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Thirty years after Canada made far-reaching changes to sexual-assault laws, many in the field believe the situation is worse than ever. (ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Thirty years after Canada made far-reaching changes to sexual-assault laws, many in the field believe the situation is worse than ever. (ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why campuses are too often the scene of sex crimes Add to ...

Recent years have seen the appearance of pharmacopia of even more effective products, such as rophenol, a powerful sleep medication sold in Europe but illegal in North America, along with ketamine, a powerful veterinary sedative, and gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), a stimulant known as liquid ecstasy.

Rendered unconscious by some chemicals, victims “wake up and can’t figure it out,” says Elizabeth Sheehy, a University of Ottawa law professor. “ ‘Why am I here? Where are my clothes?’ They have flashes of memory. It may take them the course of the day to figure out that something really bad happened, and maybe they go to the hospital at night.”

That may be too late. Few date rape drugs stay in the body for long – some vanish in as little as four hours.

How widespread is the problem? Experts don’t really know, as it is widely accepted that about 90 per cent of sexual assault victims do not report attacks. But in 2009, Montreal police seized an estimated $1.4-billion worth of GHB, and a year later a bust in Vancouver netted an estimated $50-million worth of ketamine. Last year, a raid at an Edmonton couple’s home turned up no less than than 100 litres of liquid GHB.

The problem has yet to be researched widely, but Janice Du Mont, a scientist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, studied 882 women who had reported being sexually assaulted. Using interviews and toxicology screening, she found evidence that 184 had been drugged first.

“The numbers may have actually be higher than what we found because of the short half-life of these drugs,” she says.

When she included those who’d had alcohol, Dr. Du Mont calculated that 64.4 per cent of the victims had been intoxicated in some form.

Anther study, led by Margaret McGregor, a professor of medicine in Vancouver, yielded equally worrisome results. It found that from 1993 to 1999, the number of apparent date-rape druggings referred to hospitals had doubled from 12 per cent from 6 per cent of all sexual assault cases in the city.

‘We need a huge change in social norms’

But date rape drugs and the battle on campus are part of a much larger problem. If, after three decades, Canada’s approach has sexual assault thriving, what more can be done?

As the author of the Queen’s newspaper article put it, “The blue lights and Walkhome [a free escort home from school] are both strategies that put the onus on people to not get sexually assaulted – they don’t target those who might or intend to sexually assault someone.

“How can they be considered effective when, according to one survey, 35 per cent of men said they would commit sexual assault if they knew they could get away with it? ... Why does our university and our student government still have no strategies for targeting potential sexual assaulters?”

Ms. Bentham agrees: “It is not great when campaigns are aimed at warning women,” she says. “Women cannot prevent attacks. Only men can choose not to attack.”

Some campuses have started education programs to persuade men to speak up or take action if they notice someone taking advantage of an inebriated woman.

But U of O’s Prof. Johnson says much more is called for. “What we really need is to challenge the kinds of myths and stereotypes we still live with,” she says. “We need a huge change in social norms, similar to what we did around impaired driving.”

For Lee Lakeman, a Vancouver feminist and sexual-assault activist, the greatest step forward would be a step back in time – to 1983.

At that time, a powerful network of well-funded women’s organizations, lobby groups and a government ministry identified social and legal problems, and proposed remedies. “Out of it came transition houses, rape-crisis centres and research,” she says.

In recent years, funding for women’s groups and shelters has been slashed and the federal Minister of Justice has stopped funding and attending an annual meeting where a broad coalition of women’s advocacy groups used to put their heads together.

Were such a network alive today, Ms. Lakeman says, the flawed consequences of the 1983 sexual-assault reforms would have been refined and reformed.

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