Rape has been in the headlines lately. That’s partly thanks to aRolling Stone expose last month detailing a gang rape of a first-year student at a frat party at the University of Virginia. The story went viral and sparked campus protests. Then discrepanciesemerged in the account the victim told the reporter. Amid aflurry of stories slamming Rolling Stone for setting back sexual assault victim advocacy efforts, the magazine issued an apology.
Despite this problematic incident, the recent coverage has sparked much-needed discussion. Aside from the UVA story, there have been a number of interesting developments regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment, such as California’s controversial affirmative consent rule, the report by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and Senate draft legislation that would create tougher penalties for colleges that mishandle sexual assault cases.
Some talk has focused on the interplay between alcohol and sexual assault (including so-called date rape drugs). Although estimates vary widely, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol use by one or both parties.
Yet there has been almost no mention at all about (other) drug use. One might easily conclude that drug users are simply never assaulted. I mean, surely we would be talking about it if they were, right?
Of course, people who use drugs are raped every day, but “drug addicts”—and, by implication, any drug users—are a group that few people are willing to defend.
Think about what the narrative would be like if among the other discrepancies in the Rolling Stone article, it was revealed that the victim had used drugs like heroin, hallucinogens, meth, or even cocaine. Her story would still have been discredited, but instead of criticisms being directed at Rolling Stone, the young woman herself would bear the brunt (along with a fair number of insults).
In fact, she reported that she was sober the night she was allegedly gang raped at the UVA frat party. By not drinking, her status as an “innocent” victim was secure: Whenever alcohol is involved, it tends to complicate the situation if the victim reports it. (Most rape victims—around 60%—never report.) Generally, when a person has been drinking, instead of being seen as more vulnerable to being victimized, she is seen as less likely to have a reliable memory or as possibly having given consent and later regretted it.
And despite decades of anti-rape advocacy, some people still believe that she may have “asked for it” by exercising impaired judgment in placing herself in a vulnerable situation (getting drunk at a frat party, for example). Needless to say, bad judgment on the victim’s part does not justify rape.
Ultimately, though, drinking, even when underage college kids are doing it (illegally), is widely viewed as acceptable behavior—a normal part of the college experience—and not a moral failing.
The same cannot be said of drug use. The impaired judgment of someone nodding out on heroin or tripping their brains out is seen, unlike that of being drunk off your ass, as so reprehensible that it overshadows any need to consider them as more vulnerable to victimization. They are seen as so lacking in moral character that they cannot have the status of victimhood. If something bad happens to a drug user, it was their own fault for making bad decisions—and maybe they deserved it.
I was a heroin addict for almost nine years, a period that included part of my college career. During that time, I was sexually assaulted at knifepoint. In that situation, my being a drug user was a huge factor in why I was selected as a target. In fact, while in the act of assaulting me, the man insulted me for my drug use, as if that conferred on me some complete lack of worth that somehow justified my assault.
Many of the women I met throughout my addiction had similar stories.
One of my friends was sexually assaulted by someone we both knew. Even though she’d said no, she was initially reluctant to call it rape. She felt that having taken drugs, she was responsible for what happened. It was as if she’d bought into the belief that her drug use was a moral problem, and thus, being morally deficient, she was not justified in pointing out another person’s clearly immoral decision.
I talked to the man involved. He acknowledged that they’d had sex and that Jane had been barely conscious. He did not see a problem with that. While he seemed to understand that having sex with someone fading in and out of consciousness due to drunkenness was not OK, he did not seem to think that extended to drug use. The “logic” behind this was not immediately apparent, and he wasn’t eager to answer my questions. Was it simply that he was aware of media coverage of rape involving drunk women and thus understood that this was not acceptable, but had heard of no such taboos involving women who were high?
Neither my friend nor I reported our assaults to the police. No one wants to report a crime when the story begins, “Well, I was doing some heroin when…” Admitting to police that you’re a drug user carries certain risks. They’re probably less likely to treat you with respect, for one. They’re also less likely to believe your story. Although they probably won’t immediately begin surveilling your house, it’s quite likely that your history of drug use will make it into a file somewhere. To police, you’ll become categorized as a known drug user, a fact which could affect any of your possible future police encounters. If the case ever makes it to trial, the victim can reasonably expect her personal history of drug use to become part of publicly available court records and also be included in any media reports.
It’s important to note, however, that if you do report the incident, you can’t be arrested for admitting to prior drug use.
Jamie Williamson of the Ithaca Police Department—located in a town that houses two major colleges, Cornell University and Ithaca College—told me that if a person reports a rape or assault and admits to having used drugs at the time of the incident, she cannot be arrested for that. (If you are reporting the incident to a school, though, you can be punished for admitting to a violation of campus codes of conduct.) But for many victims, that still may not change their willingness to report, because many drug users fundamentally view police as being on the “other team.”
In any case, victimizers know that drug users are unlikely to report an assault to the police, and they behave accordingly. Even in the rare situations when a drug user does report an assault, it often does not accomplish much. In 2008 a friend of mine at Cornell told a dean that she had been assaulted while taking ecstasy. The student was simply told to get drug treatment. At the time, she told The Cornell Daily Sun, “Cornell is wrongly making this into a ‘drug problem’ and forcing me to get evaluated when the real problem here is that I got sexually assaulted and nothing is being done about it. I am being treated like the problem.”
Often, the nature of drug culture ensures that users routinely place themselves in precarious and unsafe situations. You’re likely to be in a compromised state of awareness while in the presence of people in the throes of addiction who may do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. You’re likely to be around men on drugs that make them horny or aggressive (or both). You’re exposed to predatory people who realize that drug users are essentially outside the realm of any legal protection because it’s not in their best interest to report. You’ll be surrounded by people in a state of desperation and despair. You’ll end up in situations that seem skeevy from the get-go—but you want to get high, so you’ll take the risk. In my experience, things usually turned out fine. But sometimes they didn’t.
What all this means is that addicts and users make “good” targets for rape. At the same time, drug stigma makes many people see addicts and users as “fair game.” Even nonusers who sell drugs frequently see drug addicts as scum.
That was the situation in which I was victimized. For a long time I blamed myself—a belief that was bolstered by a drug counselor telling me that it was my fault. Now, years later, I know that is not true. My bad judgment was not to blame for another’s lack of any moral compass. I was not scum and, more important, even if I thought of myself as scum, it still wouldn’t have been OK to treat me that way.
Of course it isn’t just certain dealers who view people with addiction as scum. Substance.com recently criticized an infographic produced by a website in the rehab industry for showing an absurd and offensive set of absurd caricatures of drug users and an offensive list of their “traits,” like “lies a lot” and “smells terrible.” It is apparent that these are not the sort of human beings to whom many people attach much value.
If you still have any doubt about that, just scroll through the comments on any news coverage of a drug arrest. (Earlier this year, theHuffington Post ran a piece titled, “Dying of a Heroin Overdose Does Not Make You a Scumbag.”)
This is a problem. This widespread dehumanization of those in the throes of addiction enables even recreational users to be treated in unacceptable ways, including being raped. We should not condone “blaming the victim” with our silence, which we do when the public discussion excludes a focus on sexual assault involving drugs.
Silence fuels the cycle of assault and blame. When we are silent on the topic, a victim often does not understand that she is not to blame. As a result, she does not speak out. Her silence helps ensure that the sexual assault of drug users is not recognized as a serious problem, and, undetected, sexual predators are able to continue acting with impunity. It’s a truly vicious cycle.
Note: I originally wrote this article for publication on substance.com.