Introducing Fancy Another? – a weeklong series on what young women's drinking culture in the UK looks like in 2022, with zero percent judgement.
Last year the subject of women being spiked on nights out once again made headlines. Spiking has traditionally been the term for when alcohol or drugs are put into someone’s drink without their knowledge or consent. However, in 2021, reports emerged of a new form of spiking which involved individuals being injected in some way without their consent, also known as needle spiking.
The spiking of alcoholic drinks is as prevalent as it is pernicious. According to a recent YouGov poll, one in nine women and one in 17 men in the UK say they have been the victim of drink spiking, and one in three women and one in five men know someone who has been a victim of drink spiking. Due to the nature of the crime, victims may not know what has happened or who did something to them and may suffer self-doubt about what occurred. This means that spiking doesn’t always get reported because victims fear coming forward or feel unable to talk about their experience.
In October several police forces across the UK were investigating reports that women were being "spiked by injection" in clubs. Cities including Nottingham and Edinburgh were initially implicated before stories of similar incidents emerged from Cambridge, where nine incidents were reported between July and the end of the year. Many of the victims appeared to be students at universities in the aforementioned places.
While serious because it can, in theory, incapacitate the victim, the use of needles to inject and spike women with drugs intramuscularly is less well understood.
Police said they were taking reports seriously and Home Secretary Priti Patel requested an urgent update on the situation. At the same time drug experts, such as Adam Winstock of the Global Drug Survey, told Refinery29 that anyone who suspected that they had been spiked by injection should report it while stressing that this sort of spiking is difficult to do effectively because "it would not be easy to go up to someone with a loaded syringe and jab it through someone’s clothing [and it would be] difficult to get hold of the medication to do this." Caution was urged in a bid to avoid panic.
As these stories spread on social media, it became clear that a lack of information about potential needle spiking made it difficult to understand the scale of the threat. Nottinghamshire Police said that the force had received 44 spiking reports dating from 4th September 2021. Twelve of these had alleged spiking by something sharp as opposed to a traditional method of contaminated alcoholic drinks. The first of these 12 were reported on 2nd October 2021. However, widespread and comprehensive data was lacking.
In an attempt to understand how many students were impacted, Refinery29 sent Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to all 24 Russell Group universities, asking how many reports of drink and needle spiking they received between 2017 and October 2021. Universities play a crucial role in data collection because while a spiking victim might not file a police report, they might seek wellbeing support from their higher education institution or instigate disciplinary action against the person they believe to be responsible for spiking them.
Four universities (Cardiff, Durham, Liverpool and University College London) said they do not hold this information or refused to respond, arguing that locating the data would exceed the time and costs limits outlined in the Freedom of Information Act. Twenty universities did respond, however. Their replies confirmed that there is no established, uniform system across universities for recording incidents of drink or injection spiking either formally (through internal disciplinary processes) or informally (via anonymous requests for wellbeing support). As such, it is incredibly difficult to create a clear picture of spiking culture and understand how it is evolving as well as tackle it. In this, there are echoes of the fact that there is currently no uniform and unilateral process for recording and tackling the issue of sexual assault in higher education institutions. Another problem is that in at least one case a student can only make a formal disciplinary report of an incident of drink spiking if the alleged perpetrator is also a student at the university. This means that incidents which occur off-campus (such as in a local nightclub) are unreported.
What is clear from the available data is that drink spiking is definitely happening at Russell Group universities.
A total of eight Russell Group universities recorded more than five reports of drink spiking. They were the University of Exeter, University of Edinburgh, Queen’s University Belfast, University of Manchester, University of Southampton, Newcastle University, University of Leeds and the University of York.
At the University of Leeds, reporting started on the central system in July 2018. Since then they have recorded 12 reports of spiking from students.
Newcastle University has no data on spiking between 2017 and 2020. However in 2021 (January to October) they recorded 22 reports of spiking.
At Queen’s University Belfast, a total of 12 reports were recorded from 2018 to October 2021.
Finally, the University of Exeter said that since freshers' week September 2021, the welfare team has supported 15 students who believe they have had their drink spiked or been spiked.
Only three universities reported incidents of injection spiking. They were Glasgow, Edinburgh and Nottingham. However, the majority of Russell Group universities reported "data not held" for cases of injection spiking and therefore it remains ambiguous how prevalent such incidents are in the UK.
The campaign group Our Streets Now, which wants to make public spaces safe for women, told Refinery29 that data needs to be collected urgently. "The lack of reporting and action taken following incidents of spiking reinforce our findings that students' levels of trust in universities are abysmally low. It is time that higher education institutions take proper responsibility for this, by establishing a culture of trust through easily accessible reporting services, effective support systems and a zero tolerance policy on and around campuses. We deserve free and peaceful access to safe educational spaces and it is time for higher education institutions to start providing this."
There is good news. Universities are getting better at recording incidents of spiking, either through formal disciplinary procedures or informal wellbeing and support services. Some universities (such as Exeter, Birmingham, Warwick and Newcastle) which did not previously record spiking as an offence in its own right have introduced a separate offence for drink spiking in the past two academic years (2020/21 and 2021/22) and will now be collecting data.
Added to that, members of parliament are collecting data too and they want to hear from you. The Home Affairs Committee has launched a new inquiry to understand better the prevalence of spiking and the effectiveness of the police response to it. Members of the public can submit their experiences here for the committee to review until January 19th. The committee would like to hear from Refinery29 readers who believe they have experienced spiking so that this information can inform the inquiry.
Acting Chair of the Home Affairs Committee Tim Loughton MP said:
"Spiking is a truly awful, cowardly act. It is specifically intended to make victims vulnerable and leave them unaware of what is happening to them. It relies on deception, with victims only realising what has happened later and left doubting themselves due to the uncertainty that being spiked causes.
"At present, the prevalence of spiking is poorly understood but we do know that it is something that disproportionately affects women. Refinery29 has done an excellent job in raising awareness about the dangers of spiking, and we know readers are rightly concerned about the threat that spiking poses. As well as an overwhelming link to sexual attacks on women, there are also increasing instances of spiking to access bank accounts, obtain cash and other cases of fraudulent activity.
"That is why we are urging readers to come forward and share their experiences, whether as a victim or as someone who has witnessed spiking incidents. We as the Home Affairs Select Committee want to use this vital information to produce a report and present recommendations for changes in the law or practice by police and other agencies, for the government to consider and then respond to.
"We want to understand what more can be done to stamp this out but also how victims can be better supported in reporting incidents and dealing with the long-term consequences."