27th October, 2021- by Siobhan Bahl
In the wake of an increase in spiking and further concerns over women’s safety, Siobhan Bahl discusses the present dangers and what can be done to mitigate them.
When does it stop?
It’s a question that many of us can’t believe we are still uttering in the year 2021. This year, Britain saw the abduction and killing and rape of Sarah Everard by policeman Wayne Couzens- or rather, Britain didn’t see it. This is the point: so much of what women go through on a day to day basis remains unseen. It is not so much that the precautions women take to protect themselves are invisible- it is that until Everard’s death, many of us barely realised why we always asked our friends to “text me when you’re home safe”.
Everard’s story sparked across the country an awakening of women’s collective sense of grief, fear and rage towards society’s attitude to sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The alarm bells have not ceased ringing, with reports of recent ‘needle spikings’ at crowded clubs compounding the threats women face. A survey for UN Women UK revealed that among women aged 18-24, 80% had been sexually harassed in public. The report also detailed that 93% of female full-time students counted themselves as survivors of some form of sexual harassment.
You’ve been with your friends all evening, laughing, singing, dancing. As the night wanes, your excitement for drinking and dancing fades and is replaced with a yearning for a greasy bowl of cheesy chips and your bed. More often than not, you find a group of people and together you parade home. But sometimes it’s just you. Keys gripped tightly between your knuckles, hood pulled up over your head, you walk home, avoiding eye contact with any group of men you may pass. Scrolling through your contacts you try and find someone who you know will be awake to call, be it for the 15 minute walk home or the 5 minute Uber. Head down you walk quickly, you hear footsteps behind you, so you cross the street. Opening the door to your house, with the motions of muscle memory you make sure to text you’re friends “I’m home safe x”
The alarm bells have not ceased ringing “
In the daylight, it’s the same narrative- just a different chapter. Whistles from men hanging from scaffolding, vans speeding past with heckles floating from cracked open windows. Heading to the gym to hit a leg day and knowing eyes will be on you as you squat. I wish this was a story moulded by melo-drama, but it is very far from being fiction. This is what women are conditioned to do in a society were ‘normal’ means ‘risk’. However, the recent needle spikings are so frightening because there is no way to for women themselves to take the precautions to avoid being injected with date rape drugs.
What are the precautions women can take to prevent needle spiking? The answer is not go out. In many ways I can’t help but recall Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, where women are presented as so frightened of a society underpinned by violently misogynistic logics that on the whole they accept their own biological incarceration.
Instagram has recently seen a colourful mass of infographics being circulated and shared on what to do when you’ve been spiked, how to tell if your drink has been tampered with, and basic safety steps for women. But once again, here we are culturally accepting that it is for women to protect themselves, that it is women who have to do the leg work, that it is women who must risk assess every night out, every public event they attend or crowd they enter into. It should not be that women should have to pick between freedom and safety.
While Priti Patel has called for urgent investigations into the scale of drink and needle spiking at nightclubs and parties, the investigation cannot just stop at this flurry of incidents. We need a societal wide investigation into our attitudes towards who takes responsibility for women’s violence. While the abundance of initiatives post Sarah Everard, such as ‘Strut Safe’ and ‘Women’s Street Watch’ and the ‘walk me home’ app which GPS tracks women’s whereabouts and calls emergency services when the individuals does not reach their destination by a given ETA are important, we mustn’t revert back to letting women shoulder the responsibility for change.
Do your part, challenge problematic behaviour “
What is needed is a societal shift in attitude where we see this problem as a collective issue. Where we repeat the mantra, ‘not all women, but all men’. It’s not simply enough to be one of the men who don’t spike, or don’t cat call. Deep societal change requires population wide efforts to nurture a society where we stop asking the questions:
‘But how much did she have to drink though?’
‘Well, she was wearing a fairly skimpy skirt, wasn’t she?’
‘They were both drunk, weren’t they?’
It might not be you, but you are a part of our problematic society. It takes one individual to call out misogynistic behaviour to set an example, to accept being patted down when entering a club, to cross to the other side of the street when walking behind a girl. Systematic change undoubtedly needs to happen, but if we always wait for government to set the example, to pass legislation or initiate investigations, we allow the epidemic of violence to continue to be the ‘new normal’. For now, do your part, challenge problematic behaviour, and let’s have a proactive conversation.