We need to talk about drugging
Non-consensual drugging is a common factor in sexual assault, particularly within the music industry. To denormalize abusive behavior, it’s time we faced up to that.
Illustration Sharon Gong
We need to talk about drugging

This story contains reported descriptions of sexual assault.

One morning in December 2014, Esta, a 35-year-old artist manager with over a decade of experience in the music industry, woke up naked in her hotel room bed. Another manager, a man she had met once before, was lying next to her. She had no memory of what happened or how they got there. As she hazily came to, he left without saying a word. The room began to swim into view. “There was blood everywhere, all over the sheets,” she told me in a phone interview. “There was a glass by the bed and a glass in the bathroom.” When Esta grabbed her phone to see what time it was, she saw a message to her best friend that she didn’t remember sending. “Are you having a good time?” her friend had asked. Esta had replied, “I’m not sure anymore.”

The day before, Esta and one of the artists she managed had landed at the first stop on a major, multi-headliner tour. (Unless otherwise noted, the names of all women who gave their stories for this piece have been changed to protect their identities.) At the show, she did her usual trick of ordering sparkling water with a slice of lime — it looks like a vodka tonic — to dissuade others from buying her drinks; Esta never drinks while she’s working. After the show, a small group of people who worked on the tour headed back to the hotel to celebrate, where Esta had her first drink of the night. “I was pretty measured,” she said. “I was aware of what level I was at.”

So what happened? Why did she black out? Had she been drugged? Those questions were raised by her mom and a close friend, and, after speaking to them, Esta worked up the courage to call the manager to ask him what happened the night before. “You were pretty out of it,” he told her. “You did ask what was going on a couple of times.”

Two days later, still in shock, Esta went to the hospital to get checked out. The staff asked her if she had taken anything: “I couldn’t answer — I didn’t know.” She broke down and was taken to see a counselor who she talked with for several hours. “They really pushed me to make a complaint against him,” she said. “But as a woman in music who has a good career and a good reputation, I don't want to be the person who sued a guy for sexual assault. I want to be defined by what I do professionally, not something that happened to me.”

In 2011, a 33-year-old woman named Kimmi met an artist at a music festival in L.A., where they both lived. She had approached him to say she was a fan of his music. They struck up a friendship over text. After talking for several weeks, he messaged her one night to say he was in her neighborhood and wanted to see her. They hadn’t hung out before, but given the friendliness of their conversations, she felt comfortable inviting him over to watch a movie.

Kimmi had poured herself a glass of wine earlier that night, but only ended up drinking half of it. In conversation with the producer, she mentioned that she had hurt her neck.

“I’ve got something that can help with that,” he told her, pulling out a bag full of white pills of various shapes and sizes. “Do you want some painkillers that can help with your pain?”

Kimmi told him she didn’t like taking opiates because they’re too strong and bad for your liver. She also remarked on the number of pills he had on him. “Is this something you do often when you go to girls’ houses?” she asked him. “You just bust out a bag of pills?”

“Oh no, it’s fine,” he told her. “I personally like to take pills. I do them all the time. It’s not a big deal.”

Feeling pressured, she agreed to take half of a painkiller. Any more would upset her stomach, she told him.

The next thing she remembers is coming to and feeling his body on top of hers, raping her. “Stop, stop, please stop,” she said. The room was dark, save for Christmas lights around her bed. He got up and she watched him put on trousers and leave. She passed back out, and didn’t wake up until the next morning, when she struggled to piece together the night before. Her pants had been removed, she noted, but the upper part of her outfit was still on.

“I remember us on the bed watching a movie, and then the next thing I know I woke up and he's inside of me,” she told me over the phone. “That's all I remember. There was no point in the evening when I was conscious that I remember kissing him or him making a move on me. There was nothing that led up to that that I initiated, or that I consented to.”

“I was like, What did he give me?” — Kimmi, L.A.

“I’ve taken painkillers before,” she continued. “That’s why I knew there was something weird going on because even off one half of a pill, I was so out of it. I was like, What did he give me?

