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Body + BrainBody & Brain

The Science of Preventing Date Rape

From clever chemical tests to psychological studies, discover what researchers are doing to combat sexual assault.

ByCarrie ArnoldNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Almost two-thirds of sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim.

As soon as Kendra stepped foot on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, she was inundated with advice about how not to get raped. At her first dorm meeting, the resident advisors had lots of information. “We were told we should carry our alcoholic beverages with something over the top at all times so that no one could put the date rape drug into your drink. The warnings were absolutely only addressed to the females,” she says.

After Kendra was sexually assaulted, she often thought back to that advice. Did she not do enough to prevent her own rape? In the late 1990s, when Kendra was raped, sexual assault prevention was in its infancy. Little information existed about how men and women could work to stop rape. “I wish there were better rape prevention programs when I was younger, and that these programs also addressed males,” Kendra says. “I also wish there were better resources for victims.”

Almost every day, the news contains another story of sexual assault. Those stories that make the news are likely only a small fraction of those assaults reported, and only a minority of victims ever makes a formal complaint to police. The math is almost overwhelming: each year, an estimated 237,868 Americans over the age of 12 are raped or sexually assaulted, and nearly one-fifth of American women report having being raped at some point in their lives.

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For decades, the issue was swept under the rug and blamed on the victim. Few wanted to talk about the issue, and even fewer were willing to do so publicly. But after several high-profile sexual assault cases, such as the 2012 rape of a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in which the perpetrators videotaped and broadcast the incident online, people have begun slowly, haltingly, to talk about the issue. Many of the discussions return to the same question: how can we keep sexual assault from happening?

Suggestions have poured in from nearly every segment of the population, ranging from better education for adolescents and young adults to California’s new “affirmative consent” law that requires “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” Opinions on the efficacy and suitability of such measures are perhaps even more numerous than the measures themselves.

Scientists have begun tackling the issue of sexual assault as well. Some are developing educational measures to change the attitudes of would-be perpetrators and help bystanders intervene in potentially dangerous situations. Other researchers are taking a different approach, by devising new methods to detect spiked drinks. It’s too early yet to say if any of these individual techniques will be effective, but scientists believe that a multi-pronged effort may help reduce the number of rapes.

Drug Testing

One night at a party, suspecting her drink has been drugged, a woman surreptitiously dips a painted fingernail into the drink. It changes color, proving her hunch was correct. The story may be hypothetical, but the nail polish is not. This spring, a group of four students at North Carolina State University announced they had developed such a product—one that changes color when it comes into contact with drugs like Rohypnol (also known as roofies), Xanax, and GHB, which are commonly used to facilitate rape. They named the company Undercover Colors, and claim to be “the First Fashion Company Empowering Women to Prevent Sexual Assault.”

“We started working on Undercover Colors because we wanted to use our engineering education to address a problem that has had a very significant impact on each one of our lives,” says Tyler Confrey-Maloney, one of the founders of the company.

The founders, all materials science and engineering students, developed the nail polish after bonding in their Engineering Entrepreneurs Program. Although the polish was initially a class project, they saw its commercial potential and entered it into NCSU’s Lulu eGames, part of the university’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. It won first prize and a total of $11,250. Encouraged, they entered the K50 Startup Demo, were named finalists, and received $100,000 from an interested investor who saw their demo. The money, along with funds raised on their website, has allowed them to hire a social media manager and a chemist to work on the still in-development product.

“We wanted to use our engineering education to address a problem that has had a very significant impact on each one of our lives.”

Color-changing nail polish isn’t the only product designed to detect drugs that are slipped into a person’s drink. An Israeli team working at Tel Aviv University has proposed a color-changing swizzle stick that you could use to stir your drink and would indicate if GHB, Rohypnol, or ketamine were present.

