How Our Obsession With Roofies Obscured the Truth About Date Rape

The association between Rohypnol and sexual assault is so strong that ‘roofie’ is both a noun and a verb. But what about the far more common tools predators use to assault women? Like, say, alcohol?

For obvious reasons, Asher, a 26-year-old researcher in New Zealand, can’t remember much of the night he was roofied. He was having a nightcap in a bar with several friends from his post-grad program, and one of them — a woman — went to the bar to get a round of drinks for herself, Asher and another female friend of theirs. “I’d drunk mine and was over speaking to one of my friends in the bar, and when I came back, those two girls were fucked out of their brain,” he explains. “I didn’t remember them being like that at all.”

Fortunately, both of the women who’d had their drinks spiked found their way safely home: One was taken home by her boyfriend and another called her parents, who called the police and then took her home. “At this point, I thought I was just shit-faced,” Asher says. He’d been drinking but was much more inebriated than he’d normally be, given his size and the volume of alcohol he’d consumed. “I don’t remember this at all, but apparently I was yelling at the cops.” The blanks in Asher’s memory were filled in by a friend who he shared a ride home with that night.

Combined with how fast the women got inebriated, it was the extent of Asher’s hangover that made him suspect he hadn’t merely been drunk the night before, but had been drugged. “I had the worst hangover of my entire life,” he explains. “My brain felt like it was too big for my skull, and I thought I was going to die.” The drugging was confirmed when Asher spoke to one of the women he’d shared the round of drinks with that night, who was tested by a doctor. “That was the only drink that I’d had there,” he adds, “so I was like, ‘Well, fuck, that must be what happened to me — I must have been roofied too.’” 

“Roofie” is a slang term for a tablet of Rohypnol, the drug known generically as flunitrazepam, which is a central nervous system depressant in the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, used to treat anxiety, insomnia and seizure disorders. Rohypnol was developed by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche in 1975, creating a benzo 10 times more potent than Valium. While it was commonly prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders in Europe and elsewhere — and continues to be prescribed in those places — it was never approved for use or sale in the U.S.

But this didn’t stop the drug from making its way to American shores, and increased illegal and recreational use emerged by the mid-1990s. “In the underground market, it was proffered under a number of names, but none more famous than the ‘roofie,’” writes Pamela Donovan in her fascinating book, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History. The drug “will not only induce unconsciousness but often anterograde amnesia, if the person so dosed remains nominally awake for a period of time,” she explains. “This mimics the alcoholic blackout, which is also due to this particular kind of amnesia that inhibits the forming of new memories.”

During this time, reports began to proliferate about male perpetrators slipping Rohypnol into the drinks of unwitting female victims, who would then black out and be vulnerable to sexual assault. According to Donovan, this led to a “thorough going change in the drug’s identity” from a pharmaceutical sleep aid to a weapon of sexual assault, and Rohypnol became widely known as a “date-rape drug.” “At no other time has any drug been so explicitly defined as a weapon of rape,” write sociologists Karen G. Weiss and Corey J. Colyer, “nor has any previous drug-induced crime story been framed so explicitly as a crime against women.” 

The association between Rohypnol and sexual assault became so strong that roofie became not just a noun but a verb: to “roofie” someone now meant to spike their drink for the purposes of sexually assaulting them. (A Google image search for the term “roofie,” and the resulting page of early 2010 era memes replete with brutal and unfunny rape jokes, quickly reveals how much this association remains.) The link was so strong, and reputational fallout so great, that the drug’s manufacturer reformulated Rohypnol by making its dissolution more difficult and generating a bright blue color.  

But did Rohypnol deserve this reputation? 

“The term ‘date-rape drug’ is probably the most misleading moniker a class of drugs could possibly get,” Donovan writes. “Hundreds of drugs already on the market, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly suitable for drugging, given a motivated offender.” The singling out of Rohypnol seems especially illogical given how rarely it’s used for this purpose compared to other drugs like GHB, Valium, Ambien and alcohol — the latter being “by far the most dangerous date rape drug.” “No one actually gets dosed with an actual roofie anymore,” journalist Jordan Kisner writes in The Cut. “Only 1 in 100 victims who go for blood work test positive for Rohypnol.”

Asher can’t remember what he was drugged with that night — he thinks the woman probably told him after she was tested, but he can’t recall. “I was definitely quite up, definitely quite rowdy,” he says, which suggests a stimulant — a category of drugs used more often than people think in drink-spiking cases. Nevertheless, he describes the experience as the time he was “roofied,” as per the usual parlance. 

Asher believes that he was spiked by mistake: That the perpetrator, who he assumes was a man, saw a woman buying a round of three drinks and guessed it would be for herself and two female friends. “They wouldn’t have seen who she was buying them for because we were outside smoking,” he explains. “I assume he just wanted to cast a wide net of drugging, and I’m almost sure I was just caught in the crossfire.” When I ask why he’s so sure, he says it’s probably a “prejudiced social narrative that they wouldn’t be going for guys — I just assumed that they’d be going for women.” 

This common assumption that a spiked drink must be meant for a woman is interesting, because historically, men were considered the typical victims of drugging. “But at the turn of the 20th century, everyone knew that men could be drugged, mostly for profiteering purposes: to extract their money or their labor, in some cases facilitating their enslavement, or to simply have over on them, for prank or for vengeance,” Donovan writes. “It was men, after all, who had free reign to drink after work without approbation, and who could enter and leave a tavern of his peers without a pitying glance.” Women, on the other hand, “were somewhat shielded by the gendered restrictions on their movements and the expectation that any drinking a woman did would be in small amounts, accompanied by others.”

