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Photography Long Truong, via Unsplash

What you need to know about women being ‘spiked with needles’ in UK clubs

A nightclub boycott is planned across the UK after several people alleged that they were drugged via injection – Dazed speaks to victims, activists, and experts to find out what’s going on

“I got spiked Monday night,” opened an October 14 tweet by 19-year-old University of Nottingham student Zara Owen. “Please read and share, and mostly keep safe.” The tweet was accompanied by screenshots of a Facebook post written by Owen, detailing her experience of an alleged new phenomenon: injection spiking. Owen – who has since shared her story with a number of press outlets – said she woke up after a night out with no memory, a sharp pain in her leg, and a pinprick where the pain was radiating from.

Owen’s post has since gone viral, unearthing a number of other claims of injection spiking. In Nottingham, 19-year-old Sarah Buckle was also reportedly spiked via a needle, as was an unnamed 18-year-old. Police in Scotland are investigating claims that an 18-year-old Aberdeen University student was also spiked this way. An Exeter University student was rushed to A&E last week after allegedly being injected in the back. Leeds police are also investigating a report of spiking by injection.

21-year-old Leeds Arts University student Georgia Fulop tells Dazed that someone attempted to spike her with a needle in the city’s Beaver Works club on October 15, but they didn’t manage to pierce her skin. “I was walking through the club down some stairs and passed through a group going the opposite direction,” she explains. “My arm suddenly hurt, so when I got down the stairs, I looked and there was a clear liquid running down my arm from a small mark and some tiny scratches. I must have moved as they tried (to inject me) so the liquid missed.”

Fulop had already seen Facebook posts about injection spiking, so says she immediately “freaked out”. After telling security what had happened, a shaken-up Fulop and her friends went home, before going to A&E the following day, where she had a blood test and began a course of Hepatitis B vaccines. “I feel violated,” she says. “It was a terrifying experience.”

In light of the horrifying accusations, a petition has been set up with the aim of making it a legal requirement for nightclubs to “thoroughly search guests on entry”, with suggestions including “a pat down search or metal detector”. At the time of writing, the petition has amassed over 150,000 signatures. Alongside this, a cross-country campaign called Girls Night In has been launched, calling for partygoers to boycott nightclubs on a certain day in each town or city. Boycotts are set to take place primarily in student cities, including Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester, Southampton, Cardiff, London, and more.

“Nightclubs need to acknowledge that safety should always be their top priority,” says Southampton CASHES, the Consent Awareness and Sexual Health Education Society at the University of Southampton, which is organising the October 22 boycott in the city. “As young people, we have the power to impact their business through these boycotts. We hope that this will be a serious wake-up call for clubs to see that spiking is a major issue that occurs inside their establishments, and if they want to keep their customers, they need to tackle this issue to make people feel safe.”

The group cites a number of measures that could help prevent spiking, including “searching people on the door, believing victims who ask for help after being spiked”, and training for nightclub staff “to help someone who has been spiked and look for early signs of spiking”. However, Southampton CASHES adds, “education is a powerful way to stop a problem early on”.

PRYZM nightclub in Nottingham, where Owen claims to have been spiked via injection, says the nighttime industry is “the most regulated part of the hospitality sector”, adding that it “works hard to create a welcoming, inclusive, and safe environment so that all our customers can enjoy a fun night out”. PRYZM says its staff are “fully trained on the issue” of spiking, and that the club operates its ‘We Care’ policy – which includes free water for clubbers, qualified first aiders, chaperones, trained security, and more – supports the ‘Ask for Angela’ scheme, offers free anti-spiking bottle stoppers, protective drink covers, and drug testing kits, operates “100 per cent” searches on entry (including “metal detector arches”), and has “extensive CCTV coverage throughout the venue”.

