It was an ordinary Wednesday night until it wasn’t for Claudia Davis. The 25-year-old was tending bar downtown. Everything seemed fine, but as midnight approached, it became clear that Davis wasn’t quite herself. She’d had a couple of shots, nothing that should have left her unable to stand or even recall her own name. Now she’s left with a hole in her memory from that night and the knowledge that she was drugged against her will.
“I was functioning for a while and then I just shut down,” says Davis, who was able to make it home safe that evening thanks to her coworkers and boyfriend.
Needing to be carried into her home, Davis was violently ill the following morning. She was able to piece together what had happened from what others told her, but it would be two more days before Davis no longer felt disoriented. She ultimately found answers at an urgent care facility on James Island.
“When I told the doctor everything, they said I definitely wasn’t just drunk,” she says. “They told me I was the fifth girl just that week to come into that location who had been drugged while downtown.”
Hoping that maybe she could stop anyone else from experiencing what she had gone through, Davis wrote about what had happened on Facebook. To her surprise, she was met with a slew of responses from others in the area who said they had also been drugged in the past. Now she recommends that anyone who suspects that they’ve been drugged against their will to seek medical attention as soon as possible — even if only to secure some small peace of mind.
“I had no idea it was such an issue until I said something about it. Then all these people started commenting that it had happened to them. Not all of them were recent, but a few of them were. Questioning whether you’ve been drugged or not, it’s very scary because you think ‘Was I just somehow that drunk or was someone actually trying to attack me?'” says Davis. “Honestly, it’s such a different feeling than being hungover or drunk. A lot of girls or really anybody is always afraid to come forward when they think they’ve been roofied because they think someone is just going to say, ‘Oh, you were just super drunk.’ I’ve had several people say to me, ‘Are you sure you weren’t just drunk?’ I know my body well enough and I know myself well enough.”
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to make it through such an experience without falling prey to sexual assault. According to Janie Lauve, executive director of People Against Rape, there were more than 300 known cases of sexual assault in the tricounty area in 2016. Of those, 74 were reported to be drug-related — most involving alcohol. But while most people associate sexual assault with Rohypnol, a brand name for flunitrazepam commonly referred to as “roofies,” or GHB, these drugs are not commonly linked to actual attacks.
Over recent years, SLED records show more than 2,000 reported cases of rape throughout the state annually. Of the 744 known cases of sexual assault that took place in South Carolina in 2014 involving substance abuse, 53 were linked to Rohypnol, according to Lauve. Instead, those who commit sexual assault are more likely to use drugs that are more easily accessible, like Xanax, Clonopin, and Ambien. Still, the drug most commonly used is alcohol. Whether criminals are found to ply their victims with drinks or target individuals who are already in a vulnerable state, it’s important for anyone who feels they’ve been sexually assaulted to know that they are not to blame.
“The problem with drug-facilitated rape is that victims become very self-blaming. They think ‘I shouldn’t have been drinking.’ It also becomes very victim-blaming. They are very hesitant about speaking out or coming forward about it because they’re not very sure what happened. They’re scared no one will believe them. They’re scared everyone will blame them,” says Lauve, whose organization assists victims of sexual assault. “It’s very difficult for them to come forward. In our work, we really try to make people know that we believe you. It’s not your fault. No matter how much you were drinking, that doesn’t give someone the right to rape you.”
As director of MUSC’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, Kathy Gill-Hopple and her staff regularly work with victims of sexual assault seeking medical attention, but their duties go beyond simple evaluations. Each member of Gill-Hopple’s team is specially trained to collect evidence, conduct interviews with victims, and carry out any tests that may be necessary to ensure the well-being of patients.
Gill-Hopple says the program takes a “victim-centered” approach that allows the person seeking care to decide how they would like to carry out an examination. The program also maintains a “trauma-informed perspective,” meaning that past traumatic events can often affect how a patient processes what has happened to them.
“Many people have experienced adverse events in their life — as a child, as an adult. That alters the way that they may process another difficult event. We have to realize that when a person experiences a blackout or they think that they may have been sexually assaulted, there is a whole cascade of things that happen in the body that none of us control,” says Gill-Hopple. “The neurochemical releases that happen in the brain affect the way a person reacts, what they can remember, what they are feeling, and how that history of an assault may come out. What that means is that we are aware that the history of an assault doesn’t necessarily come A through Z in a nice, orderly fashion.”
Survivors of sexual assault who seek help at MUSC are paired with advocates from People Against Rape, who offer emotional support, as well as assist them with navigating the legal process associated with the crime. In addition to providing this one-on-one care, the group is also preparing to launch a major outreach initiative for local restaurants and bars, providing employees at these establishments with training to help them identify when someone may be in danger of being victimized. Meanwhile, Gill-Hopple and the nurses in the SANE program will continue caring for those who have experienced a sexual assault and working to dispel many of the myths associated with rape.
“Many members of the community think that rape doesn’t happen all that often and it only occurs when somebody jumps out of the bushes at you and takes you by surprise. That is certainly not the case. That is by far the smallest number of patients we see,” says Gill-Hopple. “It’s much more common for a person to be sexually assaulted by someone that he or she knows, has some sort of acquaintance with, and feels comfortable around. That’s part of what makes this whole issue of drug-facilitated or alcohol-facilitated sexual assault an important issue. Because drugs and alcohol take away those natural inhibitions that we all have … When those normal feelings are blunted with drugs and alcohol, a person becomes much more vulnerable, and there are people who prey on others by setting them up to be in that kind of a situation.”