In a violating and abusive move, sometimes abusers will give drugs to an intimate partner without their knowledge. How often does this happen? We don’t really know. There is no solid research on how often abusers drug their unsuspecting partners.
Some people who work in the field have told me it is rare for a person to drug their partner; I think this is because they are not asking the right questions. When asked, many survivors have described to me their experiences of being drugged without their consent.
Most of the time, victim-survivors who have been drugged are not certain what happened. They may wake up groggy and believe they are hungover, or that their head is clouded from a medication or illness. If the abuser drugs them regularly, they may routinely feel weak, confused and physically or mentally ill. They may feel grateful and dependent on the (abusive) partner who seems to be taking care of them.
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How and Why Domestic Abuse Victims are Drugged
Let’s explore how the deliberate drugging of a partner shows up in the lives of real people. These accounts are drawn from conversations with victim-survivors. Details are changed and they are used with permission. Keep in mind, often those who drug their partners abuse them in other ways, too.
Drugging to Increase Control
Being administered a drug can leave a victim foggy as to the details of what happened. This makes them vulnerable to other forms of abuse.
Lily believes her boyfriend, Mike, drugged her once. He handed her what she thought was cold medicine, but now believes must have been a tranquilizer. She says she woke up ten hours later with no memory of what happened. Together, they laughed about how “tired” she must have been. Months later, Lily discovered that Mike had installed hidden cameras in her apartment. She assumes he installed the cameras when she was “out” from the drug.
Marta’s husband encouraged her to take a regular nap in the afternoon and would sometimes bring her a glass of juice as she was lying down to sleep. She describes waking up extremely groggy from these naps; this has not happened again since they broke up. Looking back, she believes he was drugging her so he could call his girlfriends, go through her phone and computer, order items with her credit card and steal money from her accounts.
Chris drugged his wife the day before she was going to take a drug screening for a new job. She failed the screen and was denied the job. This made it harder for her to leave the relationship.
Drugging to Disable or Even Kill
Victim-survivors who are drugged may have difficulty functioning in daily life. This can increase their dependency on the abuser, making escape more difficult.
Cassie was a healthy woman in her early twenties when she started dating Charlie. After marriage and a couple of children, Cassie began to suffer from hives, stomachaches, joint pain, headaches, weakness and exhaustion. She was barely able to leave her bed. She thought she was depressed and sick with some mysterious ailment. Charlie accompanied her to doctors’ offices, but her symptoms were never fully diagnosed. One day, Cassie overheard Charlie tell their kids that “Mommy is going to leave us soon,” and realized her husband might be poisoning her. She quickly escaped with her children, and all her symptoms melted away. She assumes Charlie was poisoning her through some substance that he placed in the food that he “lovingly” brought to her bedside each day. She was too frightened to contact the police.
Dan reports that his boyfriend, Sam, offered to take charge of his medication for a newly diagnosed illness, and the doctor did not understand why Dan was not getting better. The doctor kept increasing the dosage and Dan kept deteriorating. Dan eventually discovered that Sam had been giving him a different medication altogether and seemed to enjoy watching Dan deteriorate.
In this case out of the UK, an abusive husband drugged his wife so he could take elicit photos of her, and in this case in Indianapolis, an abusive husband drugged his wife and mother of two and then sexually assaulted her.
Drugging to Sexually Assault
Bill Cosby’s alleged use of tranquilizers to obtain sex from women increased public awareness of drug-facilitated sexual assaults. More recently, singer R. Kelly has been accused of drugging and raping at least one woman who he kept in his home. (He was recently found guilty of all charges.)
The Internet is filled with pornography of all kinds, including somnophilia, which is interest in engaging in sexual activity with a sleeping or unconscious person. Of course, under normal conditions if one person begins a sexual encounter with someone who is sleeping, the sleeping person will wake up. Therefore, the sleeping person needs to either pretend to be asleep or needs to be drugged or passed out drunk to fulfill the desires of the somnophile.
If two people agree that one of them will be drugged for sex, this might be termed a “kink” between consenting adults, as long as no coercion is involved. If someone drugs another person without their consent to prevent them from resisting sex, this constitutes several crimes which fall under different categories depending on the state. As with other sexual practices, abusive somnophiles may need to escalate their behavior to keep getting a thrill from it. They might move from having a partner pretend to be asleep to drugging that partner or another person without consent. Here are troubling examples:
Carla’s abusive ex-boyfriend encouraged her to take all her medications at night, including allergy pills, anti-anxiety medication, and sleeping aids. Sometimes he would also push wine on her at dinner, so she ended up drinking almost an entire bottle herself—much more than she wanted to drink. He would wake her up for work the next day, and she thought he was taking good care of her. One morning, she woke up with such severe rectal pain that she cried in the shower, and suspected that her boyfriend had anally raped her after she had passed out. The next time her boyfriend pushed wine and drugs on her, she secretly dumped some of the wine and hid the pills. She still acted as if she was tired and drugged up. She said she pretended to fall asleep, and her boyfriend immediately began to sexually assault her. This triggered the end of their relationship.
Sherrell didn’t know what was happening until she found a video. Her boyfriend had been drugging her and then inviting his friends to have sex with her while she was unconscious. He took videos of these group rapes and sold them on the Internet.
Charlene’s husband, Darron, was physically and sexually abusive. He pressed his wife into a “swinging” lifestyle, insisting that she accompany him to strip clubs, and trying to make her agree to a “wife-swapping” arrangement with his friends. Darron would often mock Charlene for “passing out” after just two drinks. When she was passed out, he would take off her clothes, pose her in strange positions, and take photos of her to circulate among their friends. Darron freely admitted to having sex with Charlene when she was unconscious, telling her that it was her own fault for drinking so much. Charlene did not consider the possibility that he was drugging her until she finally left him and never blacked out again. Darron was a physician with ample access to medications which he may have used to render her unconscious.
