'The stranger-danger archetype is very rare' (Ryan Jenkinson/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

November 9, 2021   6 mins

In the Nineties, during the Aids crisis, tales circulated in chain-letter emails — because Facebook hadn’t been invented — about people being deliberately jabbed with HIV-infected needles. The content varied, but they almost all shared a structure: a person feels a mysterious jab in a public place; they realise they have been attacked with an HIV-infected needle, perhaps via a note saying “Welcome to the world of Aids!”; and then the victim would later test positive for HIV.

It’s not that these scares were completely unfounded. People have been convicted for deliberately infecting others with HIV, albeit through sex, not needles. And in 1989, a group of teenage girls were arrested for jabbing women with pins in New York “for fun”. But if there was ever a case of someone infected with HIV by a deliberate needle attack, I can’t find any record of it. The panic was essentially an urban legend, like razor blades hidden in Halloween sweets.

Now, students are reporting being jabbed with needles in nightclubs, not to spread HIV but to drug them. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has called for the police to look into it. It’s part of a wider concern about drink spiking, which recently inspired a national boycott of nightclubs, “Girls Night In”. But how worried should we be?

First, let’s talk about needle druggings. There are stories. In the US, for instance, eight people died at a festival, apparently crushed during a crowd surge. There were unrelated reports of a security guard and others being jabbed with a needle. But none of them have been confirmed.

And jabbing someone with a needle is not easy. One academic I spoke to said that “incapacitating someone with a needle is something the NKVD [the Russian secret police] would have to do”. It hurts, for a start; and getting it into the bloodstream via the leg or back is “really inefficient”. The dosing would be amazingly hard to get right, as would doing it without someone noticing for the several seconds it takes to press the plunger on the syringe. The idea that it’s widespread is incredibly unlikely.

But there are claims, meanwhile, of an “epidemic” of drink spiking. There’s certainly been an increase in the number of cases reported — Harry Sumnall, a professor of substance use at Liverpool John Moores University, says that the number of police-reported incidents has gone up from about 150 in 2006 to 500-600 a year more recently. Of course, that’s not the same as the actual act becoming more common.

Academics and experts I have spoken to are all careful to say that it is important to listen when people say they’ve been drugged. But it’s also important to remember that people’s subjective experiences are not always reliable. As Paul North, a former drug treatment worker and the director of non-profit advocacy organisation Volteface, told me, there are a huge number of anecdotal reports. But it’s really hard to get any data.

So, you can record the number of people who think they’ve been spiked — about 5% of victims of rape and sexual assault think they were drugged, as Sumnall points out. But we know from every other area of psychological science that self-reported data is really unreliable. Ivan Ezquerra-Romano, co-founder and director of the social enterprise Drugs And Me, is also doing a PhD in cognitive psychology, and he says “self-report is something that we as psychologists try to run away from”.

There are a few studies that take toxicology samples from people who come to A&E reporting that they have been spiked, but not very many. Those that do exist tend to find little evidence of drugging. This one from 2007, for instance, sampled the blood and/or urine of 75 suspected spiking cases. They found unexplained drugs (that is, drugs the patient denied taking) in eight of the samples; three of them were cannabis and three were MDMA. GHB and benzodiazepines were each found in one. The report concluded that the use of sedatives to spike drinks “​​may not be as common as reported in the mainstream media”.

A more recent review of the literature, which looks at a variety of studies from around the world, found similar results. It concluded that drink-spiking “appears to be an un-common occurrence in drug facilitated sexual assault”. “In the majority of cases that get investigated, the substances are impossible to detect,” says Giulia Zampini, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Greenwich.

There are possible explanations for this, of course. One is that GHB, in particular, is very quickly metabolised, especially if authorities are slow to take samples; so perhaps there’s under-reporting of spiking incidents. But equally, as an academic I spoke to pointed out, sometimes it’s easier to say – to the police, or one’s parents or employers – that you were drugged than that you took drugs recreationally.