Like Esta, she reached out to ask him what happened. He told her, “We hooked up, you know that.” She told him that, no, she only remembered bits and pieces and that she felt violated, adding, “So you just fucking come over to people’s houses and take advantage of them when they are passed out?”

“‘No, you’re tripping, what are trying to imply?’” she recalls him saying. He said he thought she took pills all the time, and that it seemed like she was into it.

Kimmi repeated that she felt violated. After some stressful back and forth, she said he gaslighted her with a half-assed apology: “I respect my mother, I respect my sisters, I was raised to respect women, I would never do that intentionally to anyone.”

Hollywood is not the only industry with nasty secrets. From the top of the charts to the most underground of DIY scenes, across genres and borders, stories are emerging about abusers in music: artists, PR reps, journalists, and more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for the entertainment industries share the same power dynamics and, therefore, the same opportunities for abuse of those powers. But there’s another similarity between the reported cases of sexual abuse at both a mainstream level and within niche communities: the recurrence of drugging.

In the news, there’s Bill Cosby and Dr. Luke. The former admitted under oath that he bought Quaaludes in bulk to use on women he wanted to have sex with. In her lawsuit against Dr. Luke, Kesha said the producer gave her what he called “sober pills,” which turned out to be GHB, a drug associated with date rape.

Meanwhile, on social media, there are more stories. In October this year, a woman called Chelsea said in a Twitter post that the L.A. producer, Gaslamp Killer, had drugged and raped her and her best friend in 2013. (He denies the claims and is suing her for defamation.) That same year, a woman said CeeLo Green drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2012. Months later, Green said in a series of swiftly deleted tweets that “if someone is passed out they’re not even WITH you consciously, so WITH implies consent,” and “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” (Prosecutors said they didn't charge him with rape because of insufficient evidence, but he was later sentenced to three years probation for a drug felony.)

According to Dr. Suzanne Swan, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina, there’s a philosophical thread running through all incidents of drugging: bodily integrity. “Consent is an underlying theme here,” she said. “Just as someone who does unwanted sexual things to another person does not recognize that person’s right to consent to what happens to their own body, a similar violation of consent is at play in drugging.” There’s a level of understanding, if not compliance, when it comes to not touching someone else’s body unless they want you to. By that same standard, you shouldn’t be deciding what substances they ingest, either.

Not only is drugging someone without their knowledge a form of violence, it’s also illegal in some states — although each one has a different understanding of it. In New York, for example, administering a drug that can intentionally cause unconsciousness or other physical impairment, without someone’s consent, is classified as assault in the second degree, and punishable by time in prison. In California, “furnishing or administering” drugs is not seen as assault, but as a drug offense with penalties depending on the type of drug.

“Afterwards you feel horrendous both physically and emotionally, and you can’t always remember what’s happened. Then you realize that everything you thought was part of a bad dream had actually happened to you.” — Kate, London

“Using the word ‘drugging’ can be helpful,” says New York psychotherapist Asher Pandjiris, “but maybe it is one of the mechanisms by which a lot of this sexual abuse and rape actually ends up happening.” If that is the case, then we need to be committed to investigating drugging in as much depth as we have the sexual abuse discussions that have opened up in recent months. So why aren’t we talking about it?

“A lot of it is down to feeling embarrassed or feeling like you can't speak out,” Kate, a 27-year-old London DJ, told me in a phone call. She was drugged in a club in 2012 — she believes the substance was in a bottle of champagne that a stranger topped up her drink with — and, as soon as she realized something was very wrong, she tried to get a taxi home. A man posing as a taxi driver kidnapped her; a number of other men also got into the car, and she was mugged but managed to escape before being raped. The trauma of the experience turned her life upside down.

“Afterwards you feel horrendous both physically and emotionally, and you can't always remember what's happened. Then you realize that everything you thought was part of a bad dream had actually happened to you,” she said. “I was also shell-shocked because you can't believe what you've been through, so a lot of the time, you don't want to share it — some of my closest mates didn't even know it had happened. It's a really hard thing to talk about, you feel violated.”

