Another day, another classic example of victim blaming: this time, it’s courtesy of Durham University’s student wellbeing team, which recently launched a campaign against spiked drinks.
So far, so good, you might think – except for one vital component. For, rather than coming down hard on the male perpetrators who slip so-called “date rape” drugs into women’s drinks, the campaign seemingly places all of the responsibility on... women.
“Don’t get spiked”, the post reads. “Contact the police as soon as possible after a suspected incident of drink spiking.”
In a preface to the social media ad, which appeared on Twitter, it stated: “Drink Spiking is dangerous and something that you can prevent from happening to you and your friends. #dontgetspiked. Contact the police as soon as possible in a suspected case so an investigation can be conducted and others protected.”
Many took righteous umbrage at the hashtag #dontgetspiked – with responses ranging from the witty “wish i’d thought of this guys. amazing life hack thank you x”, to the strong and simple call for it to be altered: “Change this to #DONOTSPIKE”.
One woman said she felt this kind of rhetoric could in fact exacerbate the problem: “This ‘advice’ is dangerous [...] And it’s particularly gutting because your students have been telling you this for years, and doing a lot more to actively prevent it.”
A former Durham University student also admitted she found it “disappointing”. “As a Durham alumnus, seeing this victim-blaming ‘advice’ shared is incredibly disappointing,” she wrote. “What action is the university taking in collaboration with the local police, licensing authorities and colleges to prevent drink spiking in the first place?”
And another woman pointed out that it only added to the general view of women needing to “protect” themselves from harm, rather than focusing on those who carry out that harm – it also implies that women can prevent this from happening, which will only lead to self-blame. “Onus is always on the oppressed to manage their oppression rather than on the oppressor/aggressor,” the former student added.
But one man fought back against claims that the wording was oppressive, saying: “Supporting the oppressed to beat oppression is not an oppression. Ostracising and de-arming the oppressors is every bit as valid as a ‘hey boys that’s not ok’ – I’d argue WAY more so.”
Durham University’s student wellbeing team has since stated: “We appreciate the feedback on our recent post about drink safety. Students have reported concerns to us about drink spiking on nights out. We take this very seriously, and work with the police and others on guidance to help people be safe and report incidents.
“We always aim to support our students and will take this opportunity to learn and improve our messages on this important topic. It is our duty to listen to you and address these difficult issues, including training staff and student representatives on drug and alcohol awareness.”
Supportive and well-intentioned the campaign may be – but it doesn’t make any difference to women like me. It’s still putting the onus on victims to take measures to prevent being attacked, assaulted, raped, murdered – no different to being told we shouldn’t drink too much, shouldn’t wear short skirts, shouldn’t flirt; no different to the Met Police’s bizarre advice in the wake of Sarah Everard’s tragic death for women to “flag down a passing bus”, call 999 or “run away” if they don’t trust a male police officer.
Sarah, as we all know by now, was kidnapped by serving police officer Wayne Couzens, who used his Met ID and knowledge of Covid patrols to perform a fake arrest – a heinous and inescapable fact. What “should” she have done?
Most women know someone who’s been spiked on a night out – it’s never happened to me, but it has to some of my friends and many of the women I was at university with. And even if we haven’t (thankfully) experienced it personally, we can well imagine the fear and horror of waking up the next morning, not knowing what happened to us; frantically trying to piece together marks and bruises and memories as though our own life was a jigsaw puzzle with the vital pieces missing. Nothing can be more frightening than needing to fill in the blanks – and not knowing if those blanks contain our worst fear.
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One of the most realistic and standout portrayals of drink spiking is Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, a TV series that’s hard to watch but is nevertheless essential viewing for every man and woman. For women, it provides a sober “like me” reassurance and feeling of understanding/solidarity of the danger we are in thanks to the actions of others on every single night out.
For men, enlightenment comes through realising the extent of the danger their friends and acquaintances put the women they love in, all of the time – as well as an appreciation of the consequences of their actions (in the show, Coel’s character, Arabella, is spiked at a club and then assaulted; before spending the rest of the show experiencing nightmarish flashbacks and slowly realising what has been done to her).
But then, after so many women’s stories in recent weeks; after the shocking deaths of people like Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and Gabby Petito, we shouldn’t really need a TV programme – or a student advert – to remind us of the real danger: and that’s bad men.
Here’s a simple message, written as it should be written: stop spiking, assaulting, raping and killing women.
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