This doesn’t mean that “drug-facilitated sexual assault” isn’t a real and widespread problem. It’s just that on the whole, the people — the, let’s face it, men — who are doing it don’t need to use fancy drugs, and don’t need to slip it into a stranger’s drink in a nightclub. The focus on one particular archetype of “spiking” — the stranger slipping a clear liquid into a woman’s drink in a club, as in the BBC drama I May Destroy You — distracts from a more complex social problem.

“The stranger-danger archetype is very rare,” says Zampini. “In every aspect of rape and sexual assault, it is much more common in an environment where there’s a relationship of some kind.”

And in most cases of drug-facilitated sexual assault, the drug is alcohol. Sometimes it’s the perpetrator buying stronger drinks than the victim expected — a double instead of a single, say. Sometimes it’s that the victim voluntarily drinks more than they are able to handle, and the perpetrator then takes advantage. “There’s a lack of recognition of how vulnerable alcohol can make you, if consumed in large quantities,” says Zampini. “And there is a dangerous binge drinking culture in universities — drinking is down compared to past generations, but still prevalent. And people can confuse the effects of alcohol with other drugs.”

But as North and Zampini say, the important thing is the intent to harm, not the particular drug used to do it. If a man buys a woman drinks with the intent of getting her too drunk to consent, or takes advantage of a woman who is already too drunk to consent, that’s just as bad as slipping illicit drugs into her drinks.

The concern is that, in a rush to be seen to be doing something, authorities and nightclubs might start cracking down on drugs — more CCTV, more searches at the door. “These tougher responses don’t work,” Zampini says. “If people want to sneak drugs into clubs they’ll do so.” What should be happening — and pleasingly is happening — is a focus on protecting people rather than cracking down on drugs. “There have been some recent good steps that have been taken in providing harm reduction,” says Zampini: things like identifying harassers on the dance floor, and throwing them out, rather than throwing out people for “taking half a pill”.

Even if drugs were eliminated, as long as there’s a binge-drinking culture in UK universities, drug-facilitated sexual assault will remain a risk. Spiking probably isn’t a major driver of it — although Ezquerra —Romano notes that on the gay scene, where GHB and GBL are used recreationally for chemsex, it’s more likely, because the drugs are widely available. But in the university-nightclub scenario that most of the recent media attention has been on, alcohol is probably the main cause.

We can’t blame victims, but we shouldn’t be reluctant to suggest measures to protect themselves. “There’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to take steps to ensure their own safety,” Zampini says. “But the onus of responsibility shouldn’t be on women. Otherwise it’s like the old idea of women dressing provocatively and asking for it.” So the authorities need to facilitate those steps. For instance: if we’re going to say to women that they should cover their drinks, then clubs should provide lids.

And it’s worth getting better data on drink spiking, in case it’s more common than we think. That’s something Ezquerra-Romano is working on: for instance, he suggests drug vapes that record the amount you’ve taken via a smartphone app, so that if you do a blood test later you can compare the expected blood concentration for the amount you’ve taken with what is actually found. (Existing “colour dye” tests for spiking drugs are “worse than useless,” in Sumnall’s experience.)

But it’s more likely that drink spiking is rare, focused on by the media because the narrative is simple: the innocent victim and the calculating, predatory stranger. I worry (and everybody I spoke to for this piece agreed) that focusing on these sympathetic but unrepresentative cases is a bad idea. A woman who gets drunk voluntarily is just as much a victim, if a man takes advantage of her, as is someone who is drugged. It’s not that drink-spiking victims are the “real”, or the virtuous, ones.

The Nineties-era HIV scare died away. But fascinatingly, the recent surge in “jabbing” scare stories has revived it: false stories of young women infected by HIV in UK cities have been circulating alongside the drug-scare ones. Those stories we know are untrue; I suspect that drink-spiking is real, but rare. But it’s definitely true that men take advantage of drunk women. That’s just as bad, and far more common. Creating extra reasons for women to feel afraid does not seem wise.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.