Many have criticised putting the onus on nightclubs to up security when, as PRYZM said, the industry is already heavily regulated. “Bag searches and a heavier security presence will not provide a meaningful deterrent for spiking without also addressing root causes,” Bryony Beynon, the co-founder of the Good Night Out Campaign, tells Dazed. “Black people are also disproportionately more likely to be targeted for drug searches, so we must think critically about how to avoid any further racial profiling on the doors while challenging gender-based violence.”

“Nightclubs need to acknowledge that safety should always be their top priority. As young people, we have the power to impact their business through these boycotts” – Southampton CASHES

As well as the potential problems raised by the forthcoming nightclub boycott, experts have questioned the plausibility of spiking via injection. Speaking to VICE, David Caldicott, the founder of drug testing project WEDINOS, said it would take a lot of “technical and medical knowledge” to perform this type of spiking, making it “deeply improbable”. “It’s really hard to stick a needle in someone without them noticing, especially if you have to keep the needle in there for long enough – maybe 20 seconds – to inject enough drugs to cause this.” 

Adam Winstock, the director of the Global Drug Survey, added: “There are very few easily accessible drugs / medicines that could be given intramuscular in a small enough volume that people would not notice and the effects would take some time to come on. What you see in the movies is not reality.”

However, several reports of symptoms of spiking and a subsequent needle pinprick shouldn’t be ignored and must be properly investigated. Caldicott told VICE that one explanation could be “that this is some stupid fad of sticking needles into people, but the association between sticking needles into people and people being intoxicated and collapsing seems far-fetched at the moment”. He concludes: “It’s very difficult to explain.”

While those who suspect they may have been stabbed with a needle should seek immediate medical attention, there has been a troubling after-effect of these recent stories: false information about the contraction of HIV. “Online rumours someone was diagnosed with HIV shortly after a needle injury are demonstrably false,” tweeted the National Aids Trust. “Getting HIV from a needle injury is extremely rare. A diagnosis takes weeks. Our thoughts are with those worried by spiking. We hope the facts about HIV can help quell some worries.” 

Whether or not clubbers are being spiked by injections, via drinks, or by any other means, spiking is a serious and prevalent threat to women’s safety. According to The Independent, incidents of reported drink spiking in the UK increased by 108 per cent between 2015 and 2018, with 179 incidents taking place in 2017 alone. A 2016 study found that 71 per cent of spiking victims were women. These are just the reported cases – many women don’t feel empowered to report spikings because of the response of club security, and society’s victim-blaming attitude to violence against women.

“Many nightlife staff blame women who experience sexual assault for ‘getting too drunk’. Perpetrators rely on this attitude to carry out their crimes” – Bryony Beynon, Good Night Out Campaign

“In our training sessions, many nightlife staff still blame women who experience sexual assault for ‘getting too drunk’,” says Beynon. “Perpetrators rely heavily on this social attitude to carry out their crimes, as a woman who has been drugged may be indistinguishable from someone who has drunk too much. Women who have been spiked have told us about door security ignoring them or treating them as a nuisance for this reason. This lack of care creates a perfect storm for perpetrators to remove them from the premises under the guise of ‘looking after them.’ We have to break this cycle.” Beynon says that prevention tactics should include clubs sharing harm reduction information and people calling out unacceptable behaviour “on the dance floor and beyond”.

Nadia Whittome, the Labour MP for Nottingham East – the city in which many alleged injection spikings have taken place – tells Dazed she’s “concerned that there is a vacuum of official information on this subject”. “As for solutions, ultimately we need structural and cultural change to tackle misogyny and male violence,” she continues, adding that “in terms of immediate steps to tackle spikings”, it should be ensured “that evidence is able to be gathered swiftly”, there’s “better support for victims of spiking”, and that staff in clubs receive training “so they can spot the signs of spiking and know what to do if there is a suspicion that someone has been spiked”.

“The atmosphere among women in Leeds is very strange right now,” reveals Fulop. “Most of us are scared by everything, but we’re also angry and at our ends with it. Spiking in bars and clubs has been disregarded for so long – women are finally putting their feet down and saying, ‘This is enough’.”