The date rape test debate

The Drink Detective, a portable kit to test for the presence of date rape drugs in beverages, is now available in Canadian pharmacies.

This past week, Canadian pharmacies started stocking the Drink Detective, a portable kit the size of a credit card that women can use to detect the presence of date rape drugs in their drinks. My first thought was that it’s a great thing. When you go out, you lock your doors to prevent someone stealing your belongings. I didn’t see how buying a date rape drug test kit was any different. At least two of my close friends have been date raped and I know that it not happening to me is due to dumb luck, not any real difference in behaviour. But maybe now there would be something I could do other than just watching my drink.  

But some organizations that work with women who have been raped think the kit might cause more of a problem than it solves. Although she agreed the test could be good if it helped protect women, Daisy Kler of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter told PostMedia: “This is a cynical attempt to make some money, and shame on the company for feeding off the fear that women, reasonably, have of being raped... By focusing on women's behaviour it gives the message that women can somehow prevent these attacks from happening and if they don't it's somehow their fault.”

Kler is absolutely right that our society is at fault for sometimes blaming women for being raped. A few weeks ago a friend of mine was complaining about changes made to camping regulations at Merritt Mountain Fest. When I asked her why they’d made the changes, she replied, “Because a bunch of chicks were too stupid to watch their drinks and got themselves raped.” I suggested maybe a different way of looking at it was that some stupid guys shouldn’t have brought drugs and raped people. Her reply was, “Well, yeah. But girls should watch their drinks too.”

That’s what Kler and other victims’ advocates are talking about. They’re rightfully worried that if women don't use the Drink Detective, it'll give police and the public another reason to blame women for “getting themselves raped” instead of putting the blame on the rapists where it belongs.

For their trouble, Vancouver Rape Relief and other groups that raised concerns about the Drink Detective were pegged as “hand-wringing” women’s organizations by Ian Mulgrew in the Vancouver Sun.

Mulgrew persuasively used examples of date rape cases that resulted in acquittals or dismissals of charges to argue that the Drink Detective “will do what the legal system has been unable to do -- protect women from predators who spike their drinks.”

While I didn’t agree with Mulgrew’s characterization of the organizations' opinions, his argument makes sense: better to protect yourself if you can than hope you might get justice after the fact.

The problem is, in addition to potentially perpetuating a victim-blaming culture, the whole test may just not be as effective as its makers would like you to think.

Quebec pharmacist Maciek Zarzycki told CTV that the test may give false positives and noted that each test can only be used once. “So it's not really intended to test every single drink you're going to take in a bar. It's more for if you're suspicious about a drink.” I'm not convinced I'd know the right time to feel suspicious about a drink, so I didn't find that reassuring.

More disturbingly, Maclean's magazine dug up a peer reviewed study on Drink Detective from 2006, which found that for every 100 drugged drinks, the test gave an average of 31 false negatives. For 100 clean drinks, the test averaged 12 false positives. Conveniently, the results of that study are left off the “Science” page of the Drink Detective website.

And even if the test worked 100% of the time, it might still create a false sense of complacency, since not all date rapes involve drugs.

Given this evidence, I'm not rushing out to buy the Drink Detective, though I'll still be keeping a close eye on my drinks.

It would be nice if we had an easy way out, some product that would make date rape a thing of the past so we never had to worry about victim-blaming and the difficulties in holding attackers accountable. But the Drink Detective is not that product, so we still have to face up to these issues, as uncomfortable as that might be.

More in The Gender Files

Ghosts of Violence Ballet Comes to Vancouver

The Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada is bringing its Ghosts of Violence ballet to Vancouver in early December.

Designer Lisa Bohn shares tips on success and on giving to community

Bring your sketchbook everywhere. Catalogue anything and everything that inspires you. Write down your ideas and never think that just because you are done school means you stop learning.

Book review: Feminism For Real

This year's must-read is Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Copy of Feminism, edited by Jessica Yee, founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.