Freshers week typically brings with it an increase in reports of drink spiking, but this year the reports have been stranger than usual. On social media, dozens of female students have spoken of frightening nights out during which they have blacked out, sometimes after experiencing a sharp scratching sensation, only to wake up the next morning to find a puncture wound on their arm, hand, leg or back.
Police forces across the UK are investigating suspected cases of drug spiking by injection, but no definitive evidence has yet been found to support these accounts, and none of the suspected victims who have so far been tested were found to have anything in their systems that would indicate they had been spiked.
Yet this lack of evidence has not stopped the rumours spreading, pushed along by news reporting that has at times been irresponsible. Sophia Smith Galer of Vice News was, initially, alone in investigating the claims with a more critical eye, speaking to several doctors and drugs specialists, all of whom told her that it was highly unlikely that injection spiking was a widespread phenomenon.
David Caldicott, an emergency medicine consultant and founder of the drug-testing project Wedinos, was particularly emphatic: “There are a couple of things that are disconcerting about this story. The technical and medical knowledge required to perform this would make this deeply improbable. It is at the level of a state-sponsored actor incapacitating a dissident, like the Novichok incident.”
While these experts conceded that there might have been some instances of attempted injection spiking, they pointed out that the types of drug needed to incapacitate a victim would require a particularly thick needle, and that the injection itself would be very painful and would take approximately 20 seconds to deliver – made more difficult when administered in the dark and on an unwilling victim.
Which is why Fiona Measham, chair in criminology at Liverpool University, told the Times that widespread attacks of injection spiking are “really, really, really unlikely for all sorts of reasons”, while recognising the emotional pull of the rumours: “It is a part of the zeitgeist of anxiety about safety and nightlife.”
This, indeed, is the motivating force behind the rumours. Injection attacks have long been a focus of hearsay and panic, particularly during the Aids crisis, when stories circulated about HIV-laced needles hidden in cinema seats. But this particular rumour has arrived at a time of heightened – and very legitimate – concern, following the murder of Sarah Everard in March and the subsequent public discussion about male violence against women.
For some, to disbelieve the injection spiking accounts is to disbelieve women in general. When Smith Galer posted a video to TikTok, calmly explaining why the rumours were not to be fully believed, it was met with angry responses and accusations that she was invalidating women’s stories. This despite the fact that Smith Galer is both a young woman herself and also has a strong record of reporting on feminist issues.
I am sure that the lack of sceptical reporting elsewhere was likely motivated by fears of a similar reaction. For while the injection spiking stories are unlikely to be true, they possess what the US satirist Stephen Colbert has described as “truthiness” – they feel true, because they seem to fit into the larger picture of sexual violence.
Young women are right to feel nervous on nights out, but not because of the risk of injection spiking, or even drink spiking, which – contrary to popular opinion – has been mercifully rare. Studies from a decade ago in the UK and Australia of patients who report to emergency departments within hours of a suspected spiking detected sedative drugs in less than 5 per cent of cases.
And yet the fear of drinks being spiked with “date rape drugs” such as rohypnol or GHB has produced an elaborate system of feminine rituals, all of which I also remember performing as a fresher: keep a hand over your glass, take your drink to the loo with you, and keep an eye out for your friends in case one of them gets spiked.
That last element is the most effective – not so much against spiking, as against other dangers. Because while spiking may not be as common as many people assume, young women are justified in feeling an instinctive anxiety around nights out that involve copious amounts of alcohol.
Female participation in public binge-drinking – a cultural phenomenon that emerged in the 1970s – carries with it asymmetrical gendered risks. A very high proportion of female students report having been sexually assaulted at university, and although the vast majority of these assaults are not facilitated by date rape drugs, at least half involve alcohol.
To be blunt, would-be rapists do not need to go to elaborate efforts to procure rohypnol or smuggle hypodermic needles into nightclubs. Not when drunk young women are so acutely vulnerable, and when sexual offenders are so unlikely to be punished.
Women know this. It’s why we watch out for our friends and ask them to text us when they get home. But, at the same time, heavy drinking is difficult to refuse at university. Thus the fear of spiking serves as a form of displacement: translating a fear of the mundane into a fear of the strange.
Now the image of the malevolent syringe has arrived, it is all the more frightening because the usual rituals can’t help. The rumours of injection spiking may be implausible, but they draw from a very real fear, and a very real danger.
[See also: The reckoning: rape culture and the crisis in British schools]