Drugging to Reduce Victim Credibility with the Police and the Courts
Some abusers drug their partners to make it harder for them to get police or legal protection. A drugged victim cannot remember what happened during an assault. A drugged victim may look less credible and might be treated by medical or police personal as a “crazy addict.” Some abusers slip substances into their partner or ex’s food or drink so that they will fail a custody-related drug screening.
Anthony drugged Mia, then slashed her wrists. He called for an ambulance, saying that she had made a suicide attempt by cutting her wrists and taking drugs. Mia was transported to a mental hospital. In this case, the ruse was not successful. The doctors at the mental hospital believed Mia and helped her find safe housing and reclaim her home and her children.
Stevie drugged his wife, Selma, then called the police multiple times from her phone, without leaving a message. Stevie welcomed the officers when they appeared at their door, pointed to his passed-out wife on the couch, and told them that she was “a junkie.” After that, Selma hesitated to call the police. Stevie had convinced her that the police would arrest her for being high and would not heed her claims of domestic abuse.
Intimate Partner Drugging Can Lead to Severe Injury—Even Death
When non-medical people give drugs to others, it can lead to severe or permanent injury, and even death.
Without her knowledge, Zion’s boyfriend gave her a powerful sleeping pill and an anti-anxiety drug one evening when she had already been drinking. She had a terrible reaction to this mix of mind-altering medications and began hallucinating and cutting her arms. She was taken to the hospital with wounds that required immediate life-saving intervention. The emergency room ran blood tests; this is how she found out that her boyfriend had drugged her. Zion agreed to a forensic sexual assault exam. The nurse documented clear signs of anal rape. Zion did not remember the rape nor her suicide attempt, due to the drugs. Police took her statement, but Zion refused to name the abuser—she felt too afraid and trapped. She did not trust that the police could keep her safe. Zion believes this episode of drugging was probably not the first time, but this particular combination of drugs caused a near-fatal reaction.
How Does Intimate Partner Drugging Happen?
Some abusers drug their partners with prescription medication, others use street drugs or over-the-counter medications, or a combination of these, sometimes in addition to alcohol. Abusers slip drugs into victims’ drinks and food. They hand pills to a partner, saying they are one thing when they are another. In rare cases, abusers have drugged victims through substances placed in their vagina or rectum.
What To Do When You Think You’ve Been Drugged by an Intimate Partner
If you believe you might have been drugged within the last 24-48 hours, head to an equipped emergency room as soon you can. Do an internet search, or call the police, your local domestic violence agency, or your local hospital to find out where you can go for a forensic examination, often called a “sexual assault exam.” Even if you have not been sexually assaulted, this emergency room is likely to have the knowledge and equipment to conduct a screen for drugging. Not all emergency rooms are equipped to handle sexual assaults or drugging; here is the website of one hospital team dedicated to issues of sexual assault.
You should ask for a forensic nurse examiner or victim advocate to support you. This can make a huge difference in how you are treated in the hospital.
Request a “tox panel,” which includes medications and some “date rape drugs.” (This unfortunate term refers to several different drugs that are commonly used to make a person lose consciousness and memory for what has happened). Most sexual assault kits include materials to test for substances; but the medical staff may not use them unless you mention that you think you were drugged. If you have an idea what drug might have been used, let the medical people know—this will make the testing easier.
If your exam occurs beyond 24-48 hours after an assault, the drugs will not show up in your blood or urine. It may still be possible to test for certain drugs through a hair sample taken 14 to 90 days after the incident.
You should never be charged for a sexual assault exam. If you are not notifying the police, check with your doctor or the hospital to make sure there is no charge to you for the drug tests.
Some states require medical providers to report all sexual assault and/or domestic violence. However, even if this is true in your state, you are not required to speak with law enforcement if you do not want to. In states without mandatory reporting, emergency department staff should ask if you would like them to notify the police.
If you have been drugged and/or sexually assaulted but do not want to identify the abuser, your kit can be identified by a bar code and tracked while you consider your options. This is called “a non-report.” It's important to get a kit processed even if you do not intend to follow through with the police. You may change your mind at a later point, maybe when you feel safer or learn about other crimes this person has committed. The rape kit/tox panel establishes a chain of custody for evidence and preserves evidence that otherwise would rapidly deteriorate if not collected, analyzed and documented.
Most important, if you believe you are being drugged or have been drugged by a partner, get yourself to safety. Contact your local domestic violence agency and make a safety plan with an advocate. Be sure to tell them about your suspicions around drugging.
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Often, it takes a victim of drugging a while to get a clear head and figure out what might have happened. (This confusion is portrayed movingly in Michaela Cole’s HBO series, “I May Destroy You”). If you find pills, syringes or anything else suspicious, either collect them and bring them to the police or take photos of them and store the images somewhere safe.
If you are a professional in the field, routinely ask the victim-survivors you meet if they believe the abuser gave them drugs at any point without their knowledge. If you work with abusers, ask them if they have used drugs to control their partner.
Alcohol and drugs can play an important role in domestic abuse, from abusers who become more violent when they are high or drunk, to victim-survivors who use substances to numb themselves. Some abusers push victims to drink alcohol or use drugs as a way to control them or coerce them into unwanted sex. Drugging a partner without their consent is another weapon in the arsenal of a controlling abuser.
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