A young woman, out for a night’s clubbing, suddenly feels the room begin to spin.
She blacks out and wakes up feeling terrible, with only vague memories of the night before and a mysterious throbbing pain in the back of her hand. And then, on closer inspection, she finds a pinprick in the skin. She thinks she remembers a sharp scratch, like an injection, before everything went blank.
It sounds like the stuff of urban myth, the kind of gap-year horror story that starts in a remote backstreet bar in South America and ends in the victim supposedly waking up missing a kidney. Yet reports of so-called “spiking by needle” – young women on a night out allegedly being injected by unseen strangers with something that knocks them out – are being taken seriously by police in cities including Nottingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Heartbreakingly, there have been reports of nervous women going out in thick, needle-proof jeans and leather jackets. However rare these incidents may turn out to be, they fit a pattern of behaviour that for many feels horribly familiar.
Once upon a time, the idea of spiking drinks – slipping drugs or extra shots of alcohol into a glass while the victim’s back was turned, rendering them vulnerable to a would-be rapist or thief – seemed outlandish too. But a BBC investigation in 2019 uncovered 2,600 reports of drink-spiking to police in England and Wales over the previous four years, and now the return of nightlife post-lockdown seems to be bringing old fears out of the woodwork.
Nottinghamshire police have recorded 44 reported spiking incidents since September, 12 of them involving “something sharp’’. Student unions nationwide are collecting accounts of suspected drink-tampering, with reported incidents in Sheffield, Norwich, and Canterbury. After enduring months of cancelled music festivals and shuttered bars, this year’s freshers deserve to be out having the time of their lives. But for some, socialising is now edged with anxiety.
A stranger’s hand unceremoniously shoved up your skirt on a night out has become almost routine for young women. Street harassment – not just catcalling but crude propositioning and being followed by men who may get aggressive if rejected – is normalised. Young women are sick of being told to stick together, or to watch their drinks, when the problem is male violence, not female vigilance. Why should they tie themselves in ever more anxious knots trying to stay safe, while the perpetrators carry on regardless? What depresses many older women, meanwhile, is that, if anything, this kind of everyday harassment seems to have got worse – creepier and more aggressive – over the years, even as the world opens up for younger women in so many ways.
Bad things have, of course, always happened in nightclubs or at parties. Some men have always taken advantage of women who are out of it. But Generation X didn’t go out at night worrying that someone might poison us. Nobody had to offer us lids for our drinks, as they do our daughters. The misogyny we encountered was raw and open, but there’s something so darkly insidious about the idea of furtively doping women into submission.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the spiking-by-needle allegations is that injecting a drug is likely to have a much more dramatic effect than getting someone to swallow it unwittingly, making it harder to smuggle a woman out past the bouncers by pretending she’s merely drunk. Is this really about a desire to humiliate and frighten women, rather than to sexually assault them? Do some men get their kicks simply from making a woman pass out in front of them, as if they had been choked by an invisible hand? Young women are sometimes mocked for being anxious, fragile snowflakes. But given the pressures some of them are under, they seem positively warrior-like to me.
Students unions are already organising a boycott for Friday 29 October under the hashtag #GirlsNightIn, urging young women to take a night off clubbing and go protesting instead. Since there’s nothing anyone can do to stop some stranger with a needle, short of never actually leaving the house, the spotlight is finally falling, as it should, on tackling the perpetrators. 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 or measures already common in student union bars, from better trained security to stocks of spike-proof stoppers that fit over a beer bottle. But while students are right to use their consumer clout, nightclubs won’t solve this on their own.
Drink-spiking remains hard to prosecute while women remain reluctant to go to the police for fear that they won’t be taken seriously, and that even when they do, evidence may be hard to find. Freshers who have overdone it on a night out are too common a sight on overstretched A&E wards to be routinely tested now for suspicious substances; and victims are likely to be confused, struggling to piece together what happened. But that is a cue for police and prosecutors to find ways round these obstacles, not park these cases as too difficult. Right now, spiking has become just another thing men do to women with relative impunity. Barring an overnight sexual revolution, that will change only with a realistic fear of getting caught.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist