Cognition & Reality

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Date Rape Drugs And Other Evil Spirits

This article from a couple of years ago sums up nicely the factors contributing to the urban mythology around so-called “date rape drugs.” It is interesting that, as the article mentions, the response in some quarters was to perceive the reports debunking the role of drugs other than alcohol in “date rape” as blaming the victim and as ignoring a danger that, however rare, remains real. No matter how many studies demonstrate that the only “date rape drug” of any consequence is alcohol, the false message about the threat posed by other substances remains strong. For example, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) blankly (and falsely) states, “Memory loss can result from the ingestion of GHB and other ‘rape drugs.'” As I have indicated elsewhere, a substantial threat of being “roofied” is often assumed on TV and in films. The argument is essentially over, and the side with the false, hysterical message has prevailed.

Fear of “date rape drugs” clearly serves purposes so important that, confronted with the evidence that they are a tiny problem compared with the “date rape” potential of alcohol, society as a whole persists in maintaining that they represent a severe hazard requiring stringent precautions. As I thought about what those purposes might be, I realized that they are the same ones served by the persistence of other myths I find troubling, those about “chemical imbalances” and behavioral genetics. All of these combinations of myth and metaphor have in common their dependence on alleviating guilt while elevating powerful institutions. Because belief in them is therefore identical with a deep faith in the powers at the center of our culture, to deny their truth is an attack on those same powers.

These quasi-scientific constructs involving chemicals and other elements of medical science are the modern version of identifying what is fearful with invisible demons that can only be quelled through rituals dictated or performed by an authoritative elect. They not only resemble religious beliefs in being dependent on little else but faith and repetition; they are religious beliefs, embedded in our culture because they derive from a widely shared system of doctrines, values and commitments. Just as humans have always done with regard to cherished practices sanctioned by the powerful and believed in by the many, our modern society marginalizes anyone who questions such articles of faith.

I did not realize it until I started Googling about this topic, but young women are now instructed, when at a bar or other public place, to carry any drink with them wherever they go, even into the ladies’ room, accept drinks only from a bartender, drink only from freshly opened bottles, and use available test kits for “date rape drugs.” Thus, they ward off evil spirits who might invade their otherwise harmless alcoholic spirits, transforming the latter into a supernaturally potent, honor-destroying sex potion. In addition to involving young women in established forms and beliefs, these restrictions serve alcohol manufacturers in two important ways: First, they assure that young women consume alcohol in its most expensive, “safe” form, straight from individual bottles and cans; second, they distract attention from the “date rape drug” of the ages, the alcohol they sell.

According to beliefs descended directly from alchemy and other pre-scientific systems, disequilibrium within the fluids of the body produces spiritual disorders that can be cured only by using mysterious concoctions dispensed by medicine men. As I have discussed perhaps more than many of my readers might like, belief in “chemical imbalances” as the cause of at least some forms of emotional disturbance persists as a social and literary trope despite having been abandoned by most of those who originally promulgated it. The reason for that may be that it addresses primitive fears while justifying forms of treatment that satisfy the imperial requirements of the medical profession, save insurance companies money and fatten the purses of pharmaceutical companies. To believe in “chemical imbalances” as the cause of “mental disorders” is therefore a way of paying obeisance to the powers that be.

It all seems rather silly until you confront the fierceness with which these notions are defended. To believe that a child is psychotic because of some physical substance inadvertently passed on through the “blood” is unpleasant, but it is infinitely preferable to believing that his or her condition is the result of bad parenting . Likewise, to believe that one’s daughter was raped by a man who slipped her a mickey is far more tolerable than to believe she made it easier on the rapist by choosing to get shitfaced on Jack Daniel’s at the local bar. One need hardly say that a drug that destroys memory is the perfect antidote to a night one would rather forget, and the perfect explanation for a police report long on histrionics and short on details. No wonder belief persists in some manifestly crude, naive, and false explanations of behavior that serve a host of social and cultural functions.

(BTW, this is in no way intended to let rapists off the hook. Far from it: I find it difficult to imagine circumstances in which it is OK to fuck a semi-conscious woman. In another post, I unpack this issue more fully.)

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