CW: spiking, sexual assault, harassment.
The first time I went to a gig I must have barely started high school. I went with my father and he carefully pointed out all the abandoned glasses lying around, with no one watching them, and told me that it was one of the most important things never to do in any venue. I was proud of myself for knowing that because it meant that I knew how to navigate adult spaces, how not to be a victim.
It is both odd and entirely usual that I took drink spiking for granted from such a young age. A 2019 BBC investigation found there were more than 2,600 reported incidents of drink-spiking in England and Wales between 2015 and 2019. Yet, until this year, I didn’t even know that spiking alone, without being followed by assault, was actually legally recognised as a crime. People just didn’t seem to take it seriously enough for that – a perception held up by legal records. In Scotland, which in 2018 reported 74 confirmed counts of spiking (a number which was probably already artificially low due to a lack of reporting), not a single case had resulted in a conviction between 2012 and 2018.
What has also become clearer as spiking has arrived in the news this time around is that the actual number must be so much higher. Not only do many people not manage to get a blood test within the 12 hours required to confirm it, but many people also never report being spiked in the first place.
As Drink Aware says, often many people do not report being spiked because they feel ‘embarrassed’. The website doesn’t specify what these people feel embarrassed by – while there is the danger of doing something embarrassing under the influence, things done under the influence of someone else’s drugs shouldn’t be held against you. Rather, the general opinion, repeated in reports and among friends, is that they feel embarrassed, even ashamed, not of what they did, but because they didn’t do enough to prevent it. Getting spiked still seems to be perceived as a crime that only happens when you weren’t smart enough to protect yourself.
That is certainly how I felt. After years of being careful in clubs and pubs and parties, two years ago, my friends and I were spiked on a night out. We did try to tell someone about what had happened. Instead of concern or care, we were made to go through a list of all the different things we had done to protect ourselves, a deeply patronising series of ‘Did you leave your drinks alone? /No/ Did someone else buy you a drink? /No/ Did you try anyone else’s drinks? /No/.’ And eventually, they were able to declare “You didn’t watch the bartender pour your drink, that’s your problem.”
Given that the bartender did not actually pour any of our drinks, this strikes me as a particularly unfair criticism. There had been no ‘making’ beyond the bartender popping the lid off a bottle of beer. The drug could only have been added when the bartender was opening them below the counter. Were we supposed to have leapt over the bar to watch out bottles like alcoholic hawks? What are you supposed to do when the people who are supposed to be looking out for you are the ones making dangerous choices?
I grew up with endless Skins-style parties idealised on the TV, with swinging lights and a fisheye lens to express just how much the character you are watching stumble around a house party has over-estimated their tolerance. I hadn’t realised that the market for that style of party had grown up and made it into nightclubs too.
Drink-spiking is often seen to go hand in hand with sexual assault. The main drive of spiking is people wanting access to other people’s bodies, without needing their consent, or even their consciousness. GHB, Gamma-hydroxybutyrate, the drug we were given, is known as a ‘date-rape’ drug. An overdose can knock you out in twenty minutes. It can kill you if you take even slightly too much. However, it can also be used as a party drug, making you feel euphoric – if you take it carefully. But when you give it to someone without their knowledge or consent, you are once again deciding that you deserve power over this person.
The bartender who wanted to ‘improve the party atmosphere’ didn’t seem to consider there to be anything nefarious behind his actions. Like the friend who gives you just slightly stronger drinks than you expect and laughs at you falling over, they don’t see what they are doing as a crime, but I ended that night walking home alone through the city centre after having been flung down a flight of stairs by a man who in all likelihood has no memory of doing it – GHB also makes you far more violent than you usually would be. It was, luckily, not a targeted attack, but the spiking experience was hardly without consequences.
I stopped going out to clubs and bars. I pretty much stopped going out at all. It seemed clear that only silly, careless people ended up in situations like that, and since I had been one of them, I couldn’t trust myself to go out again.
Yet in the last year, I have realised that it should not be my duty to leave a space because someone else’s actions have made it unsafe. If I left every space someone made unsafe, I wouldn’t be getting out of bed in the morning. Nothing proves this more than the recent influx of needle spiking. After starting as what seemed like another social media rumour, by the end of October, the police have confirmed 24 reports of people receiving some sort of illicit injection. There is no such thing as the perfect partygoer – the more ways you learn to protect yourself, the more effort some people will put into finding ways around it.
I support efforts like the “Girls Night In” boycott as a way of bringing necessary attention to the issue of spiking in clubs. I also believe it is not that victims should remove themselves from the situation, but for perpetrators to be prevented from causing the harm in the first place.
Slowly, this is happening. Numerous organisations are working to reduce drink-spiking rates. There are StopTopps handed out for free by Stamp Out Spiking UK (SOS UK), drug-detecting wristbands in clubs, and crucial training being given to venue staff across the country.
In October 2021, the NPCC issued a statement saying that there have been 190 reports of drink spiking between September and October across the country. I choose, perhaps optimistically, to hope that rather than a sign of a horrifying increase, these numbers are a sign that more people are reporting being spiked – and reporting in time to confirm, rather than being kept silent by societal shaming. It is a tentative hope, but I refuse to let other people ruin my party.
Image courtesy of Michael Discenza