“Watch your drink”

A new study looks at the prevalence of drug-facilitated sexual assault in Ontario

A newly-released study claims one in five sexual assault victims in Ontario may have been drugged. Researchers from the Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto and the Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres screened 882 victims of sexual assault between June 2005 and March 2007 and found that more than 20 per cent suffered from symptoms—such as amnesia, blackouts, conscious paralysis or hangovers that were inconsistent with the amount of alcohol or drugs they had used—that suggested they had been drugged.

Dr. Janice Du Mont, one of the study’s co-authors, believes the problem may in fact be worse than her research suggests. Many victims don’t come forward, she says, especially those who believe they were drugged because they may not be able to clearly remember what happened. Still, she says staff members at sexual assault treatment centres in the province won’t likely be surprised by her and her colleagues’ findings. After all, it was their suspicions that prompted the study in the first place. “Nurses at these centres were reporting anecdotally they were seeing an increase in the number of clients who thought they had been drugged and sexually assaulted,” she says, “and they brought that question forward.”

The researchers also discovered that suspected victims of drug-facilitated sexual assault were more likely to have consumed alcohol or drugs—prescription or otherwise—in the hours leading up to the attack than other sexual assault victims. Of the victims who reported symptoms consistent with having been drugged, 30 per cent had taken prescription medication in the 72 hours leading up to the assault, while another 27 per cent of the victims had consumed illegal drugs over the same time-span. (The latter figure includes not only intentional drug use, but also those who may have been slipped a “date-rape” drug.) The biggest common denominator, however, was alcohol: 90 per cent of those screened had had a drink immediately prior to the assault.

Of course, Du Mont insists the correlation between alcohol or drug use and drug-facilitated sexual assault in no way diminishes an assailant’s criminal responsibility. “The onus shouldn’t be on individual women to prevent sexual violence by constantly modifying their behaviours. There are things they can do to make themselves safer but as a society we need to take responsibility,” she says. But Du Mont adds that, in the meantime, the study’s findings deliver a clear message to women in Ontario: “Watch your drink, don’t accept drinks from a stranger and really watch mixing drugs and alcohol because it can contribute to incapacitation.”

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