What Do You Know About Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault?

By Tara DavisApril 26, 2023

Sexual assault is a global public health problem and a strong predictor of negative outcomes and development of risk behaviors for survivors, according to Fields et al. 2002. Sexual assault can lead to post-traumatic stress, substance misuse and suicide ideation.

April is recognized nationwide as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAPM). This year the Army’s campaign theme is “Intervene, We Are a Team: There is an US in TrUSt. Can They Trust in You?” SAAPM 2023 emphasizes the importance of building a culture of trust through intervention and prevention of unwanted sexual behavior and violence. This year’s campaign also highlights the active role Soldiers play in keeping one another safe and stepping up when witnessing distressing or inappropriate behavior.

Jodee Watters, Director, Fusion Directorate and Lead Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), of the Hawaii Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, remarked on the role that SAAPM plays in raising awareness and educating leaders and Soldiers. Watters says, “SAAPM is a special time of the year. We can consolidate numerous efforts, bring awareness to our community on preventing sexual assault and educate others on how they contribute to these efforts. This year’s theme identifies the need to be someone others can trust. Without trust, a team or community will not be successful in sexual assault prevention efforts.”

The Army is making strides in improving Soldiers’ trust in the SHARP program and their communities, such as through the SHARP program restructure. The goal of this reform is to better support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. Even with this policy and other program changes, there is still a long way to go before we can eradicate sexual violence in the ranks. One of the ways we can forge ahead is by addressing and preventing drug-facilitated sexual assaults (DFSA).

Sexual assault that involves drugs and alcohol can change the way survivors seek and receive treatment because memory impairment resulting from voluntary or involuntary drug or alcohol misuse can lead to questions about what happened and increase feelings of guilt and self-blame. Watters states, “When a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol and becomes a victim of a crime, it can be a harder challenge to journey through the self-healing role of survivor. There are often misplaced levels of blame upon themselves for what happened. No one should ever blame themselves for the criminal acts of another to them, nor should they feel shame.” She also notes that some elements of society are still biased against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and that can affect survivors and their ability to heal as they struggle to understand why this crime happened to them.

Sexual assaults that involve drugs and alcohol are known as drug-facilitated sexual assaults (DFSA). According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, DFSA occurs when alcohol or drugs are used to compromise an individual's ability to consent to sexual activity. This happens when:

•        A perpetrator gives or intentionally forces a victim to consume a substance with or without their knowledge.

•        When a perpetrator takes advantage of someone's voluntary use of drugs, alcohol or another substance.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is involved in at least half of all sexual assaults. Although alcohol is the substance most often involved in sexual assaults, perpetrators use other drugs, such as Rohypnol, to facilitate sexual assaults.

Perpetrators who use drugs to incapacitate often do so to increase others’ vulnerability and target them for criminal acts. “Predators will often target potential victims and create an environment to lower their guard or ability to fight back against criminal behaviors,” says Watters. The involuntary use of drugs by a survivor can lead to relationship distress and self-blame for the drugging (Fields et al. 2002). Watters shares that it is important to be aware of your surroundings when you see an incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault and to remember your own safety when deciding to act. “Be aware of your surroundings and act when you see a situation that is not OK. You can engage directly or leverage the help of others such as the bartender, security or friends. Most importantly, don’t let others be left alone when a situation is demonstrating inappropriate and potentially harmful behaviors.”

People who had been using drugs or alcohol voluntarily at the time of a sexual assault are five times more likely to develop a substance misuse disorder (Fields et al. 2002). This means it’s important for survivors to learn healthy coping mechanisms and receive resources to support them. Watters says finding your peace, no matter what that means to you, is one of the most important steps to healing.

“Survivors can seek counseling to address the challenges that trauma enhances. I encourage finding a positive outlet that helps create mindfulness and resiliency — a mental space that brings joy and healing. Finding a fitness activity, journaling, gardening, volunteering, nature, artistic outlets, cooking and even yoga can be some options. It all depends on the individual person and what calls peace to them. Seek that space and embrace it. Healing is a journey,” says Watters

The Hawaii Garrison is boosting resilience and learning how to prevent sexual assault through two initiatives: a bimonthly Supporting Warriors Action Team (S-WAT) and a SHARP escape room. S-WAT is a mentorship training program that targets junior Soldiers and Civilian employees and provides useful information on how to reduce sexual assault and substance misuse. S-WAT graduates also bring what they’ve learned back to their formations and workplaces and serve as mentors.

Sexual assault and sexual harassment are two pieces of a large, complex puzzle that can be further complicated when both the perpetrator and survivor of sexual violence use alcohol or drugs. This is why gaining explicit consent is nonnegotiable. Explicit consent is a clear voluntary agreement to do something sexual. Nobody can give explicit consent when they are nonverbal, feel threatened or coerced, or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Consent also means that just because a person has given consent to one thing doesn’t mean they have consented to everything, and anyone can take back consent at any time.

If you’re a sexual assault survivor, the assault was not your fault no matter who you were with, how you were dressed or what you were doing. Soldiers, Families and DA Civilians who have survived a sexual assault or want to support someone who has survived a sexual assault can call the DOD Safe Helpline at 877-995-5247 or visit https://safehelpline.org/ for more information and resources.