Ian Hamilton: Focusing on GHB ignores the more common involvement of alcohol in sexual assault

Recent high profile sexual attacks have drawn attention to the drug GHB, yet Ian Hamilton underlines how much more commonly alcohol is weaponised in cases of sexual assault

The horrific sexual attacks committed by Reynhard Sinaga have drawn our attention once more to γ-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), the drug he is thought to have used on his victims. Not for the first time, public concerns have been raised about how this drug has been used in sexual assaults. In the right dose, not only has it been found to increase sexual arousal, it can also incapacitate people and cause amnesia—an effect that unfortunately extended the period of time for which Sinaga was able to carry out his sexual assaults. 

The press attention given to this case and the involvement of GHB, however, distracts focus from a drug that is used more commonly in sexual assaults: alcohol. As with GHB, alcohol possesses the same ability to disinhibit, incapacitate, and suppress memory recall. So commonplace is alcohol in our lives that few would be as vigilant about drinking alcohol as they are about the potential for a drink being spiked with a drug like GHB. Although advice about drink spiking is useful, the greater risk that alcohol poses should be highlighted. 

While alcohol is not a cause of sexual assault, reported cases frequently involve situations where alcohol has been consumed, whether it’s by the perpetrator, victim, or both. Our society tends to think about alcohol as a factor in rape cases in a fairly narrow way, rather than appreciating the more frequent role the substance has in diminishing or removing someone’s ability to consent to sexual activity. Whether that’s by compromising an individual’s ability to give consent or the way that perpretrators of sexual assault will take advantage of those intoxicated by alcohol.

As soon as the crimes committed by Sinaga were reported, the home secretary Priti Patel announced that she would instigate a review of the controls and regulations in place for GHB. Again, this merely served to amplify the concerns around this drug and unintentionally distract attention from the role of alcohol. 

GHB is already a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act so access to it has been regulated and restricted since 2013 when the drug was originally classified. Priti Patel’s announcement inferred that something needed to be done to further tighten up controls in relation to GHB, but the policy of ratcheting up regulations around psychoactive substances is not supported by evidence. Moving GHB up from a class C to a class B drug is unlikely to produce the desired effect of reducing access among those determined to use the substance when carrying out sexual assaults. 

The home secretary has reacted to the wide publicity around the Reynhard case, but could have used this opportunity to underline how alcohol is more commonly weaponised in rape and sexual assault. This challenges the benign image that many of us have in relation to alcohol, and highlights the troubling, yet still prevailing, attitudes that some have towards alcohol and sexual assault and who is at fault when the two are combined. 

The longstanding unhealthy relationship between politicians and the alcohol industry makes focusing on alcohol’s role and availability unlikely though. So, we’ll continue to hone in on the exotic or bizarre sounding illegal drugs, rather than the familiar legal one that is all too commonly involved in these crimes.

Ian Hamilton is an academic at the University of York with an interest in addiction and mental health. He previously worked as a mental health nurse with people who had combined mental health and substance use problems. Twitter: @ian_hamilton_

Competing interests: I am affiliated with Alcohol Research UK.