Women are reporting being spiked by needles, we find out what's really happening

·11-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

I was logging into Instagram one morning, for my regular scroll, when I found myself confronted by photos of purple and blue bruises, spreading out across flesh, encircling – like a dart board – red and pink puncture wounds. Needle marks that – according to the lengthy captions – were indication of something sinister and terrifying: spiking by injection.

Across the country, women were sharing their experiences of blacking out and then waking up to find a puncture wound on their skin. I was devastated, remembering myself as a fresher on those very same nightclub dance floors.

The last year has been an incredibly difficult time to exist as a woman – the senseless killings of Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard a constant gnawing in the back of our minds. That the return to nightclubs – something supposedly joyful – had been saturated with these attacks seemed to reflect the extent of the threat posed to women in their everyday life.

It wasn't long after the stories started to circulate on social media that news outlets began to report on what was going on. A UK wide protest was organised (urging people to boycott nightclubs until they took it more seriously) and police across the country began investigating this seemingly new crime. The home office have now requested an urgent update on the situation and searches for ‘drink spiking’ increased by over 800% [Lloyds].

But, at the same time, some experts commented that the risk of spiking of this nature was low, making it difficult to decipher where information ends and scaremongering begins. Was it really the case that this was just social media hysteria? Or are women's experiences, once again, being dismissed and ignored? To find out what’s really going on, Cosmopolitan spoke to those who’ve experienced spiking, alongside experts, doctors and the police.

Women share their stories

Surrounded by her friends, first-year law student Sian was out celebrating turning 19 at a nightclub in Nottingham. She felt a scratch, as “someone brushed my back, which I assumed was someone's bag or something.”

When I spoke to Sian a few weeks after the attack, she shared images of her back with a red pinprick in the centre. “It was past midnight because everyone sang happy birthday,” she recalls. “According to my friends, there were two boys and I kept saying one made me feel uneasy, so my friend pulled me away, but that’s my last memory in the club.”

On leaving, Sian had no control over her limbs and was unable to walk. She says she felt “trapped inside her body”, with a pain in her back that was both “sharp and burning”. “It must have happened 30 minutes after me feeling the scratch. But I couldn’t express it as I couldn’t control anything. I kept passing out.”

Sian’s friends got her to A&E in a taxi. “The doctor explicitly told me that they don’t know how to handle the situation as it’s new to them,” Sian explained. “They’re following guidance for a user who injects dirty needles.” This means that Sian needs to get a hepatitis vaccine four times to ensure she doesn’t get hepatitis C, and later she’ll have screenings for HIV.

Hospital staff don’t know what drugs Sian may have been injected with, but the attack could impact the rest of her life – “I have this insistent thought to drop out and leave because I feel so unsafe.”

Sarah, who’s 19 and a second-year university student in Nottingham, was on what she described as a “normal night out” in October. Her last memory is her and her friends arriving at the club, and the next thing she remembers it was 9am in a hospital.

Her friends told her she stopped speaking “out of nowhere and was unable to stand”. Her friends tried to put her in a taxi, where she was violently sick and screaming, so they called an ambulance. When Sarah got to the hospital, “staff said it seemed like I understood what was happening, but I had no idea.” Doctors explained that she'd been talking to them and asking questions for hours, but Sarah has no memory of this.

A wound was found on her hand, which Sarah said was “throbbing, the bruise got darker with a weird pinprick in the middle.” Sarah reported the crime to the police, who have since launched an investigation. “My case has been officially recorded as the non-consensual administration of a toxic substance with possible further intent to assault,” Sarah told us. “A scientist working with the police said that the picture of my hand is exactly what a needle mark would look like.” Police were unable to do a toxicology test as it was outside of the optimal window.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

What do the police say?

As of 23 October, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) had collected 198 reports of drink spiking in September and October, in addition to 56 reports of incidents involving a needle. Nottinghamshire Police force has received 44 reports of spiking since September, of which 12 have alleged spiking by something sharp.

“We’re engaging with police forces to understand the scale of the issue, whether there is any link between the allegations they are investigating and to consider any further action,” commented Deputy Chief Constable Jason Harwin of NPCC. “Police take all reports seriously and we would encourage anyone who believes they have been a victim or witness to spiking, in any form, to contact their local police force.”

However, reports of drink-spiking end in extremely low conviction rates. There’s been several spiking reports in Scotland, but in 2018, police forces released figures showing there hadn’t been a single spiking conviction in the last five years. Data from Avon and Somerset police also suggests that there have been 486 reported drink-spiking incidents since 2016, but no convictions, despite there being 27 arrests. Unsurprising then that social enterprise Stamp Out Spiking (SOS) have found that 98% of spiking victims don’t bother reporting what happened to them to the police at all.

What do the experts say?

With stories like Sian’s and Sarah’s all over our newsfeeds, we're rightly scared. “The anxieties and anger felt by young people at the moment are real,” explains Fiona Measham, criminology chair at Liverpool University and director of The Loop, a non-profit community interest company which provides drug safety testing, and welfare and harm reduction services at nightclubs and festivals. But she continues: “The risk of spiking is low and the risk of spiking by injection is very unlikely, but not impossible.”

