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The Points Interview: Pamela Donovan

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Pamela Donovan is the author of Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). She holds a PhD in Sociology from City University of New York Graduate Center. Donovan taught criminology and sociology courses for 20 years, and left academia to pursue freelance book editing and due diligence investigation. Her main areas of interest are drug and alcohol studies, as well as the small scholarly world of rumor studies. Her previous book was No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends and the Internet (Routledge, 2004).

1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. Well, there are bartenders as part of general audience that might be interested in this topic, and then there are bartenders as bartenders, particularly the ones at nightclubs, who no doubt have an interesting front line view of the current date-rape-drugs scare. As an interested general audience, I’d say that my book is about the ways in which the fear, and occasional reality, of using drugs surreptitiously on people turns out to be related to other dramatic changes in modernizing societies. These changes include the psycho-pharmaceutical revolution that begins in the mid-1800s and really takes off in the mid-20th century. Governments and medical authorities try to create boundaries around usage that ordinary people resist and find ways around. We long for a series of precise and perfect cures, but we, at the same time, fear being controlled by chemically induced states of mind. We don’t feel like we can balance those benefits and risks ourselves. We are techno-utopians, when we feel as if psycho-pharma can deliver us to our real selves, and five seconds later, we are techno-dystopians, feeling as is we are at the mercy of bad actors who want to turn us into zombies.

The changing role of women in society is another key historical thread. Fear of rampant drugging, even when not connected to the threat of sexual assault per se, always seems to take off at times when women are pushing social boundaries and taking more risks. We’ve thrown off certain old mores over the last few decades, and now the proper girl ideal has been replaced by the smart girl ideal: freedom, but no room for error, and everything’s your fault.

Now bartenders specifically find themselves at the center of serial “bar scares” in which a particular venue is tagged as a place where people are getting their drinks spiked. Nearly every time, the scare evaporates without confirmation. Sometimes, bar staff are even accused of spiking drinks themselves. Venues and downtown business associations will often try to respond to these fears by buying any number of coasters, swizzle sticks, and so forth that purport to detect date rape drugs. These items mostly go unused. That fact alone could be the subject of another book. I’d be really curious about bartenders’ views of that.

2. What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book? I think about the current date rape drugs scare as a kind of failed moral panic – a term that both Chas Critcher and Philip Jenkins have suggested about fears without significant social reaction. It definitely fits the category of drug scare better, with a tacit idea that the problem is widespread, rather than a big panic. I linked the rise of this current drugging scare to the first fissures in the War on Drugs in the 1990s. So, two things. First, echoing and elaborating on Philip Jenkins’ analysis in Synthetic Panics (1998), I noted that the drink spiking scare was, and is, used to up the ante on drug harms. It’s an attempt to prop up drug prohibitionism and push back against the tide of bipartisan drug law reform across the country. I’d be interested to learn whether drug and alcohol historians felt that this was true of other periods in which substance prohibitionism was either waxing or waning.

Second, I think they would be interested in the idea I discuss of a drug’s “master identity.” There is such a thorough misunderstanding of what the predominant uses of so-called date rape drugs are. They are common club drugs, essentially, and as recently as the early 1990s, they were thought of that way, just another bunch of drugs that could be used recreationally with some identifiable adverse effects. But now, the “date rape drugs” construct is so solid that claims makers – from newspaper editorialists to legislators to celebrities — can erroneously say “there’s only one reason to possess a date rape drug” and assume that the audience will concur. I’m aware of some other transformations – with marijuana, chloroform, alcohol, even LSD – but I’m sure there are more cases for comparison. And when do these misperceptions matter? What other factors are at play?

3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book? Probably the weird, back-handed blame work involved in the insistence on overestimating the drink spiking problem, in both media and advocacy settings. There’s now a whole body of work from public health and epidemiology, toxicology, as well as victimization self-report studies that together speak to the low prevalence of surreptitious drugging as a standalone offense, let alone a precursor to sexual assault. This is especially true as compared to opportunistic assaults on people who have been drinking and using drugs voluntarily. But the culture as a whole remains somewhat squeamish about directly defending the rights of intoxicated people to be free from violence or exploitation. Spiking and related violence does occasionally happen, but it is far from common, and usually happens in private setting where experienced offenders can control everything about the interaction. When people are drink-spiked in public, it is usually unrelated to a further crime. Yet news accounts insist that spiking is “common” or that the prevalence of the problem is unknowable.

In an understandable desire to not blame victims by talking frankly about alcohol, excessive focus is shifted onto the possibility of drugging. But the cumulative effect of this move is really retrograde – it’s a whitewash that creates “real” victims versus those who were “just drunk.” It’s an attempt to “perfect” victims rather than encourage broader support of voluntarily intoxicated victims, who are the vast majority, and many of whom may always remain uncertain about aspects of the traumatic offense.

This tension is most vivid in current campus scares, but it was already apparent in the saloon era of the early 1900s. Once allegations of drugging enter the picture in particular cases, they tend to become so central as to become the theory of the case, upon which too much rests. And if the drug evidence is unavailable or weak, it then threatens to sink-weight the whole case. It pushes aside the victim, the violence, and the perpetrator as independent realities.

4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon? A few things that I just didn’t have room for in the book! The first is the always new, always reinventing cottage industry of date rape drug detectors. This has been going on for close to 20 years now. The same technology is invented and reinvented over and over, as if it hasn’t ever been tried before. Innovation and science fairs are won, swooning coverage in the press follows, crowdfunding is launched … but not much moves forward. And the products often don’t get used. Most of the products are based on reagents printed into paper, and they aren’t specific enough to be useful – they’ll react to any number of benign things and fail to react to certain central nervous system depressants. Even if they were more accurate, they are hard to field test since the rate of spiking is so low to begin with. Yet they are irresponsibly touted as “helping stop the scourge of date rape” and so forth, although very few rapes happen that way.

Also, there is an interesting flip side to drugging victimization and that’s involuntary intoxication claimed by perpetrators of crimes. There’s a small law review literature on the topic, and some interesting cases lately, but people don’t usually think of this issue when thinking about the drink spiking problem: people who commit crimes after, as they believe, they have been drugged. Involuntary intoxication is an affirmative defense, and you can imagine how difficult it is to prove. I found in some preliminary research that this problem dates from roughly the same time in the mid-1800s as the first drugging victimization scares, often involving the same drugs like chloral hydrate and ether.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration? I listen to a lot of podcasts, and I like the narrative styles of non-fiction in Maria Konnikova’s The Grift (about con artistry) and Manoush Zomorodi’s Note to Self (about how we use technology). I think they’d both be able to pull through the denser and more technical parts of the book without making them sound boring.


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