Bristol’s nightlife scene unpacked: spiking spate and street (un)safety

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By Marine Saint, Features Columnist and Subeditor

Following recent cases of drink spiking in Bristol nightclubs, Epigram investigates just how safe the city's streets are at night.

Clubbing, going to bars, and meeting friends for drinks at the pub has become ingrained into many university students’ routines since the start of the new term. But one thing eclipsing students' experiences has been the rise in spiking since clubs opened fully this summer. The experience of both walking back home or to a venue in the dark, and also drinking in clubs or bars has exacerbated long-standing dangers of spiking and sexual harassment which continue to threaten the student body and have resulted in anxiety and elaborate precautions for safety.

The viral video of a man appearing to drop a substance in a woman’s drink in Bristol’s PRYZM nightclub generated a huge impact amongst students and highlighted how easily we can be made vulnerable in clubs through spiking, which is often difficult to prove on camera or through testimony. Confessions pages across social media have spread similar news of spiking experiences in other university towns, without the repercussions of curfew conditions the two Gloucestershire teens (arrested after being identified by Avon and Somerset police) are facing.

Epigram reached out to PRYZM after the reported spiking case, and they highlighted the club’s duty of care and efforts to maintain their We Care initiative. Set up by the UK’s largest specialist operator of late night bars and clubs, Rekom, it outlines the support mechanisms in place at clubs such as an onsite medic, the Ask Angela policy if you need to alert staff that you feel unsafe, and free phone charging services to be able to keep in contact with friends throughout the night.

A spokesperson from PRYZM, Bristol said: ‘As soon as this allegation of drink spiking was brought to our attention, we reported it to the police and will continue to help with the ongoing investigation.  The safety and welfare of our guests is our number one priority, and we do all we can through our We Care initiative to create a safe and fun night out.  We urge anyone who sees suspicious behaviour or suspects they have been a victim of drink spiking, to seek assistance immediately from a member of staff or security who are trained to help and who also have the support of our onsite medic.  We take all allegations of this nature very seriously and anyone suspected of being involved, as in this case, is handed over to the police.  We would also like to remind people on a night out to be vigilant and never leave their drink unattended, never accept a drink from somebody they don't know, and to not drink anything they didn't see being poured.’

"We urge anyone who sees suspicious behaviour or suspects they have been a victim of drink spiking, to seek assistance immediately from a member of staff or security who are trained to help and who also have the support of our onsite medic."

Elaborate methods to cover one’s drink, such as anti-spiking clingfilm, and even the frequently used ‘Text me when you get home’ message to friends at night, emphasises how in addition to clubs and bars taking action to prevent unsafe situations in clubs despite their often busy and crowded environment, society at large needs to be educated on how to protect vulnerable women and support victims.

Women’s safety apps, such as the call service ‘Strut Safe’ (0333 335 0026), offer a call when walking alone at night on weekends, and more general apps like Life 360 can be used to track your friends’ locations. As a consequence of the murder of Sarah Everard, BT has launched the GPS tracking system ‘Walk me Home’ for lone women at night which allows users to call 888 and raises an alarm if they do not reach their expected destination. However, as The End Violence Against Women coalition and other campaigners reported to the BBC, the use of such apps does not target the heart of the problem: male violence against women and girls.

It has been made abundantly clear through experiences of students and clubbers with spiking, and recent police cases of women assaulted whilst alone at night, that action must be taken. At a UK level, a positive start would be to sign Victoria Parrott’s petition for free spiking kits in clubs, available on the government’s petitions site. For Bristol students, following the Bristol Nights campaign rules for a safe night out, and sharing experiences of sexual harassment on nights out anonymously to The Bristol Cable is encouraged.

"It has been made abundantly clear through experiences of students and clubbers with spiking, and recent police cases of women assaulted whilst alone at night, that action must be taken."

Of spiking cases reported to the police, which in itself can be difficult to achieve if venue staff are uncompliant, or the alleged victim is alone or has experienced memory loss, 72 per cent were reported as female by the British Transport Police between 2015 and 2019. Across this time, there were more than 2,600 reports of spiking incidents reported to the police as revealed by the BBC Radio 5 Live Investigations Unit.

The official and, devastatingly, even greater unreported figure continues to rise and has led to social media campaigns such as ‘I’ve been spiked’, set up by Mair Howells after her own spiking experiences, or ‘Everyone’s invited’, a sexual assault testimony and awareness space founded by Soma Sara, to circulate advice as to how we can spot spiking and assist those in need.

According to Drinkaware, alcohol is more frequently added to drinks to spike them, but date-rape drugs such as Rohypnol or GHB or recreational drugs like LSD, Ketamine, or Ecstasy can also be used. Symptoms, which vary depending on your previous alcohol intake, the mix of substances, and bodyweight, include lowered inhibitions, loss of balance, visual problems, confusion, nausea, vomiting, and unconsciousness. Date rape drugs take effect within 15-30 minutes, and they advise that if you think there may be a possibility of sexual assault you should try to confide in someone you trust, visit the police, local GP surgery or hospital, or call the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre on 0808 802 9999 (12–2.30pm and 7-9.30pm every day).

The Student Union has collated their advice to keep students safe at night, which can be accessed on their website. Bristol SU’s Equality, Liberation and Access Officer Leah Martindale stressed how they plan to lobby for ‘funding for drink toppers, and a commitment from our university bars to sign up to a scheme like Ask Angela.’ Martindale emphasised how the SU is working hard to address student safety as part of their communication around the Welcome period, especially in light of the circulated spiking video, and are continuing to prioritise this issue.

Whilst it is reassuring to know that there exists online support such as women’s safety apps and networks of shared experiences, it is apparent that the campaign for night-time safety needs more basic practical solutions. Most importantly, there needs to be compulsory education for our peers, especially male students given the proportion of male perpetrators, regarding consent, behaviour in clubs and bars towards strangers, and the legal implications of harassing or spiking others at night.

Featured Image: Epigram | Flossie Palmer

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