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The nexus between sexual violence and drug abuse

A 10-minute presentation by Mr Femi Babafemi, Director, Media & Advocacy, NDLEA, training workshop on “Leadership and Gender-Responsive Reporting of Sexual Violence in Nigeria” for journalists representing traditional and new media organisations, organised by Baobab For Women’s Human Rights on March 5, 2022.

Thank you for this opportunity to have this discussion today, which I believe will further enhance the social awareness surrounding the twin issues of SEXUAL VIOLENCE and DRUG ABUSE.

Quite a lot of people in our society are still ignorant of the dynamics of how sexual violence and drug abuse are intricately linked, principally because the subject matter is hardly a public discourse, which is ironic for something pervasive in society, something that negatively affects a large number of people, who are overwhelmingly women, both old and young.

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It is then important that we avail ourselves of every opportunity to discuss these issues, not only to enrich our knowledge as individuals or professionals but to motivate us to push for a paradigm change in the public’s consciousness and social policies. In that vein, my discussion is not about hypothetical situations but real-life, everyday experience and empirical findings from years of research.

Let me start by saying that the relationship between substance abuse and sexual violence goes both ways. That is to say, on the one hand, people who abuse illicit substances are at a higher risk to become victims of sexual violence and on the other hand, people who are not drug users are more likely to abuse illicit substances after experiencing sexual violence.

Drug abuse is not an ambiguous term. It is “the habitual taking of illegal drugs.” Similalry, sexual violence is a term that is easily understood as “any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion (or) acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person’s sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim.” When we talk about sexual violence, we are talking of rape, in all its manifestations and ramifications.

Now, the connection between both: While sexual violence can happen to anyone and in various circumstances, certain risk factors and vulnerabilities can increase the likelihood of it happening to anyone. One of these factors is the use and abuse of alcohol or illicit drugs.

The typical sexual violence scenario involved the use of force by the rapist against the victim. But a far greater number of sexual violence happens without the use of force. How? The victims, typically teenagers or adults, were intoxicated or had their drinks “doped” at the time of the assault, and therefore incapacitated, unable to resist, and violated without consent.

This is how substance abuse and sexual violation intersect, WITH REGARD TO VICTIMS. Over the years, a lot of research, including police investigations of rape allegations, showed that the abuse of alcohol and drug contribute to victims’ vulnerability.

In my years as an editor, I have worked on stories of different shades of sexual crimes. The narrative of the use of “date-rape” drugs or party drugs or any type of psychoactive drug is a constant in most sexual violence crimes. These are substances that made it easier for assailants to sexually assault another person. Essentially, the modus operandi is to spike or dope the victim’s drink and render her incapacitated, unable to resist being raped. In most instances, the victim’s memory is blurred such that she has no recollection of the crime. Several drugs, which I will not mention on-air, are specifically used for that purpose, to knock the victim into a deep sleep, so that when she wakes up, hours later, she usually does not have a clear memory of how she ended up where and the state in which she found herself, nor a clear recollection of what happened in the intervening period.

And even when victims are fully awake during the violation of their bodies, they could hardly resist because they are weakened and robbed of coordination of their limbs by the drug in their bloodstream.

A lot of young and adult women had gone through this hell and are living with the trauma. The scenario is common with young ladies whose so-called male friends got them drunk on purpose to lower or completely take away their resistance and then have their way with them. Let me reiterate that alcohol is a drug, it is a depressant drug. If you are a woman on a date with a male friend or among people who are not your family members, you have to be careful of what alcoholic drink you consume and how much of it you consume, and also always bear in mind that, the more alcohol that gets into your system, the greater the chances of you becoming a victim of sexual violence.

It has been verified by research that “approximately one-half of all sexual assault victims report that they were drinking alcohol at the time of their assault.”

I am not talking about whether substance use causes the assailant or not to commit sexual violence, that is a different thing entirely; rather my focus is on the victim, and the key point here is that perpetrators will not hesitate to use psychoactive substances to incapacitate their victims to facilitate sexual assault. And their chances of doing that is greater if they perceive the target victims as vulnerable to the use and effect of the substance.

