As the Spiking Epidemic Grows, Victim Blaming Rhetoric Rears its Ugly Head

Photo: Pim Myten on Unsplash.

Over the course of the past few weeks, the United Kingdom has seen a significant increase in reports of spiking in bars and nightclubs. During the months of September and October, 198 spiking incidents were reported to police across the country. This is part of a wider increase, as the BBC has reported that since 2015, there has been a rise in the number of spiking incidents, with over 2,600 occurring between 2015 and 2019. Not only is the number of reports alarming, but it has become increasingly common that a new method of spiking is being deployed, as young women across the UK have reported being spiked via injection. As normality and socialising begins to return after multiple lockdowns, it seems that the practice of spiking is returning with it.

Numerous reports of victims being injected with ‘date rape’ drugs and other extremely dangerous substances demonstrate the severity of the developing epidemic that continues to put many young men and women at risk. 56 cases of spiking with a needle were reported over the last two months, making up roughly a quarter of all reports during that time. Sarah Buckle, a second year student in Nottingham, was spiked on a night out and detailed her ordeal to Sky News. Sarah stated “I had no memory of what went on that night, my friends who were with me have pieced it all together”. She also described how she could not speak properly, collapsed repeatedly and kept falling in and out of consciousness.

In response to the recent increase in cases of spiking, a campaign titled ‘Girls Night In’  was launched aimed at boycotting nightclubs on Wednesday 27th October. The campaign initially began in Bristol, but was quickly adopted by university students across the country. Ultimately, thousands of young men and women took part in the boycott, who wanted to highlight that clubs must do more to ensure the safety of those entering such clubs. Thousands have also signed a government petition asking to make it a legal requirement that nightclubs thoroughly search guests upon entry. As of the 2nd November, the petition had over 171,000 signatures.  

This new method of spiking adds yet another dynamic to the already concerning issue of young people, particularly women, being drugged whilst on nights out. The rise in incidents of spiking in recent months suggests that it is still too easy for prepretors to administer such drugs. Whilst many medical professionals have commented on the difficulty of spiking via injection, Dr Shirin Lakhani, a specialist in women’s health, has highlighted how spiking with needles could be done. Speaking to the BBC, Dr Lakhani stated that “Some needles are so thin you can "barely feel [them] going in, if someone's had a drink or so, they might be less inclined to feel the scratch of a needle." She also suggested that it may be easier for those who are familiar with injecting, such as diabetics, to administer drugs through needles.

The recent rise of spiking incidents has clearly been met with significant concern from the general public, and experts within the club industry have responded to the latest increase as well. The Ministry of Sound, one of London’s biggest clubs, stated that "As well as ‘higher intensity’ entry searches our experienced staff perform regular walk-throughs of the venue during our events to check on the welfare of our customers, provide a visible & reassuring presence and to detect and if needed respond to any suspicious activity.” Leeds was another city in the UK in which young people took part in the Girls Night In boycott, and two clubs within the city have announced that they will be increasing security measures within their venues, as well as handing out drink covers to customers.

This is an issue for which the victims are mostly women. Despite the changes that have been promised by clubs and bars, it seems that the onus still falls on women to make changes that will improve their safety on nights out. In an article recently written for The Independent, Katie Edwards highlights how it still largely remains the duty for such women to change their actions on nights out, including bringing drink covers along with them to prevent spiking. Whilst it seems that a step has been taken in the right direction as some clubs, with clubs such as those in Leeds now providing these drink covers, should more action be taken before to ensure that these covers are not needed at all?

Other suggestions that have previously been made towards women to ensure that they are not spiked on nights out include changing the way they dress or what make-up they apply. For many women, and the public in general, measures such as these are misdirected and arguably not constructive at all, as they focus on what the victim can do to change, not what can be done to challenge the perpetrator.

Writing for The Guardian, Gaby Hinsliff argues that it should not be the victims of spiking who have to make changes and sacrifices in order to prevent spiking from occurring, but instead it should fall on the demographic responsible for nearly all cases of spiking; men. Hinsliff writes “If the nightlife industry wants women’s custom, without which they would quickly go bust, then it’s time to prioritise their safety – even if that does mean inconveniencing men with more stringent searches”

The idea that it should be victims of spiking, harassment and sexual assault who need to change their behaviour is something that has long been the mainstream approach to tackling such issues. In March earlier this year, Sarah Everard was falsely arrested by police officer Wayne Couzens, who ultimately kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah. In response to this horrific crime, the advice from the police and many in the general public was that women should change their behaviour, such as avoid walking alone when it is dark. However, why should the onus be on victims to be the solution, and not the perpetrators themselves? In this case, should it not be the Metropolitan Police who must reform in order to prevent their officers from taking advantage of their position of power and murdering members of the public?

More recently in September, 28 year old Sabina Nessa was murdered in a public park in South-East London as she was on her way to a bar. The attack was described as premeditated and predatory, and is another example of the danger that women face in the UK, even in public places. In fact, the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa are just two of 105 murders of women in the last year in which a man was the principal suspect.

Mass vigils and demonstrations followed both of these murders, to remember the victims but to also bring attention to the epidemic of violence by men against women. Following the death of Sarah Everard, a study conducted by UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 18-24 had been victims of sexual assault, with 96% of these women not reporting said assault as they believed that it would not change anything.

This staggering statistic demonstrates the severity of sexual assault and other violent crimes against women, such as spiking, in the UK. However, what is equally as troubling is the reception to such research. In response to the findings, the argument of ‘not all men’ came to prominence, which suggests that it is only a minority of men who are committing crimes of sexual assault against women. The notion of ’Not all men’ does little to contribute to the fight against the common occurrence of sexual assault, and in fact hinders the cause, as it provides a means to deny accountability for men as well as shift the focus of the issue at hand. The accusation was never that all men were responsible for violence against women, yet such a response demonstrates the unwillingness of many to support efforts to end this epidemic.

The issues of widespread sexual assault and the increase in cases of spiking go hand in hand. Both are almost entirely perpetrated by men, and in many instances victims of spiking will be subject to sexual assault or even rape. Spiking is another tool amongst many others that is used by men to target victims and make them more vulnerable, yet the general rhetoric surrounding both issues still largely remains to focus on what the victims can do, not what can be done to stop the problem at source.

There are a number of solutions which can help reduce the number of spiking and sexual assault incidents, such as making it a legal requirement for night clubs to thoroughly search customers upon entry, as requested by the previously mentioned petition. On top of this, more needs to be done in workplaces and within the general public to tackle behaviour that seems predatory. This can be as simple as challenging a sexist or troubling comment made by a colleague, something which was not done in the case of Wayne Couzens, who whilst working as a police officer was nicknamed by coworkers as “the rapist”.

It seems that little will change within the issue of spiking and sexual assault until there is a change in the narrative surrounding the problem. Solutions need to focus solely on the perpetrators instead of suggesting that victims be the ones that change, and in order to shift the response from ‘Not all men’ to resounding support, the general public needs to be fully informed and make a reality of the severity of the situation.