A Rape Crisis Centre View of Rohypnol: How the Hype Tricks Raped Women
By Tamara Gorin
The “date rape pill” emerged in Florida in 1993. Now part of the general understanding of rape in North America, Rohypnol is a widely touted method for rapists to access and incapacitate women as potential victims.
But Rohypnol is only the latest drug men rape with. Attention focuses on Rohypnol, but men continue to use alcohol, prescription medication, marijuana, cocaine and heroin. The number of women calling our rape crisis centre talking or asking about Rohypnol has increased proportionate to the media attention on the drug not the reverse. Women are bombarded with warnings to modify their behaviour to keep themselves safe from Rohypnol, yet the number of women calling us to report the use of drugs or alcohol as a factor in rape remains constant at about one-quarter of the 1400 calls we receive each year. Rohypnol is definitely used to commit rape. But after five years of information overload it is time to take a closer look.
Rev up the search engine and type “Rohypnol” The search results provide hundreds of sites, largely created by police, sheriff’s offices, some community groups and the American Drug Enforcement Agency. Quickly noticed is the ratio of American sites as compared to Canadian ones: 100 to 1 at least.
BC’s Ministry of Women’s Equality released an “information bulletin” in early 1998. The only government document in Canada to show up in the Internet searches, it provides the standard information. The only links (urls) provided are American sites. There are some notable points though. They acknowledge Rohypnol is not the only potential rape drug, and take feminists seriously by warning that “promoting awareness also run(s) the risk of potentially promoting the behaviour it criticizes.” In other words information is supposed to prevent. By stating “although there are reports about Rohypnol in the media, there is no official evidence of the drug in BC,” (emphasis theirs) they admit the response reiterated most often by police.
Rohypnol has not appeared in the few blood and urine samples screened by forensic labs. Most samples are taken after the drug metabolizes. Often, the samples are not screened for other drugs. Hoffman-LaRoche, the manufacture of Rohypnol, recently funded a drug screening program in the US. The results of this program showed that Rohypnol was found in less than 3% of the samples taken.
Yet police and RCMP tell women that without this evidence it is impossible to investigate. As well sexual assault cases are generally, the onus is on women to prove they were raped before the police proceed with charges. There are no convictions for administrating Rohypnol in Canada, although in BC alone there are upwards of 20 police investigations into its use in sexual assault.
Anti-drug campaigners have a significant impact on the legislative changes in the US and elsewhere, as evidenced by changes to several laws restricting the movement of and access to Rohypnol. Their strategy is to highlight Rohypnol’s potential use against a person to commit violent crime, and secondarily in its use as a street drug.
Public relations points are won for the appearance of activity to stop rape. In reality, previous changes to rape laws have not prevented rape and rape has not decreased. The real achievement here is not protection of women, but the restriction of a popular drug. Anti-drug agencies won a fairly major victory in the war on drugs off the backs of raped women.
Women repeatedly expose they are in some kind of relationship with the man who raped them. Women tell on their dates, the men their girlfriends recommend, the men women line up to dance with at the bar when they say they were raped with Rohypnol. “Date rape” describes rapes that occur usually towards the end of a date, frequently in one of their cars, or in women’s homes. Also included are rapes by casual acquaintances slightly less known to women, men met at bars, parties, and other social events. The use of alcohol and/or drugs by one or both people is often a factor.
Police, education institutions and social service agencies create instructional information that emphasizes date rape and is almost exclusively directed at women. Largely stressing what women should do to avoid rape, lists of “do’s and don’ts” reinforce the myth that if women restrict their behaviour they will cease to be targets for rape. Add Rohypnol, add to the list. Now women must not only limit their alcohol intake, they must never leave their glass of cola unattended. They should mix their own drinks, and where they can’t it is preferable to watch the bartender, wait staff or date pour.
This all makes women, not men, the active participants in rape. Seeming to “empower” women towards decisions which would protect them, directives to avoid rape place the responsibility for preventing rape on women while letting men off the hook.
And despite years of feminist work to refute rape myths, women-hating informs most public and private discussions about rape. Accordingly, a woman is vigilant to have an explanation for her own behaviour because anyone she tells inevitably questions her. If she also experiences memory loss, no matter the cause, her judgments are considered suspect. Even before the potential of providing the burden of proof in a legal case, she must provide it in the court of public opinion. Proscriptions of proper behaviour for women persist so that judgments can be made about which class of women they are: true victim or deserving participant. Was she merely at the wrong place at the wrong time or did she ask for it?
This continued insistence on maintaining standards that reflect only oppositional possibilities of behaviour refuses to admit the complexities of women’s lives and the complexities of rape. It also admits a steadfast refusal to hold men who rape to the same standards as women.
As unsettled as women who suspect Rohypnol was utilized to rape them may be, there is potential for one small relief. Significantly, unlike other drugs which women mostly choose how much to ingest, men give Rohypnol to women against their will, slip it in behind their backs. Women’s potential activity to change what happens next is diminished when men use Rohypnol to rape them, so they are possibly freer of responsibility than most women can allow themselves to imagine. The rapist’s sleight of hand puts responsibility squarely in hands where it should be anyway.
This category of an absolved rape victim sets these women apart from the women who may or may not have used all of their agency to prevent a rape or fight back but were raped anyway. This is not women’s intention. Women tell, particularly women who tell police, not our of self interest but to protect other women. They know that sometimes the rapist can be stopped before he does it again. It is for this reason Rohypnol became known as the “date rape pill.” Before it was understood that Rohypnol was widely available as a street drug, women said men use it against them.
Whether or not a man uses Rohypnol or another drug to incapacitate the woman he intends to rape, he is the one responsible. Holding fast to this idea, women break free of woman-hating myths about rape, and the possibility of a response beyond the individual woman emerges. It becomes possible to move the spotlight off of women’s behaviour and to focus on men instead. It becomes possible to move the spotlight off Rohypnol and to focus on rape instead.