For instance, if a lady is known to be an alcoholic, she could be manipulated to get her drunk to the point where the assailant can have carnal knowledge of her, or even get her doped as long as she can accept drinks from him.

This situation becomes even more dangerous for the female target if she is already a known drug user, say, a user of psychoactive substances such as cannabis, as shown by another research finding which indicated that teenagers with drug problems are 18-21 times more likely to be sexually abused. The same thing applies to an adult too.

Some journalists who have worked on rape stories often had that candid moment with victims whereby they speak off record abou the facts of their ordeal, such as “He gave me a drink,” or “What I remembered last was that I was drinking” or “It was after I took that drink that I began to feel unwell…”

There are also incidences of women who MADE THEMSELVES VICTIMS because they abused drugs. While I would not want to be specific on this, I will use one as an example, that is the case of a female Lagos celebrity who went clubbing, got drunk, and only managed to order a ride home using a cab-hailing app (name withheld) at late hours in the night. Obviously, she collapsed in the cab and woke up hours later to find herself violated. The driver seeing her in that condition, had parked in the middle of nowhere, had sex with her and dumped her close to her home address. So as long as we are creating this awareness about sexual violence in society, we must educate women on how to avoid getting into positions or circumstances that put them at risk.

As I said earlier, the relationship between sexual violence and drug abuse goes both ways. The other side is that victims of sexual violence are likely to resort to the use of drugs (especially alcohol) to cope with the aftermath of the assault. Violating someone’s body leaves a lot of victims with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and no matter how hard they try, it is usually nearly impossible to put the experience behind them. They would have to handle the aftermath of shock, flashbacks, intense emotions, and painful memories. And don’t forget that we live in a society where victims of rape are stigmatised. Even where the crime is not known to a third party, the victim herself is conditioned to subject herself to self-recrimination. You know, someone has been violated, and on top of that, because of the negative social construct of rape, she is preconditioned to relapse into shame and self-blame. And where does that lead her? A private hell. In most instances, she’d try to find a way to deal with the trauma. Ultimately, she may turn to psychoactive substances to shut out the emotional torment she is going through.

Either by experimenting on her own, or on the advice of someone, she will invariably find reprieve in the use of psychoactive substances, which could be cannabis, cocaine, or even opioids like tramadol and Codeine.
And here, I will quote some research findings: “Rape victims are 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana, 5.3 times more likely to use prescription drugs for non-medicinal purposes, 6.4 times more likely to use cocaine, and 10 times more likely to use hard drugs other than cocaine.”

This fact is evident in the “post-rape substance abuse habits” of victims of sexual violence who were not using illicit substances before the assault.

I will cite some research findings that support this:
One: “abuse victims reported initiating substance use earlier than their non-abused peers.”

Two: “Women (and even men) who experienced childhood sexual abuse are more at risk for substance abuse issues later in life.”
Three: “Nearly 90% of alcoholic women were sexually abused as children or suffered severe violence at the hands of the parent.”

Sexual violence, or, to rephrase simply, sexually abusing a human being can leave the victim psychologically damaged over her lifetime, especially if she didn’t get the benefit of the care needed to heal her mind. It doesn’t matter whether, the abuse happened in her childhood, teenage years or when she was a fully grown adult.

This is where we all need to work more. We have a lot of women carrying these private stories of sexual violence in their minds and probably using alcohol or some drugs to help them deal with the trauma. The key to effective treatment is a thorough professional evaluation and the development of an individualized treatment plan to deal with both issues, not just one. That is why in the standard rehabilitation procedure for drug users, counsellors and caregivers deal with every component of the addiction, including both the manifest and the latent factors which can likely trigger a relapse.

The key point is this: young and adult women have to be aware that the use of psychoactive substances, starting with alcohol to cannabis to pharmaceutical opioids like Codeine and tramadol and stimulants like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, make them easy prey to sexual assault; secondly, victims of sexual abuse, need to seek proper and comprehensive care and rehabilitation otherwise, there is a high probability they could end up abusing drugs

  • Femi Babafemi, NDLEA’s Director of Media and Advocacy
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