Katie reported her attack to the police, who told her they had heard about similar cases, but the perpetrators were never caught.

After the attack, Kate didn’t drink or have sex for a year. She also became vegetarian. “I realized I’ve been through a lot on my own emotionally,” she said. “It properly changed my world because I was shocked at how I was still alive.”

Most women who have been drugged don’t end up going to the police. “These things are being reported in therapists' offices, and amongst friends potentially, but not necessarily [to the police],” psychotherapist Pandjiris said in a phone call from her New York office. That’s due in part to the nature of being drugged being extremely disorientating, she said, which makes it challenging for people to be able to speak accurately about what happened to them while they were in a dissociated or disembodied state. Those who do attempt to file official reports often find their experiences pathologized, she said, and called into question. Drugging is notoriously hard to prove: the kinds of substances typically used to drug people without their consent leave the body in as little as 10 hours to two to three days.

“In other words, the various structures for reporting [drugging] are very invalidating,” she said. “And these structures replicate the very structures of violence that I think that a lot of people are up against, in terms of the power imbalances.”

She continued: “Typically what I see is that oftentimes the body, or bodily sensations like unbearable anxiety or feeling nauseous, trip us off to thinking maybe something else did happen. Maybe your body remembers something happening, even if your mind can't really make sense of it. That's often how we have to trace these things back, because sometimes there isn't a concrete way.”

Sometimes that tracing back takes time. For Zoe, who works in music events in L.A., it took over two years to understand what happened to her on a trip to Las Vegas with friends in late 2015, just weeks after she turned 21. After a night out clubbing, during which she had met a tall, attractive man who bought her a drink, Zoe and her friends went back to the hotel room of someone they’d met for a nightcap.

The man came too, and they shared a brief kiss in the room. She doesn’t know where or when she was drugged — or even definitively if she was drugged — but the last memory she has of the night is walking through the hotel lobby with him and her friends. In the morning, she woke up naked in bed with the man in his hotel room. There were four other men in the room, too.

Despite waking up without a hangover, and feeling strangely detached from the situation, “I just thought it was blacking out from alcohol,” Zoe told me over the phone from L.A. “But now, thinking about it, it was such a clean disappearance of memory for such a long period of time, that I could've been gang banged and I would have no idea.”

She filed the experience away to the back of her mind and didn’t think about it again until talking it through with an older friend in recent months. “I think that's probably a coping mechanism we all have in certain situations, because it's scarier to believe someone hurt you when you don't feel it necessarily the way you'd expect to.”

She said part of the reason she didn’t consider she’d been drugged at the time was the guy’s appearance: “He would have no problems hooking up with a girl if he wanted to.”

We need to talk about drugging
1 in 13 college students report experiencing at least one incident in which they know or suspect someone put a drug in their drink without their knowledge.

That is a big misconception. According to Dr. Swan, drugging someone is linked to power and sexuality for some people: the attraction is in exerting complete control over them. “Even though they could have sex with some people consensually, that’s not really what they want,” she told me over the phone, referencing Bill Cosby.

Dr. Swan is one of the few people in the field of psychology to be actively conducting research into drugging. Her area of expertise is interpersonal violence, including sexual violence and intimate partner violence among college students, but in 2009 her students asked her if she had ever considered looking into drugging. She hadn’t. “I asked a few classes, ‘Has anyone ever had this happen or heard of this happening?’ And lots of hands went up.”

When she turned to the literature, Dr. Swan discovered there was hardly any research out there. Part of the reason for that, she speculates, is because of the difficulty in distinguishing between someone who was drugged and someone who had too much to drink.

“On many campuses, there's a heavy binge-drinking culture,” she told me. “So if somebody goes to the hospital and said, ‘I think I've been drugged,’ I think the response often is, ‘Oh, you just drank too much, let's get you some fluids, you'll be fine in a few hours.’ So I think it's a very easy behavior to hide if you're somebody who wants to drug somebody — it's unlikely that you're really going to get caught or held accountable for it.”

