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Spiking & Street Harassment: Who’s to Blame?

By Evie Chiles, RAP Project Blogger

At age eleven, my all-girls school offered self-defence classes on a Monday after school, where we learnt to avoid eye contact with men on public transport, keep our keys wedged in our knuckles and tuck our hair in our jacket when walking home alone. I distinctively remember being told that having long hair made me a suitable target for being grabbed on the street, so 10 years later I still tuck my hair into my coat when walking alone in the dark. Only recently are we beginning to question why it should be a child’s responsibility to learn how to avoid someone hurting them. While the narrative does to seem to be slowly shifting to one where the blame is put onto the perpetrators, more work needs to be done to sensitively engage young people in the discourse surrounding male violence.

Remember the horrific TV dramatization in “I May Destroy You” of drink spiking? Women have lived in fear of drink spiking for decades now, yet whenever the phenomenon re-emerges in the media, it is bizarrely treated as if it is a brand-new epidemic. We are reminded to cover our drinks, not to leave them at the bar exposed while on the dance floor, etc as if it is the potential victim’s responsibility. But the shocking recent cases of spiking via injection shouts a crucial message: these safeguarding suggestions cannot solve these heinous crimes. No level of ‘street wise’ behaviour from women can solve the ever-present risk of violence against us.

Few women are unaware of the risk of being spiked. Rohypnol (or ‘Roofie’) has been dubbed the ‘date-rape’ drug, sold in some countries as a sleeping pill to treat insomnia but also used as a pre-anaesthetic in surgery, is illegal in many countries due its use for spiking drinks, since Rohypnol causes physical incapacity and memory-loss. Other substances used range from illegal recreational drugs to prescription drugs, such as tranquilisers, sedatives, and opiates. Victims of drink spiking report feeling sleepy, out of balance, confused and nauseous and often lose consciousness all together. Spiking increases one’s vulnerability, making them easy prey as targets of theft or sexual assault. I believe the act of spiking drinking or by injection should be considered a form of sexual assault.

Recently, university cities across the UK including Leeds, Nottingham, Exeter, and Edinburgh have seen incidents of spiking. Now, though, women and girls are reporting being spiked via injection. Girls have gone viral on TikTok and Twitter showing pictures and videos of needle-like scars and tender, swollen or raised skin around them. One student described waking up with no memory of the night and finding a pin prick in her leg, which left her limping. According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) there have been 198 reports of spiking in the last two months, 56 of those being via injection. Among the endless fears that these incidents have induced across the country is the risk of unsanitary needles causing the spread of HIV and other diseases. Women and girls have been given another reason to fear for their safety.

In response, students at Edinburgh University began the campaign ‘Girls Night In’ with the aim to boycott the UK clubbing scene for one night. As I write this, thousands of women across nearly 40 UK cities and towns have already or are planning a ‘Girls Night In’ boycott to raise awareness about spiking and sexual harassment in nightclub venues. The aim of Girls Night In is to encourage nightclub authorities to improve their systems of protecting women, demanding that clubs implement a welfare officer and advertise a clear zero-tolerance policy on spiking and a procedure for reporting spiking. Clubs and bars are also being asked to give bar staff bystander training and clear instructions on how to support victims of spiking. As I write this, a Parliament petition to “make it a legal requirement for nightclubs to thoroughly search guests on entry” has garnered 172,000 signatures.

The Girls Night In campaign has prompted a worthy debate about whether telling women to stay at home is the appropriate message to be sending in the quest for female empowerment and emancipation. However, the co-founder said that she “understands the irony”, but movements like this need to happen if this issue is going to be taken seriously. I think this movement sends an extremely powerful message: since spiking via injection is such a heinous act which women really cannot protect themselves from, Girls Night In illustrates that even when women do everything in their power to protect themselves, it is never enough when perpetrators find new ways to assert dominance. So, we are ultimately left with one option… to simply stay at home. Not only does this message push for the blame to be shifted onto the perpetrators of violence, as opposed to the victims, but also reflects the deflated, hopeless feeling which women have been left with after this bleak year of news. It says, ‘we’ve had enough’.

Blame has been put on the police, as there is evidence that they fail to thoroughly pursue drink spiking prosecutions. The Guardian reported: “data from Avon and Somerset police suggests that it has recorded 486 drink spiking incidents since 2016, which led to 27 arrests, but no successful prosecutions”. In 2018, the BBC reported that there hadn’t been a single conviction for drink-spiking in the previous five years. Whilst this is clearly a troubling failure of the system, putting blame on the police further avoids putting blame on perpetrators, and bystanders of casual misogyny which ultimately manifests into violent forms of disrespect.

I remain hopeful, as young women and men are actively raising awareness about VAAG (violence against women and girls) and street harassment. We now have incredible campaigns like Our Streets Now, Everyone’s Invited and Girls Night In galvanising their peers, media attention and in turn, the public. The role of social media in engaging youth cultures in ‘Equality Activism’ is genuinely promising. This, I believe, is a game-changer for the future of activism. Since the Me Too movement made its mark on social media in 2017, the platforms continue to provide a safe space for individuals to share their experiences and expose issues in society that can no longer be brushed under the carpet.

It is essential the police throughout the UK change its mindset, stop suggesting women behave differently, start supporting women whose drinks have been spiked, and making judgment calls based on appearances and dress.

But Police Scotland have launched a fantastic new campaign aimed at young men aiming to reduce violence against women by starting with ‘frank conversations’ with men about male sexual entitlement. The hashtag #DontBeThatGuy went alongside their campaign video, which included men discussing what many would consider low-level acts of violence against women, such as guilt-tripping or pressuring a woman into sex, objectifying women, or making disrespectful, sexist comments about them. The video closes with the line “most men don’t look in the mirror and see a problem, but it’s starting us right in the face. Sexual violence starts long before you think it does”. To see a campaign like this, which solely targets men, getting so much positive attention is encouraging. I hope to see a lot more work done to shape future generations from this perspective, and I look forward, with a hopeful mindset, to seeing this impose real change.

You can view the full video below and visit www.that-guy.co.uk for more information on the campaign.