Today, too, what Weiss and Colyer call the “protected narrative” about roofies obscures how often men are the victims of drugging. “In 1996, a media niche emerged that emphasized a particular sequence of events,” Donovan writes. “A woman goes to a bar, party or nightclub, her drink is spiked, she leaves with or is cornered by her assailant and she’s sexually assaulted.”

But the reasons for drugging someone in this way can range widely. Sometimes a perpetrator intends to rob, kidnap, intimidate, sedate or manipulate their victim, or they do it for what Donovan calls “end in itself” reasons. “The goal is perhaps to experience the thrill of chemical mastery over another, or to hope that drugs will cause them to embarrass themselves, or simply for revenge, or just to wreak havoc and produce collective fear,” she explains. 

There are also druggings with somewhat benevolent intentions. “Drugs (or extra alcohol) might loosen up a nervous friend, or introduce them to hallucinogenic insights, or help them cope with acute emotional distress. … Serving up a double or triple shot to a friend who asked for ‘just a little’ is hardly an innovation,” she continues. “Although the outcomes can be equally negative, the motivation is not quite the same, exploitative and dangerous, though the act may be.”

The protected narrative also elides how often roofies are deliberately taken for fun, by the person who ingested them. “The incidence of the problem [of drugging] is minuscule in relation to the problems wrought by willing self-ingestion,” Donovan says. “The contemporary date-rape drugs preoccupation has given a set of drugs typically used illicitly but voluntarily a kind of erroneous master identity as ‘date-rape drugs.’ This label is so pervasive that trafficking and mass seizures of these diverted substances is often misinterpreted by the press, and even some governing agencies, as being somehow informative about the incipient threat of sexual violence.”

Donovan argues that this outsized preoccupation with the relationship between roofies and drug-facilitated sexual assault dovetailed nicely with the waning War on Drugs in the 1990s. Lawmakers were able to frame “date-rape drugs” as a new threat, and did so in a way that failed to address both the motivations for drug use and the root causes of sexual violence. “When President Bill Clinton signed the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000 for instance, he noted that one of the targets of the bill, GHB, was ‘a drug that is abused for its psychoactive effects and, less frequently but more perniciously, used as a tool by sexual predators,’” Donovan says. “The bill that resulted in the law was quite unabashed in its desire to essentially assign a new predatory identity to GHB despite acknowledging its primarily recreational use.”

But the so-called “date-rape drugs” of the 1990s — especially what Donovan calls the “big three”: Rohypnol, GHB and ketamine — didn’t pose a new threat. “Contrary to current claims that there are distinct and new substances for nefarious purposes, drugging has always been a possibility,” she explains, “particularly since the rise of synthetic anesthetics in the mid-1800s.” In other words, before there was the roofie, there was the Mickey, the knockout drop and the poppy plant

Donovan says that framing the problem as being about particular drugs, rather than about the root causes of sexual assault, isn’t helpful. “Misdirection about the nature of this threat impedes our understanding of real cases,” she says, “as well as diverts attention, once again, from the opportunism exercised by violent actors such as rapists.”

After all, most cases of sexual assault don’t conform to the protected narrative of drink spiking. “In most reported cases, the victim is already trusting of the predator, and is often already in a private location,” Donovan explains. “The problem in seeking justice for sexual assault victims is both ideological and practical, not legal. Ideological, because victims often blame themselves, and because some criminal justice agencies are discouraging to victims. Practical, because much like the more ordinary circumstances of interpersonal violence, proof is difficult.”

There’s also a tacit undercurrent of paternalistic sexism in the protected narrative about drug-facilitated sexual assault. “Drugging and the fear of it are linked to the increasing freedom of women in modern societies,” Donovan writes. “Even the earliest newspaper accounts of drug rape cases indicted the loss of protection that they believed traditional propriety — lacking, they thought, in many a ‘modern girl’s’ lifestyle — had afforded young women.”

In some ways, then, the panic about roofies is as old as time. “Each time the idea of coerced intoxication develops a new permutation, the problem is understood as stemming from the ominous capacities of a new world,” Donovan writes. “Morality is thought to have declined to a new low, to permit the desire to drug others.” She adds, “Almost without exception, scares about drugging are preceded by an era of boundless and myopic optimism about new psychoactive drugs.”

But there is something unique about the panic about roofies that Donovan hasn’t seen in previous historical moments. “As American drug scares go, the date-rape drugs scare that emerged in the 1990s, and continues through today, had unusual elements,” she explains. “This was the first time that a drug managed to pick up a core identity related to its occasional (and it turns out, not all that common) role in a violent crime. Even the most fervent anti-drug forces, in other words, never managed to shift any illicit drug’s core social identity by naming it along the lines of its worst outcome, either real or in the social imaginary.” She notes that it’s unusual that Rohypnol became the “date-rape drug” when, for example, opium never became a “white slavery drug,” marijuana was never the “youth debauching drug” and LSD never became the “murder facilitation drug.”

Media shapes the “personality” of a drug, and something about the roofie narrative whipped up our deepest — but not newest — fears: women drinking with men in bars, unprotected by the mores of a wholesome, traditional society. “Whatever small number of cases emerge during a particular scare provide a reservoir of meaning,” Donovan says. “Hearing from the authorities — in medicine or law enforcement — time after time that the fear of the problem is much greater than warranted appears to not be much of a damper.”

“Fears are also sometimes enthusiasms,” she adds, “and drink spiking appears to have this quality.”