In 2016, Dr. Swan and her colleagues published the findings of a study they’d conducted. Over the course of three years, they sent an online survey to a randomly generated sample of students at three universities in the U.S., asking if they had been drugged that academic year, or if, during the same time period, they had drugged someone else or knew a drugging perpetrator. (The response rate was 38.7% and the total number of students in the final dataset was 6,064.)

According to the study’s results, an estimated 1 in 13 college students report experiencing at least one incident in which they know or suspect someone put a drug in their drink without their knowledge.

The results also provided insight into drugging motivations. 83 students said that they, or someone else they knew, had put a drug in someone’s drink without their knowledge. The range of reasons they gave for such behavior was wide: for “fun,” to try to “calm” someone down, revenge on a partner, and sexual assault.

“There’s a general comfort level with drugs, that is maybe more common now in the age of taking lots of legally prescribed drugs for lots of different things.” — Dr. Suzanne Swan

“I don’t want to have been drugged,” said Jennifer, a 30-year-old music executive at a record label in New York, in a written statement she provided to me after a number of calls. “I’ve thought about this more than I’ve ever thought about anything. I’ve searched for any other possible explanation. There is none.”

One Friday night in 2016, Jennifer ate and showered at home after work and went out late. She joined a man in his twenties, who she had been dating, in a bar. They’d been introduced on email through work — they had mutual friends in the music industry — but hadn’t met in person until they’d matched on a dating app a few weeks earlier. He was on cocaine and had been drinking. He was aggressive and cold at first, but then snapped out of it and seemed back to normal. She accepted drinks and coke from him but nothing that would historically cause her a blackout. The last thing she remembers was her friend arriving at the bar after the last call and sharing her beer. Her friend had not taken any drugs.

“That’s where the story ends for both of us,” she said. “Total blackout. I woke up naked on top of my bed around noon on Saturday with a big bruise below my knee and on my neck. The friend who shared my beer messaged me to tell me he had suffered a blackout, had no idea what happened, and felt like he was drugged. I said me too.”

But when Jennifer told the man she was dating that she suspected she’d been drugged, he dissuaded her from looking into it and blamed her for being drunk; he also accused her of flirting with her friend. “I wanted to trust him,” she said. “I didn’t know what gaslighting meant yet. I thought maybe [me and my friend] got drugged by a stranger. I tried to let it go.”

As the weeks went by, Jennifer experienced more dark and alarming behavior from him, including deception and manipulation relating to his work in the music industry, and attempts at romantic coercion and bribery. She told me he also caused her other humiliating and frightening experiences, but she can’t prove that he drugged her.

Beth Martinez, a 35-year-old music publicist based in Los Angeles, who gave her real name for this piece, suspects she has also been drugged by men close to her, including an artist who was a client, and a renowned PR peer. In both cases, she believes the substance that was used to drug her was “Liquid G,” another name for GHB. It’s a highly potent drug that is very easy to overdose on, which is why it is linked with date rape: it can make you fall unconscious for many hours, leaving you vulnerable to abuse.

At a slightly lower dose, GHB can induce a euphoric feeling; users are often more open to sexual experiences, which is why it’s one of the main drugs associated with the U.K.’s chemsex scene, which involves intentional drug-taking for heightened sexual experiences, and is reportedly rife with its own consent issues around dosage and assault. But if you have no idea you’ve been given GHB, then any subsequent behavior can be a source of trauma, especially in a society in which women are already shamed for their sexuality.

“None of these instances have led to date rape or assault,” Beth told me in an email about her experiences with being drugged. “But they did lead to me feeling like I was worthless and a terrible person.”

That might be the point: making someone feel worthless is one of the most insidious ways of trying to hold power over them. Beth went on to give an example of a time she suspects an ex of drugging her.

“He used that incident to shame me and humiliate me and say how out of control I was. It was how he controlled me. I don't know if he ever drugged me again, but I think that was part of his tactic to draw me in. I've seen it done to other women who were a much better catch than their partners.”

