cultures of silence

What You Might Not Know About ‘Getting Roofied’

Photo: Eric Anthony Johnson/Getty Images

The night — what of it I remember — felt absolutely un-sinister. I went out to a bar in Brooklyn with the guy I was dating, whom I’ll call John*. It was John’s local, and nearly everyone there was a friend or a friend of a friend, including the bartender, who was in a benevolent mood and calling everyone “my dear.” I had one-and-a-half gin and tonics, which was my drink then, and everything was normal and comfortable and cozy. The drinks tasted fine, I knew the man who poured them, and I never set them down because I was comfortably settled on a stool opposite an old friend. But when I try to bring the night back, this is where it stops, halfway through the second gin and tonic. I remember that my friend was teasing me and I was laughing, and that the crowd was close around us, many of them tall men, which made it feel like we were in a warm clearing amidst trees. I remember feeling safe, and then I remember nothing.

This story will not be entirely unfamiliar. Most twenty- and thirtysomethings in New York grew up in the age of the “date rape drug” and “roofies.” The practice of surreptitiously dosing people at parties or bars hit national headlines roughly 15 years ago and was framed as a “pandemic,” so we heard on the news as often as we heard from our guidance counselors about girls who went out, took a drink from a stranger, and then woke up with no memory and no underwear. Many of us, especially if we were young women, sat through lectures in which we were directed never to go out alone or leave a glass vulnerable to tampering. These were the simple measures of insurance we should take to avoid becoming one of the unlucky — so simple, actually, that the subtext of those lectures tended to sound like “Don’t be stupid.” (There was also the suggestion, sometimes subtextual and sometimes explicit, that the best and smartest of us would just avoid “getting ourselves” in “these situations” altogether.)

Public understanding of illicit, nonconsensual drugging hasn’t changed meaningfully in more than a decade. To start, the terminology is the same: Roofie as a noun and verb (as in, “I got roofied last night,” or “He slipped her a roofie”) is a slangy riff on the name of the most popular “date rape drug” circa 1999, rohypnol. But as it happens, no one actually gets dosed with an actual roofie anymore. Only 1 in 100 victims who go for blood work test positive for rohypnol. These days, the drugs slipping out of pockets and into highball glasses all over New York are primarily GHB (or “liquid Ecstasy”), Zolpidem (also known as Ambien), scopolamine, and a few lesser-known benzodiazepines, like temazepam or midazolam. It is probably no longer accurate to say “She was roofied” — but then “She was midazolamed” lacks a certain something.

The drugs aren’t the only things that have changed without much notice. Until recently, I held certain unexamined assumptions about how drug assault worked, acquired through guidance-counselor lectures and osmosis of stories like Samantha Clark’s, a 16-year-old who died in 1999 from a dose of GHB someone put in her drink at a party. In the New York Times article about Clark’s death there was a quote from Jennifer M. Granholm, then Michigan’s attorney general: ”[GHB is] an extremely high priority, in that this substance has popped up at these rave parties, and kids can’t detect it in a drink.” The portrait painted here was consistent with everything else I’d heard: The victims were “kids,” almost exclusively young women; the dosing was sexually predatory in motive; and it was possibly avoidable if you skipped “these rave parties.” I also assumed, because it was something I didn’t hear much about, that it just wasn’t very common anymore.

Twelve hours after being drugged, I woke up shaking in John’s bed, fully clothed, and on top of the covers. My knowledge of the interim is pieced together mostly from what he told me. Apparently, I’d grown radiantly happy and then quickly, dramatically incapacitated. I’d stopped talking, and then walking. I ran into walls. He took me back to his apartment to put me to bed, but I managed to lock myself in his bathroom for 30 minutes and either wouldn’t or couldn’t respond to his attempts to coax me out. When I finally emerged, he suggested I sit down, and I sat. He told me I should drink water, and I wordlessly accepted the cup. This was what unnerved him the most in the retelling: how pliable I had been. “You would do things, but you weren’t there,” he said.