While the swizzle stick and nail polish both show promise, the only product that is currently available is a coaster by a Tallahassee, Florida, company called Drink Safe Technologies. The coaster, says company president and owner Lance Norris, banks on the fact that most of us slosh and spill our drinks. Place this coaster under your drink and the test strips will turn from green to blue in the presence of GHB or pink to blue in the presence of ketamine. Not one to spill your drink? You can easily drip some liquid on the coaster with a finger or a straw.

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As Norris sees it, the coaster has several advantages over nail polish and swizzle sticks. Other companies, he says, are “going to have to get FDA approval because the chemical that’s in the nail polish or the straw is coming into direct contact with your drink and could leech into it. With the coaster, you put the drink on your fingertip or your straw and then place it on the chemical, so it’s never actually getting into your body.”

Institutions have begun using the coasters as promotional items and giveaways. They are easily stored in a wallet or purse, and they don’t have an expiration date. Plus, a user doesn’t have to make sure to paint their nails.

Still, the coaster isn’t perfect, Norris admits. The pH of certain drinks interferes with the chemical reaction on the test strip, meaning that margaritas, Bailey’s Irish Crème, and even plain old tap water can’t be tested with the coaster. The cardboard squares also don’t test for the presence of Rohypnol, though Norris suggests this isn’t an issue. The compound, he says, is now rarely used to spike drinks since a formulation change made it slow to dissolve while giving the solvent a blue tint. Although statistics on how frequently any compound is used to incapacitate a potential rape victim are scarce, the coasters do test for two of the most common compounds.

In many cases, though, the perpetrator doesn’t need access to drugs like GHB or Rohypnol. “The number one drug used to incapacitate a woman before an assault is alcohol. They don’t need anything else,” says John Foubert, a researcher at Oklahoma State University who specializes in rape prevention. “The punch at a fraternity party usually has more alcohol in it than a reasonable person could drink in their lifetime.” Many times, especially at college parties, a male perpetrator will pick out a potential victim at the beginning of the evening and ply her with alcohol throughout the night. “These devices could provide a false sense of security by making someone feel safe to drink more because their drink isn’t spiked,” he says.

How much drink-spiking contributes to sexual assaults isn’t clear, as data on how frequently this occurs are essentially nonexistent. A 2009 study in the British Journal of Criminology reported that nearly half of American and British university students surveyed reported that they knew someone who reported a spiked drink, though an Australian study found that, of 97 people who went to the emergency room and reported their drink had been spiked, physicians could only identify nine probable cases. Most of them were simply intoxicated. Certainly, plenty of firsthand reports show that drug-facilitated sexual assault can and does occur, but no one can say for sure how frequently it happens.

Changing the Conversation

Traditionally, the work of rape prevention has been placed on the shoulders of potential victims. This group is generally female, although men can be and are raped. Women are admonished not to wear provocative clothing, not to attend parties alone, and not to “lead men on.” At parties, too, women must be on their guard and never leave a drink unattended lest it be spiked with a drug that could incapacitate them.

When Undercover Colors first hit the news in August, many rape prevention and survivor advocacy groups criticized the product. The onus for preventing rape, they argued, should be on the shoulders of the potential perpetrators, not potential victims. These advocates feel that saying a victim could have used these devices all too easily becomes they should have used these devices. Consequently, if they are assaulted, a victim may be blamed for the attack because they didn’t do more to prevent it.

It’s a mentality that many survivors know all too well, including Kendra. She felt that if she had just done more, maybe it wouldn’t have happened. In a sense, the university’s rape prevention program only increased Kendra’s sense of guilt. This self-blame for her own rape only fueled her binge drinking, her eating disorder, and her low self-esteem. It took years for her to shift the blame from herself to her rapist.

Norris agrees that a victim should never be blamed for an assault, regardless of whether they choose to use a coaster or other device. “I want to give people options to make sure this doesn’t happen to them,” he says.

