Universities warned against ‘victim blaming’ in spiking response

Institutions told to ‘join up’ response with local officials, to have emergency medical care and forensic testing procedures in place

August 31, 2022
Club drinks
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English universities are being urged to avoid “victim blaming” and provide “clear reporting and support structures” as they tackle student spiking ahead of the coming academic year.

Last autumn, thousands of female students boycotted clubs and bars after a spate of spikings in which victims – most of them women – were reportedly injected with drugs.  

With the annual return to campuses under way across the country, a group tasked with coordinating the sector’s response on the issue has released its recommendations to universities, published by Universities UK. The Department for Education-convened Spiking Working Group has cautioned institutions against taking a hard-line anti-drug stance, instead emphasising support to victims.

“Do not use communication campaigns that may be viewed as ‘victim blaming’ or that take a ‘zero tolerance’ stance on recreational drug use,” writes Nicole Westmarland, director of the Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, who compiled the group’s advice.

Universities should actively communicate to staff and students that “spiking is a serious crime and is broader than is commonly understood”, she writes, noting that while spiking “predominantly” affects women, “anyone can be a victim” and the practice is not always connected to sexual assault.

A 2021 survey of the UK population found that 6 per cent of men and 11 per cent of women had had a drink spiked, with anecdotal reports suggesting the proportion could be higher in universities. Yet victims run the risk of not being taken seriously by responders, the report notes.

“Women may feel they will be criticised as ‘not taking enough care’ if they accept free drinks or do not consistently use drink covers” while men “may be influenced by myths that this sort of crime ‘does not happen to men’” and transgender students might fear being targets of a hate crime or judged for their social behaviour if they come forward, it says.

To avoid any stigma around gender stereotypes, institutions should use a “range of different spiking scenarios and images” in their communications, according to the recommendations.

Universities have also been told to be transparent in their reporting and support information around spiking and to ensure they “publicise this widely”. They should work with other groups to tackle the issue, so that students and staff “are aware of what your local response looks like” from emergency medical care to forensic testing procedures, which should be agreed with local police, Professor Westmarland and colleagues advised.

But institutions should be wary of investing in crime prevention devices that “increase the amount of ‘safety work’ that women in particular are expected to do”. Instead, they can make physical changes to university venues, such as improving lines of sight, lighting and upgrading CCTV and entry systems.

They should also make clear that perpetrators will not be tolerated, with students found guilty of spiking to be excluded, while offending staff would be dismissed, authors recommended.

“It’s vital that all students feel safe at university,” said Lisa Roberts, vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter and chair of the working group.

“Spiking is a horrific crime that nobody should have to experience or fear. While the true scale of the problem is uncertain, we do know that every student should be able to safely enjoy the social opportunities of university life without feeling afraid,” she said.


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