Drugging suspected in majority of sex assaults, hospital study shows

More than half of sexual assault cases treated at The Ottawa Hospital in 2015 involved victims who suspected they'd been drugged, startling new research shows.

Researchers found 54 per cent of victims admitted to Ottawa Hospital in 2015 believed they'd been drugged

More than half of the sexual assault victims admitted to The Ottawa Hospital in 2015 told medical staff they suspected they'd been drugged. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

More than half of sexual assault cases treated at the Ottawa Hospital in 2015 involved victims who suspected they'd been drugged, startling new research shows.

According to a study published earlier this month in the Emergency Medicine Journal, the team at The Ottawa Hospital's sexual assault and partner abuse care centre reported 54 per cent of the patients they treated that year reported being drugged before they were assaulted.

The hospital surveyed 202 victims admitted for medical treatment following an assault, and classified 108 of those cases as "drug-facilitated." 

Dr. Kari Sampsel, the centre's medical director, said patients commonly report experiencing blackouts and memory loss they can't explain.

"That is the most common thing that we hear. Someone says, 'I had half a beer and I woke up 12 hours later and remembered nothing," Sampsel said.

GHB, ketamine

Toxicology testing often reveals the victims were exposed to sedatives or other memory-impairing drugs including gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) or ketamine, as well as more commonly available drugs such as Gravol.

The study is three years old, but Sampsel said drug-facilitated assaults continue to be a worrying problem. 

"Drug-facilitated sexual assault is something that is very common, and is going to continue to be common," Sampsel said.

Drug-facilitated sexual assault is something that is very common, and is going to continue to be common.- Dr. Kari Sampsel

She said there's evidence predators are becoming more aggressive as awareness of their methods grows. 

"In order for someone who is going to be a predator to take advantage of someone, you kind of have to incapacitate them, so I think we are going to see high numbers of this."

In the same year the data was collected, Ottawa police received 659 sexual assault complaints.

Many victims don't go to hospital for treatment, Sampsel said. However victims who believe they've been drugged are more likely to seek medical treatment.

The centre has continued to collect data since 2015, and hopes to be able to track broader trends in the future.

Sunny Marriner, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, said they hear stories from victims about drug-facilitated sexual assault. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

Keeping an eye out

Sunny Marriner, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, said staff there don't see the same proportion of drug-facilitated cases, but she knows they occur.

"By no means does it make up half of the calls from survivors that we receive," she said.

Whatever the circumstances of each case, staff at the centre always start by ensuring the victim they're believed.

"Often they may find people dismiss their experience as drunkenness, when in fact it was drugging," she said.

"I believe perpetrators of sexual assault are going to perpetrate, regardless of what is going on," she said. "Those that would have chosen to use this method would have chosen to use this method 10 years ago as well." 

Marriner urged people to be on the lookout for a friends or strangers who suddenly becomes intoxicated or incoherent.

"People in public spaces can do a lot to try and ensure the safety of others," she said. "Keeping an eye on each other goes a long way in a community."

Swabs, tubes and other sterile equipment used to perform forensic sexual assault exams.
A forensic exam can be performed up to 120 hours after a sexual assault, and the results can be kept for days, months or even years while a victim decides if they want to pursue charges. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

Decision lies with victim

Acting Supt. Jamie Dunlop couldn't provide specific numbers on drug-facilitated assaults, but said Ottawa police do see cases of it.

Dunlop said victims can sometimes be reluctant to come forward because their memory of the event is poor. Ultimately, it's the victim's decision to come forward, he said.

"When it comes to sexual assault the power of when to proceed and how to proceed, we leave that with them."

The research study also revealed that of the victims who report to hospital, only two-thirds agree to be examined for evidence of sexual assault. Of those, only half agree to have the results, collected with what are known as "rape kits," handed over to police.

Increasing that number could help police get a clearer picture of the problem, Dunlop said.