Directing a feature-length documentary was never part of Mike Tolliver’s plan, nor was undertaking the immense task of educating viewers about drug-facilitated sexual assault. But after taking in a friend who’d been drugged and raped, both of those jobs were set in motion. Tolliver and producer Andrea Nordgren — along with the rest of their crew — are finishing production on Erased, a film trying to educate the public about the prevalence of drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA), and the rate at which it goes unreported.
“There is evidence—strong evidence—to suggest that this is the most common type of unreported sexual assault,” said Tolliver. Erased aims to discuss the true effects of these drugs and open up a conversation about rape education and prevention.
Unreported But Prevalent
Finding data on a crime that goes largely unreported provides its own challenge. Tolliver and Nordgren looked to anonymous surveys conducted with both men and women rather than consulting criminal records. The first statistic they found — perhaps unsurprisingly — was that the victimization rates of women were “incredibly high.”
But what was more intriguing was that “men will admit to committing sexual assault via drug-facilitated sexual assault way, way more commonly than any other type of sexual assault,” said Tolliver. “In one research study cited in the film, roughly 6% of the general population that was surveyed admitted to having committed sexual assault in their lifetime,” he added. “Of those that admitted to it 80% of them were drug-facilitated. You get a really different view of the prevalence looking through the lens of anonymous survey versus criminal justice data.”
Though the film isn’t released yet, the trailer is on their website, along with a Kickstarter to donate to the project. One main component of the trailer is Tolliver’s decision to dose himself on-screen with a common “date-rape” drug. This concept didn’t come up until later in production — they initially took the approach of educating people about the drugs themselves. “We had interviews with subject matter experts speaking on what it does to the brain and all that kind of stuff,” said Tolliver. “We ended up taking all of that out because this is such a prevalent thing. You don’t want to basically provide the playbook for ‘here’s the best drug, here’s the easiest or best way to do it.’”
They realized that generally, the only person seeing the effect of these drugs is the perpetrator or rapist themself. “What really happens when someone is dosed with this?” they asked. The desire for more transparency led to Tolliver dosing himself. “From my perspective, it was a pretty big shock to the system,” he said. “I kind of anticipated that it would make me act really out of it and intoxicated. Just fall down and pass out, and that would be the end of it.”
What he instead experienced was a complete and immediate erasure of his memory — which gets to the title of the film. “DFSA is really good at erasing all of its evidence, including victim’s memory,” he said. “That was the thing that we really wanted to highlight: the fact that you can be dosed with something and not even recognize it yourself, still appear somewhat normal to folks around you — no one’s going to bat too much of an eye. But you’ll have zero ability to recollect hours of your life,” said Tolliver. Nordgren added that simply not being able to remember your own actions adds additional emotional trauma.
The film also incorporates footage of interviews with survivors of DFSA, some of whom choose to remain anonymous. Heidi Thomas, one of Bill Cosby’s accusers—and a testifier at the trial which led to his conviction—is among the women who share their experiences onscreen.
Filmmaking in Colorado
Both Tolliver and Nordgren relocated to the Denver area — from Kentucky and Chicago, respectively — and love the Colorado film scene. “I was kind of blown away with how open and receptive and helpful the filmmaking community here is,” said Tolliver.
“You find people just really building their films and the film community and industry from the ground up,” added Nordgren. “Just though pure tenacity in what they’re doing, so the people here are remarkable.” Creating the film during a global pandemic added another layer of difficulty to what’s already a tough undertaking. “I’m a much better communicator face-to-face, so that’s been a challenge,” said Tolliver. “We’ve done the best we can and I can’t complain too much. You definitely have to roll with the punches and make do with the best options you have available.”
Reshaping Rape Culture
Nordgren and Tolliver both agree that sexual assault education needs to focus on people who could be prospective perpetrators, rather than educating potential survivors on staying safe.
“Aside from any kind of moral objection to the way that we’ve treated rape prevention over the past several decades — which is basically telling women how to not get raped — aside from any moral objection to that approach, it simply proven to be ineffective,” said Tolliver. “It doesn’t work. The other way is to engage men in the conversation, and the way I think will be most effective is simply providing a platform for empathy, where they can empathize with someone not as a sexual object, but as a person.”
Some of the subject matter experts consulted for the film discussed studies on the psychology of perpetrators — especially of DFSA. They noticed a shift in morality when drugs were involved, due to the idea that survivors wouldn’t remember the event anyway. “With a little empathy and knowing what the true impact of this is. Even if they never remember it, the trauma is still huge,” said Tolliver.
He and Nordgren maintain that this is not a film made for survivors. It’s a piece intended to educate the public, stop DFSA in its tracks and take steps to shift how rape culture is treated. They hope that by raising awareness about the prevalence of this crime and showing viewers the real effects of these drugs, some change can be put in motion. Thinking ahead, they’d like to have the film incorporated into on-campus screenings and info sessions for college communities. For now, the crew plans to continue fundraising and have the film ready to be shown at festivals in the fall.
To find out more about the project, the team and watch the trailer, head over to the Erased website.
Support for the film can be made by contributing to their Kickstarter.
All photos courtesy of “Erased”