburban pool hall with a female friend. They each had one drink. When they headed for home, a group of males at a nearby table tried to stop them, blocking their way and asking why they were leaving.
The reasons behind the young men’s behaviour soon became clear — but luckily, the women made it home before things went very wrong. "They definitely spiked our drinks," says Anna. "My mind was doing weird things and I freaked out completely. I felt really out of control and completely childlike. It was terrifying and it lasted for hours."
Julie, 26, a Sydney-based teacher, was waiting for a taxi after a work dinner. Hours later she awoke at home with a black eye, bloodied face and no memory of the preceding hours. A blood test found barbiturates in her system. Cautious enquiries on her part revealed she’d later been seen drinking in a "dodgy" pub that she’d always avoided. Finding her bleeding and unconscious in the venue’s bathroom, staff had called an ambulance, but Julie apparently vanished before it arrived.
"When I rang the pub to ask if they knew anything, the manager was extremely unsympathetic," Julie recalls. "He threatened to charge me for the ambulance call-out, and showed no interest in finding out who was responsible." Julie says the most hurtful thing was that many people, even close friends, seemed to assume the incident was somehow her fault. She suspects this attitude is a symptom of denial: "I think it helps them to believe it’d never happen to them."
Attitudes towards drink spiking must change. Recently I visited the Fitzroy club where my friend’s drink was drugged and spoke to the security guards. They said management hadn’t mentioned any drink spiking incident. "Anyway, it’s not our problem," shrugged one. When the security manager got wind that I was talking to his staff about drink spiking, he became verbally aggressive, threatening to take me "into the back room" or kick me out: he plainly didn’t want the subject openly discussed.
This kind of intimidation is not typical, but complacency and misdirected blame are. Many venues categorise drink-spiking as "not our problem". Those venues that express concern privately are wary of negative associations, so will seldom speak publicly about the issue.
It’s near-impossible to catch someone drugging a drink, but the profitable business of selling booze carries legal and moral responsibilities. Instead of keeping silent, venues should be working to minimise the risks by display warning signage aimed at both potential victims and perpetrators. The onus must rest on the venue to keep an eye on punters, to educate their staff and to take some responsibility for the state in which people leave their premises.
If a female patron appears incoherent or semi-conscious, staff should check on her wellbeing, question the people accompanying her, help her get home safely, and seek medical assistance if necessary. If a woman is staggering from a club in a clearly disorientated state, it is not, as one security guard I spoke to put it, "a private matter". And when a female contacts police to report a possible drink spiking, the matter should be taken seriously.
And the responsibility goes further. The Howard government spent millions on a campaign urging parents to discuss drugs with their kids. The Rudd Government should not be daunted by the culture of silence that surrounds drink spiking; serious resources, thought and effort must be devoted to curbing this hushed-up crime.
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
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