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.
Published: The FADER, December 12, 2017
Illustration by: Sharon Gong
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’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.
“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.”