Drug facilitated sexual assault: what you should know before Frosh 2017

If you have ever hesitated before taking a sip of the drink you left with a friend at a bar, you are not alone.

Drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) happens more than you think, and it’s four times more likely to occur to someone while they’re completing their post-secondary education, according to Carleton University’s Equity Services webpage.

Carole Miller, a crisis counsellor for the Ottawa Police Service, has spoken with many people who have experienced sexual assault, but said it happens more often in universities where experimentation with alcohol and sexuality is already happening.

“It’s a tough subject, and normal rites of passage, normal, healthy experimentation is happening anyways,” she said.

According to the Equity Services department webpage, “[DFSA is] when a victim is subjected to sexual acts while incapacitated or unconscious, and is unable to resist or provide consent due to the effects of drugs or alcohol.”

Date rape drugs such as rohypnol, or “roofies” as they are commonly known, as well as ketamine and GHB are most often associated with DFSA.

But the reality is, alcohol is the number-one substance most commonly used for DFSA, with marijuana coming in second, according to the Equity Services department webpage.

Though Carleton University has run a dry frosh—meaning all events are alcohol-free for all participants, including those of legal drinking age—since 2005, overall student alcohol consumption isn’t something the university can control.

Second-year Carleton student Marissa Waddell participated in Sprosh (a frosh week solely for students in the Sprott School of Business) last year, and said she had a positive experience as a result. Just like the general frosh week, both Sprosh and the engineering department’s frosh weeks are dry events.

Waddell said she believes a dry frosh experience helps to prevent instances of DFSA. She added that she wasn’t necessarily concerned about DFSA during her frosh week because she avoided drugs and alcohol during that time.

“The less alcohol influence people have in their bodies, the less likely they are to do something they’re not likely to do  . . . it doesn’t set up as many opportunities for it to happen as it would if people were drinking during frosh week,” Waddell said.

But, Miller said the notion that drinking too much is to blame for DFSA is not correct.

“I have spoken to young women from campuses and older, and [when they were drugged] they had not been drunk. They hadn’t been drinking a lot,” she said. “All you need is to have your drink there, right? It happens to adult women. You just happen to be exposed, and you don’t have to have had a whole bunch of drinks for a date rape to work. You just have to slip it into something.”

Miller said this can happen to people of all ages, not just university students and youth.

“This happens to women in their sixties and seventies going out to date again—people sticking something in their drink, it’s quite pathetic,” she said.

Waddell said she is always cautious about her social habits while drinking, especially during frosh.

“I am very cautious about who I talk to and what I drink, and not setting drinks down or anything like that,” Waddell said. “There wasn’t really any influence of substance—whether that’s drugs or alcohol—that I knew of, so [during frosh] I felt pretty safe and comfortable, and it was an enjoyable time.”

As for the perpetrators of DFSA, Miller said the onus to prevent it from happening is not on the victim.

“It’s not about being irresponsible and not watching [your drink],” she said. “You can be very careful, and these guys who will do something like that are a whole different breed. They’re quite dangerous.”

According to Miller, some red flags to watch for when in a social situation where alcohol is involved are attempts to isolate you from your friend group.

“It doesn’t mean he’s necessarily going to assault you, but it’s just a red flag,” she said.

Protecting yourself and your friends from DFSA is also about basic communication and cooperation, according to Miller.

“We tend to say to young women . . .  to adult women . . . ‘keep an eye on each other,’” Miller said.

But it’s not just about women being responsible for protecting other women. Miller stressed the importance of equality in keeping people safe from this type of situation.

“I think it’s good to include young guys in it, because they play a role too. There have been young guys who have pulled a girl away from a situation and . . . it’s talking to them. Girls are your friends too,” she said. “If you see them getting separated out, make sure you know where they are . . . if it’s a bunch of people going out, or if it’s two, let’s keep an eye on who you’re with.”

Miller said she doesn’t expect people to “tie a rope to each other,” or become babysitters, but to keep each other informed about plans to leave with someone outside of the group.

“Being vigilant with friends can’t prevent every assault from happening, but it can help,” she said.

The topic of sexual violence has been actively discussed and debated at Carleton recently, with the passing of the university’s new Sexual Violence Policy in December 2016.

Despite opposition from numerous student groups, the policy was passed unanimously by Carleton’s Board of Governors. Since then, the student-led group Our Turn Carleton has taken steps to create an action plan to combat sexual violence on campus.

This summer, the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) council passed a motion from Our Turn to make clubs and societies’ summer funding dependent on members attending a sexual violence prevention training session.

The main points to be covered in this sexual violence prevention and support training will be about consent, sexual violence, and rape culture on campus and in student life; how to be an active bystander to help prevent sexual violence; supporting a friend who discloses a sexual assault, and how to access the necessary resources and reporting options on campus and in the wider Ottawa area, according to the CUSA website.

Waddell said she feels Carleton did a good job spreading awareness about sexual assault during last year’s frosh with the mandatory “got consent?” bracelets to participate in the activities last year. The rubber bracelets were included in the frosh kits provided to participating students, and served as an indicator that they were registered for frosh.

“I think the fact that the first experience first years will have, if they do frosh at Carleton, is . . . every activity you want to do, you have to have that ‘got consent?’ bracelet, it kind of gets ingrained in your brain that consent is important,” she said.

As students prepare to set foot on campus, the overall message Miller hopes to communicate to university students about DFSA is that support is available.

She recommends the 24-hour Ottawa Rape Crisis Hotline as a good first resource to contact.

“If anything happens, or they felt things got out of control, or they don’t remember and they think something happened to them . . . they have resource numbers to call, and to be able to talk about it,” Miller said.

“I think people really need support,” she said, referring to victims of sexual assault, “It can eat away at you.”            

Photo by Meagan Casalino