Content Warning: This article contains discussion of drink spiking and sexual assault.
The reopening of clubs and bars and the shift back to “normality” in the nightlife industry has been accompanied by a sharp increase in incidents of drink spiking across the country, with the Guardian reporting that over 250 incidents of spiking, 56 by injection, have been reported to UK police since the start of September. “Drink spiking” refers to the addition of drugs or more alcohol to a drink without the victim’s consent or knowledge is legally considered a form of assault, with a charge resulting in up to ten years imprisonment under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act.
Though incidents of spiking are on the rise nationally, the 167 suspected cases of spiking in Durham over the last three weeks have understandably caused widespread anxiety amongst the student community, with many students no longer feeling safe in clubs or bars. Alongside the considerable fear surrounding these spiking incidents, there is a real sense of anger and injustice. Within months of the world opening back up after lockdown, the freedom to enjoy a night out has once again been taken away, this time by a very real anxiety about being drugged and the consequences that being spiked may bring.
In response to this feeling of injustice, over 1,400 Durham students pledged to participate in the “Durham Night In” boycott on Tuesday 26th October, as part of a nationwide #BigNightIn movement that involved students from over thirty UK universities. The Durham club boycott was chiefly organised by Hala Heenan, the current president of St Chad’s College JCR, not only to protest the recent spiking incidents within the University community, but also to put additional pressure on local clubs and bars to improve their safety measures and take spiking incidents seriously. Tuesday night saw great solidarity amongst students, with several DU and college sports teams encouraging their members to participate in the boycott and offering their support to the “Durham Night In” movement. As a result, dance floors across the city were silent; even North Road, normally full of partygoers, was totally empty.
As much as “Durham Night In” provided an opportunity for students to protest, begin conversations about safety on nights out and educate one another, it was also a call to arms for clubs and bars to do more to protect their customers. Victims of spiking are often at risk of being kicked out of clubs for appearing too drunk, meaning that they’re left to make their own way home whilst extremely vulnerable. In a post published on their Instagram (@durhamnightin) last week, “Durham Night In” described the goals they hope to achieve through the boycott:
“bar and club staff as well as agency staff to receive regular and comprehensive welfare training, for clubs to have a designated and identifiable welfare officer, and for them to provide anti-spiking devices and equipment, such as drinks covers and spiking test strips to aid prevention and detection.”
It is clear that the protest and the media coverage afforded to it caught the attention of Durham nightclubs, with almost all of the local clubs issuing statements in response to the reports of spiking. Both Klute and Jimmy Allen’s promised to implement a zero-tolerance policy on spiking, and several others remained closed on Tuesday in solidarity. Her Campus Durham reached out to Hatfield Feminists for comment on the boycott and the incidents which prompted it, and received the following statement:
“Like so many others, we at Hatfield Feminists have been deeply upset by the recent and troubling increase in spiking incidents that have affected our community. Though we were delighted by those who participated in the ‘Durham Night In’ boycott, we feel there is yet much to do by the University and Nightlight institutions around Durham in order for our community to feel safe and protected on a night out. We would like to see tangible policies created and sustained by said institutions rather than sole responsibility of personal safety being placed on the students.” (Hannah Ridsdale, Assistant Senior Feminist Representative)
Beyond the obvious anger directed at those who spike drinks, the Durham student community has expressed extreme frustration and disappointment towards the University for their wildly inappropriate and victim blaming response to the situation in a now deleted tweet. Durham Wellbeing’s initial response to the increase of spiking incidents within the University during Freshers’ Week told students:
“Drink spiking is dangerous and something you can prevent from happening to you and your friends. #dontgetspiked.”
As well as neglecting to appropriately signpost students to helpful resources, the Tweet put the onus on victims to protect themselves and their friends, as opposed to encouraging perpetrators not to spike by informing them of the serious consequences it can bring. By choosing to avoid the issue of the toxic nightlife culture which has long been a problem at the University, the Tweet alienates victims who might need support after an assault, or want to report an incident. A video apology has since been issued via the “Dialogue Signposts” email circulated on 29th October, claiming that the Tweet was “wrong and should not have been issued.” The fact of the matter remains, however, that the University’s tone-deaf initial response is demonstrative of a more widespread, cultural problem with tackling gender-based violence.
It is important to note that anyone can be a victim of spiking, regardless of their place on the gender spectrum, and that all victims should be treated equally. This being said, a 2016 study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that only 21% of spiking victims were male, suggesting that women are once again being targeted by what is often a sexually motivated crime. The increase in spiking incidents alongside a rise in Public Sexual Harassment reports across the country is demonstrative of the fact that not enough is being done to protect women in the UK. Tangible societal change will come from educating men and increasing access to Active Bystander intervention training. In a cultural climate where we don’t feel safe walking home alone after dark, send each other our locations to be tracked from Ubers, and the Police instil a greater sense of fear than security, we should not also be shouldered with the burden of “not getting spiked.”
If you are looking for ways to become a proactive part of the solution, why not consider joining your college’s feminist society, or writing to your MP and local nightclubs to ask exactly what they’re doing to reduce the risk to their customers. There are so many avenues within the Durham student community which aim to tackle public sexual harassment and gender based violence, including “Our Durham Streets Now” and “It’s Not Okay Durham”. Lending your voice to these campaigns is such an important step in making our community safer, and one which I would encourage you to take.