The hangover felt possibly lethal. (GHB, the most likely culprit, actually is lethal in the wrong doses.) I called a doctor friend who specializes in emergency medicine. “I feel like I’m dying,” I told him, seriously. It was an effort to form coherent sentences. “My heart is palpitating and my hand-eye coordination doesn’t work and it feels like if I stop concentrating on breathing I’ll stop breathing. Am I dying? Should I try to get to a hospital?”

“If you had gotten a lethal dose, you would have never woken up,” he told me. “Sounds like it was close, but you woke up. You’ll be okay.” Then he said, “This has already happened to two of my close guy friends.”

When I told my neighbor, she said, “Oh my God, me too!” Her boyfriend chimed in, “That happened to me, too. And three of my good friends.” They wanted to know where I’d been, so I told them: Williamsburg. “Was it the Woods?” they asked. “Everyone gets roofied there.”

That evening, I told another close friend. “Oh man,” he said. “That’s happened to me before.” After that, I started asking around. Within a few weeks of casual inquiry, I’d found more than 20 people who’d also been “roofied.” Now, after over a year of talking to friends, acquaintances, and strangers in New York about their experiences with drug assault (as I’ll call it for lack of a better term — despite reading studies, consulting with clinicians and victims’ advocates, and looking through city and state laws, I still haven’t encountered any official terminology), it seems clear that this phenomenon has evolved. Roughly half of the people I’ve spoken to, found through friends and colleagues, are men. No one reported having been sexually assaulted while drugged, which was for most a source of both relief and confusion. For my part, I was stunned by how easy it was to find other victims once I started asking, and how many of them there were. Why wasn’t this more widely discussed? Had the men been specifically targeted or were they collateral damage of a botched attempt to prey on a young woman? It also seemed, in light of the number of people I was meeting who had been rendered completely vulnerable but otherwise left unharmed, to expand the range of common motives beyond sexual predation. (Although, of course, that motive remains.)

It’s important to stress that I’ve been conducting conversations, not a scientific study. My sample is relatively small and local to New York City, and I didn’t control for age, neighborhood, or tax bracket. No one I spoke to admitted to being sexually assaulted, but that remains a horrible problem in the population at large: The CDC released a study last month estimating that nearly 22 million adult American women (roughly one in five) have experienced rape, and that ​between 9 and 10 million of those cases were alcohol- or drug-facilitated rape. The study estimated the number of male victims of drug-facilitated sexual assault to be around 685,000.

But when I looked for studies that examined drug assault as its own criminal or medical phenomenon in New York, there wasn’t much to find. Even the documentation and research pertaining to dosing in New York sexual assault cases of women is scant at best and hard to access. There is one abstract to a paper submitted to the Annals of Emergency Medicine that suggested drug-facilitated sexual assault is on the rise in New York. The study found that the number of sexual assault victims who had been drugged more than doubled (from 8 percent to 18 percent) between 2002 and 2008 in the New York metro area. The actual rate of increase might be more dramatic: The study couldn’t account for people who went to private practitioners or urgent-care centers rather than hospitals, people who never sought help at all, or people who were drugged but not assaulted.

I called Dr. Sandra Schneider, a professor of emergency medicine at Hofstra and one of the senior research associates who worked on the study, thinking she could point me toward research I might have missed. “I did a search, and found absolutely nothing that looks at the incidence of these drugs in this population other than the abstract of what was done here,” she told me. I asked if there was any record of drug assault separate from sexual assault. “Nobody is really tracking this, so everything you hear will be anecdotal.”

I called doctors and staff members at Weill Cornell, New York Presbyterian, Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s, New York Urgent Care, and several other treatment centers to ask if there was any record keeping on these cases. The staff members I asked about drug assault as a category separate from sexual assault seemed stymied at first, as if they’d never heard of it. “We definitely don’t track that,” one told me. Christopher Cerrone, the assistant director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, based out of Mount Sinai St. Luke’s, hesitated when I asked him if there was any record not just of drug-facilitated sexual assault but of drug assault itself, and if “drug assault” was even the right term.

“I don’t know,” he replied. And then, after a pause: “I would imagine that the majority of those cases do not report.”

When it happened to Sarah, she went for a drink with a friend in the West Village. She started feeling strange just after the first beer. Unaware that anything was wrong, her friend went to the bathroom and when he came back, she was gone. Nearly four hours later, a cab driver dropped her off at a police station; her wallet and glasses had gone missing, her pants were ripped at the knee, and she was incoherent. She never told anyone. “I was embarrassed, even though it wasn’t necessarily my fault,” she says.

Joy was drugged by a friend of her boyfriend’s. A group of friends was gathered at the man’s apartment waiting to go out to a club, and Joy, feeling as though her blood sugar was low, asked if she could have a snack. The host gave her a small box of orange juice. “I remember thinking that it was strange that he had individual-size orange juices,” she says. “And I remember noticing that he’d already opened it, but he was a friend of my boyfriend’s so it never occurred to me.” Within minutes she was vomiting and convulsing; it was a day before she could speak normally, and when she finally was able to tell her boyfriend and his friends what had happened, one replied, “Oh, you mean he gave you da juice? Yeah, he cooks his own GHB and puts it in orange juice and gives it to people sometimes.”

After a while, these stories began to bleed into each other: Dave was drugged while hanging out in a gay bar with some friends; Zelda was drugged when she went out with co-workers in Soho; Kate was drugged at a club in midtown; Trenton at a club in the Meatpacking District. Each was incapacitated in the moment, violently ill afterward, and otherwise physically unharmed. No one ever reported to the police.

Val, who was drugged at the bar at the Standard Hotel, came to after a four-hour blackout missing the tights she had been wearing. She went to Bellevue Hospital even though she felt fairly certain she hadn’t been assaulted and they gave her a month of HIV prophylactics and had her examined by an officer so she could file a report later if she wanted. She never did. “I had no idea who it could possibly have been, I was 99 percent sure I hadn’t been assaulted, and I really just wanted to forget about the whole experience by that stage. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, and went into hibernation for a while.”

I went into hibernation, too. I crawled into bed, and didn’t get out for about a month unless I had to. I didn’t want to see anyone new or unfamiliar, I didn’t want to go anywhere I hadn’t already been. When people asked me about it, I adopted a grim stoicism, an it-sucked-but-it’s-over attitude to mask a terrifying sense of helplessness. I didn’t go to the police or the doctor because I imagined there was no way for them to help me, and in some confused, pseudo-metaphysical way I felt unable to report something I was awake during but not present for. This is one of the stranger injuries of drug assault: It robs you of the ability to narrate your own experience. It places you in that conversation’s negative space, and it quickly becomes easier to not have the conversation at all.

When victimhood isn’t tidy it has a tendency to disappear — when it’s bound up in possible self-recrimination (“I should never have taken that juice”) and embarrassment (“I don’t want people to think this is who I am”), when the evidence is ambiguous or vanished, or when people would prefer to think of the harm as avoidable. People who work with survivors of sexual violence often talk about something called “the culture of silence,” the cycle that emerges when society fails to acknowledge the prevalence of a problem, leading the people affected by that problem to remain silent for fear of being ostracized or ignored, which perpetuates the false impression that there’s no problem at all. We fail to create systems of support because we can’t see the people who need it, and the lack of system ensures we never will. This is, in part, how widespread problems go unnoticed, undocumented, unstudied, and unsolved.

The people I’ve met seem relieved to know that their experiences aren’t happening in a vacuum. “In a way, I can forgive the stupid girl I thought I was now that I know this kind of thing happens to other people, people I know and respect,” said Joy, the girl who drank da juice. She was silent for a moment, and then offered, “I just told my husband for the first time. It feels good to talk about it.”

*All victim names have been changed.

What You Might Not Know About ‘Getting Roofied’