Non-consensual drugging within a relationship, with all the emotional manipulation that entails, complicates matters. By the time Selena, a regular on New York’s dance music scene, broke things with off with her ex, she was left with an addiction to benzodiazepines, or “benzos.”

The couple’s relationship had initially involved a lot of consensual drug consumption, mainly psychedelics and ketamine. They were living together in L.A. at the time, and went through a rough patch that included an abortion and bouts of depression. Her ex began buying dissociatives off the dark web, including a liquid substance that he put in a syringe and called “drops.” Selena never knew exactly what was in the syringe, but she suspected it was some kind of liquid benzo. At first, they would both take it before bed to help them sleep. But in the last three or four months of their relationship, when they were fighting a lot, he began aggressively pressuring her to take it on a regular basis.

“If I was getting anxious or depressed or something like that, he'd be like, ‘You need to take some drops,’” she told me over the phone. “That way he wouldn't have to deal with me being upset or panicky or stressed. He wouldn't take it with me. It was just for me to take.”

As Selena noted to me in our call, the line between experimentation and coercion can get very blurry in an environment in which drug-taking is the norm.

“We think of the notion of drugging, and abuse by extension, as a calculated, predatory act that's very well thought-out,” said Pandjiris. “But oftentimes, there are a lot of different factors at play, one of which might be that there is a free flow of prescription and non-prescription drugs.”

Dr. Swan called out something similar. “I don't have data that I can point to that supports this, but I think that there's a general comfort level with drugs, that is maybe more common now in the age of [taking] lots of legally prescribed drugs for lots of different things,” she told me. “A lot of the drugging, at least that we saw among the college students, was with prescription drugs — Xanax is the number one that I saw.”

If you take Xanax with alcohol, then you can triple or quadruple the effect of your drink — students sometimes do that voluntarily, said Dr. Swan, to save money on getting wasted. In that context, putting a Xanax in someone else’s drink takes on the same connotation as that of the archetypal sleazebag guy plying a girl with drinks: “They're going to be drunk and not really know what's going on and be available for sex.

The availability of and permissive attitude toward a variety of drugs certainly seems to be a contributor to instances of non-consensual drugging. That, coupled with the fact that the music industry continues to be awash in patriarchal power dynamics, can create a toxic environment. In fact, the music industry has much in common with a college campus environment: excessive drinking and drug-taking is encouraged; socializing takes place late at night; and there are hundreds of thousands of vulnerable young people all trying to find their place. Recognizing that such a mix provides opportunities for exploitation and abuse, and that the whys and hows of that deserve proper investigation, is a first step toward holding perpetrators accountable, and denormalizing abusive behavior.

It’s important to note that while drugging perpetrators tend to be men, that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones doing it. One of the women that Dr. Swan interviewed in a follow-up study that has yet to be published used to drug her husband if he annoyed her. And one woman I interviewed, who declined to be quoted for this piece, told me she was drugged by another woman she’d gone on a date with.

The term “safe space” has become ubiquitous this past couple of years, used by DIY collectives as much as mainstream clubs. But even safe spaces have the capacity to hide abuse — and those who speak out about it can sometimes find themselves attacked. In reaction to drugging and sexual abuse allegations, community members often question the validity of an individual’s claims as a way of ensuring a sense of moral cohesion in the group, said Pandjiris. This couldn't possibly be true in our community. He’s a good guy. That DJ, he's amazing. He would never do that.

Pandjiris suggests that when a member of an underground music scene, or a social scene on a college campus, is accused of abuse, the whole community can feel implicated. “It's not cool to be violent, it's not cool to be a perpetrator, and we know that,” she said. “Maybe part of the reason why it's uncomfortable to look at [drugging and abuse is] because it does implicate the way drugs function in these communities, at a baseline.”

But willful ignorance is not just irresponsible, it amounts to complicity. “I think it's important that people know that this stuff happens,” Esta told me. “If we stay quiet because it's safer for us, then it's actually more dangerous for everyone else.”

This post was updated on December 14, 2017, to reflect the fact that Gaslamp Killer denies the claims against him.

We need to talk about drugging