Experts have also stated that spiking someone by injection would be extremely difficult. Prof Adam Winstock, a trained consultant psychiatrist, from the Global Drugs Survey told the BBC that: “Needles have to be inserted with a level of care – and that's when you've got the patient sitting in front of you with skin and no clothes […] The idea these things can be randomly given through clothes in a club is just not that likely."

Thorrun Govind, pharmacist and chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, agrees that it’s difficult to administer a drug into the body via a needle. “It needs to go into the right layer of skin,” she explained. “I don’t want to minimise the concern, but you'd have to get that needle into the skin long enough for the substance to go in. It would perhaps hurt, so you'd be alert to that, but if you think about the environment this is happening in, you’ve got lots of stimulus and may be intoxicated with alcohol so not feeling pain in the same way.”

She followed this up with some advice about dealing with it if it happens to you or a friend: “encourage the wound to bleed by holding it under water and washing it,” she said. “Try to get somewhere safe, like a hospital or a pharmacy, where there’s a healthcare professional.”

And although Sian is getting tested for HIV, National Aids Trust stated in a tweet that: “Getting HIV from a needle injury is extremely rare.”

Experts are urging us not to panic, but – of course – we believe the victims bravely sharing their stories, either by speaking to us or opening up on social media. And while spiking is dominating our feeds and the news headlines, it's vital we keep the conversation surrounding how to keep us safe in the forefront of everyone's minds, so real action can be taken against, not just this threat, but the others faced by women today.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Turning anger into activism

Across the UK, people are moving to do something with their anger and anxiety. ‘Girls Night In’, an initiative with Instagram accounts in primarily student cities – Nottingham, Edinburgh, Leeds – boycotted nightclubs during October. Girls Night In Edinburgh reported that over 2,000 people participated on the first night, with some nightclubs shutting down in solidarity while those that chose to remain open were empty. There’s no date for another boycott, but there’s an overwhelming sense that this action will continue until something’s done. “We want nightlife venues to ask what measures they can put in place,” explains Petra Mirosevic-Sorgo of Girls Night In Loughborough.

Eliza Hatch, of Cheer Up Luv, a photo campaign to tackle sexual assault, has collected hundreds of spiking stories. “A common thread is a base level of victim blaming attitudes,” she tells us. “When people have come forward to authorities, hospitals or bouncers, they’ve generally been confronted with a dismissal of their experiences.”

It’s critical to take the blame away from victims. “We’re all familiar with the advice – cover your drink, be aware, be on your guard, don't accept drinks from strangers, and don't leave your drink unattended,” commented Eliza. “These are all measures directed at victims in order to "protect" us. My question is: Where is the list of ‘don'ts’ for the perpetrators?”

Many are calling for an increase in nightclub security, with over 140,000 people signing a petition. “But quantity of security isn’t necessarily the issue – it’s the behaviour of the security when someone reports an instance to them,” explains Anna Cowan of Girls Against – a non-profit organisation standing up against sexual assault in the live music scene. “I’ve heard many stories of women reporting being spiked, then not being taken seriously and thrown out for being too drunk instead.” A Cosmopolitan survey found that one in three readers have been thrown out of clubs when they were too drunk, yet it was clear from our report looking into this that many bouncers and nightclub staff are overworked or not sufficiently trained to protect us in these circumstances.

There are also concerns about what this could mean for marginalised communities. Bryony Beynon, co-founder of the Good Night Out Campaign stated, “bag searches and heavier security will not provide a meaningful deterrent for spiking without addressing root causes. Black people are disproportionately more likely to be targeted for drug searches.”

We can’t ignore the voices of survivors

A tweet by Lucy Ward went viral for a reason, in it she shared a text from her 18-year-old daughter about the realities of going clubbing as a woman: "I know by name about half a dozen girls who’ve been spiked, and more who suspect having been. All others have horror stories, some so gruesome they only share them months or years later."

A survey by the Tab found that out of 23,000 students, 2,625 people said they believe they've been spiked – since the beginning of term alone. And almost half of women under 40 have experienced sexual harassment at a live music event.

Ultimately these statistics and stories paint a sad reality – that while spiking by injection is gripping the news headlines at the moment, spiking – in the 'traditional' format of putting something in someone's drink – is still a massive issue, and has been for a long time. Reports are high, yet there’s lots of people who won’t report their experiences, through fear that no one will believe them or that no one will care. Often, victims are dismissed by police, not tested at a hospital or told they’re just drunk.

The fact that experts say spiking by injection is rare, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening – we’ve seen the images on social media, and we know our own bodies. Once again, the onus is on us – we’re covering our drinks so no one slips something toxic into them, police are advising us to carry testing kits with us and now we’re wearing denim to protect our flesh from needles. We deserve more. At the very least, we must believe the voices of victims speaking out in a world that so quickly tries to silence them.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article, visit rapecrisis.org.uk

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