Berkowitz takes a similar view. “There’s no question that the moral culpability rests with the perpetrator, and we should be doing everything in our ability to limit their ability to commit more attacks. But I don’t think it necessarily follows that taking steps to protect themselves is against their self-interest. It’s a decision that’s going to be worth it for some women, but not for others,” Berkowitz says.

Undercover Colors responded to the commentary in a statement on their Facebook page. “Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink because there’s now a risk that they can get caught. In effect, we want to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators.”


To John Foubert, stopping sexual assault needs more than coasters and nail polish. He has been fighting rape since long before any high-tech gadgets appeared, and he believes that changing the mentality of would-be perpetrators and potential bystanders will have a much more lasting effect. Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University, began his career in the 1990s by showing male fraternity members a video of a rape victim describing their experience. As part of the same intervention, he also talked to the fraternity members about how to support a friend who had been raped. A 1998 study in the Journal of College Student Development found that men who went through the program showed a lower intent to rape. A similar study in 2006 in the same journal showed identical results.

The second part of Foubert’s program, bystander intervention, which helps men recognize when their friends might be in risky situations and trains them to help their friend stay safe, also appears to change attitudes towards rape. After the training, men believed fewer myths about rape, and their attitudes toward survivors shifted. Foubert has begun expanding the programing to women and those in the military.

“Rapists tend to be serial criminals.”

A change in attitude is certainly promising, but a program’s real worth is measured in how well it prevents sexual assaults. Although Foubert’s data is on a small group of men in fraternities, it shows that the program does appear to reduce the number of men who acknowledged raping someone in the year following the intervention. Six percent of the men who joined a fraternity and participated in Foubert’s program admitted to coercing a partner into having sex, compared to ten percent of the fraternity men in a control group.

Early interventions like this may be key to reducing the incidence of rape and sexual assault. “Rapists tend to be serial criminals,” Berkowitz says. Psychological studies of rapists reveal a rather heterogeneous group, although several common elements emerge. Many rapists are experts at rationalizing their behavior and are more likely to commit rapes in areas where the crime is underreported. Alcohol is used in many rapes, both by the perpetrator and the victim. Researchers have found that male rapists often act “macho” and domineering over women, attitudes which can be fueled in all-male environments like fraternities and sports teams. Although some men may not even be aware that what they did could be considered rape, others know exactly what they’re doing.

“It’s not that there is an enormous number of rapists in the country, it’s that there are a small number of people who commit crime after crime because they feel they can do it with impunity,” Berkowitz says. “Even those who are committing rapes against acquaintances are generally serial criminals.”

Although the percentage of rapes reported to police has increased from 30% between 1992 and 2000 to 40% from 2008 to 2012, the majority of these crimes still aren’t reported. Fewer still are prosecuted and result in convictions. RAINN reports that 97% of rapists will never spend any time in jail.

A First Step

That more needs to be done to prevent rape is obvious, but scientists have only begun to look at the issue and collect data on what works and what doesn’t. Detecting spiked drinks is one step, but a lasting reduction in rape means changing everyone’s attitudes on the subject. “A change in policy alone won’t stop rape,” Foubert says, pointing out that the law prohibits underage drinking, but that doesn’t stop most college students. Berkowitz agrees. “Think of how our attitude changed towards drinking and driving over the past few decades,” he says. “We need to use the same thinking and methods for sexual assault.”

Changing the way we think about rape, victims of the crime, and who commits it and how will take time. Whether or not gadgets like color-changing nail polishes and test-strip coasters will do much to prevent sexual assault remains to be seen, and it may be even harder to prove. But they may help in a different way. “They get people talking about rape,” Norris says. And that might be the first step towards prevention.

It’s a good first step, Kendra agrees, but it can’t stop there. If colleges are going to work to prevent rape, it can’t be just a discussion with women about spiked drinks. Not only do universities and other organizations need to include men and women in this dialogue, they also need to make resources available to people who are sexually assaulted. “We have to have a full circle discussion about rape, and not just prevention,” she says.

Photo credit: CaseyHillPhoto/iStockphoto

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