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Kimberley Hill, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Northampton, and Graham Towl, Professor of Forensic Psychology here at Durham University, argue that we must work together to change the culture.

The easing of Covid-19 restrictions and reopening of night-time venues within the UK have seen drink spiking hit the headlines once again. In addition to media reports that substances are being deliberately added to unknowing victim’s drinks, there are concerning accounts of spiking using needles by intramuscular injection. 

While the evidence base underlying drink spiking remains limited, what is known is that drink spiking has incredibly harmful effects on victims, particularly if victims have been sexually assaulted after being spiked, which is unfortunately a common motivation. These effects, including loss of balance or consciousness, can also be mistaken for the victim having simply drunk too much. This could lead to misguided assumptions about victims and, more importantly, may also delay testing for illicit drugs. 

While it remains unclear if incidents are higher than in previous years, recent statements from the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee and the UK National Police Chief’s Council suggest that the reporting of such cases may be increasing. Calls for boycotting bars and nightclubs have followed, particularly by students demanding safer night time venues. This has led to increased prevention measures, including educational drink spiking campaigns, recommendations to refuse drinks offers, unattended drinks warnings, as well as the introduction of preventative drinks container covers. 

Prevention and detection

Prevention and detection could be further improved by reducing venue capacity numbers and providing increased surveillance opportunities, possibly leading potential perpetrators to fear a greater chance of detection. This could also include the robust implementation of refusing service to intoxicated customers, training for all staff and ‘Ask Angela’ schemes, whereby individuals feeling unsafe can discreetly request assistance by approaching staff with a codeword (e.g. ‘Angela’). While each of these measures are well-intended and, in combination, can make an important contribution to this area, related narratives must avoid victim blaming or placing the responsibility solely on individuals to protect themselves. 

These reports once again highlight the prevalence of sexual violence and violence against women, including the sexualised nature of the night time economy. In order to change the culture, these approaches are also only one part of the wider cultural and social responses required. Everyone has a right to feel safe when they go out, but this is unfortunately not the reality, especially for many young women, who are repeatedly informed to simply use safe routes or avoid going out alone at night. For example, our research and that by others continues to show that many students are routinely subjected to unwanted sexualised advances, groping and harassment during their time at university. Unfortunately, students often describe such behaviours as ‘simply a part of life’ or ‘banter’ (Hill & Crofts, 2020, Crofts et al., 2018). The active development and facilitation of long-term cultural change is absolutely essential in developing aware, empathetic and active campus communities who stand together to take action.

Reporting as a ‘new norm’

Our continued work in this area has focused on driving forward policy and practice, but also acknowledges many of the challenges faced in changing the culture (Hill & Crofts, forthcoming). We see one of the wider challenges of being how to contribute to prevention. One potentially significant contribution is to drive up reporting rates whereby reporting becomes the ‘new norm’, which may well have a deterrent effect on some would-be perpetrators. Additionally, this means that we can get students access to required educational, personal and health support. 

Open days for prospective students are another great opportunity to talk about our work on student safety. For example, this could include problems with the ‘spiking’ of drinks and also more broadly on our work to address our problem with sexual violence at our universities. In the UK, despite such positive contributions and repeated calls for further action over the last decade or so, the Higher Education (HE) sector has been relatively slow to respond. It has been suggested that tensions may exist between institutional responsibilities and duty of care, with some institutions seemingly concerned more about their perceived institutional self-preservation in ever-competitive, changing UK HE landscapes. This is despite no evidence suggesting that merely talking about the problem with sexual violence in HE would make it less likely that prospective students would wish to study at an institution. On the contrary, prospective students (and their parents) who see that universities are taking these issues seriously may well be more inclined to apply to more proactive institutions for study with an overarching concern for their safety and well-being too. Universities must consider the message they are sending out to victims if these issues are not seen to be something that can be openly talked about.

Consent is key, as everyone has the right to enjoy a night out without becoming a victim of drink spiking, sexual violence or assault. This has been recognised by a number of UK Universities and Student Unions who now run consent initiatives or bystander workshops. While university campuses are key sites for action in this area, our own work to embed Consent weeks of action into university curricula, has shown just how complex this can be (Hill & Crofts, 2020). Such interventions provide the necessary first steps in creating on-campus conversations about consent, particularly in supporting students who often find themselves in bystander position to support others, or by increasing knowledge of consent for those who find it difficult to negotiate. However, without adequate resourcing, and being centrally led, uptake by staff and students will remain limited.

Barriers to reporting

Most importantly, changing the culture will be impossible without also tackling a number of identified barriers to reporting. As identified in our research, unfortunately, students sometimes appear to individualise sexual violence victimisation, discussing self-management strategies which replace the need to report (Hill & Crofts, 2020). Additionally, a perceived hierarchy of severity appears to exist, whereby only certain types of sexual assault, such as physical violence, are viewed as reportable. Our work further suggests that others do not report as they fear judgement from other students or repercussions from perpetrators (Ghani & Towl, 2017, Crofts et al., 2018, Humphreys & Towl, 2020). We suggest that more must be done to tackle the stigma of reporting, particularly as many students also do not want to carry reporting burdens, or re-live abusive experiences that they have been subjected to. 

The unfortunate reality is that many students lack faith in university reporting mechanisms and feel that they simply would not be believed if they come forward. Fostering a culture of believing, support and strengthening the voice of victims will be absolutely essential in changing the culture.

Non-reporting can be further normalised through a lack of knowledge of support services, or an absence of reporting processes. As part of our work, we have reviewed existing policies and have provided key recommendations or good practice guides which have informed HE policy and practice. Fundamentally, we have recommended that students must have access to clear and dedicated policies, procedures and a number of different reporting mechanisms must be in place (Crofts et al., 2018; Humphreys & Towl, 2020). We have recommended that universities must, therefore, do more in terms of increasing and actively encouraging more reporting, while ensuring processes are clearly accessible (Towl & Walker, 2019). This prevents victims from being further re-traumatised by having to recount what has happened multiple times, or to other external agencies such as the police. As awareness increases, disclosures will do too, as will more formal reporting and investigations into such cases. Increased reporting may also impact further upon prevention, with some deterred from such behaviour if they think that they are more likely to be caught or otherwise held to account. 

While we are moving in the right direction and our ongoing work aims to make a difference, it is clear there is still much more work to be done. Everyone should be able to attend nightlife venues without spiking putting them at risk of sexual assault. Key to achieving cultural change will also be having accurate and continually monitored prevalence data, which will highlight the scale of these issues, driving resource allocation and action. Within university contexts, this work will require action driven by Vice Chancellors, University leaders and governing bodies, with financial investment. Alongside nightlife venues, we suggest that universities remain key sites for changing the culture and partnership working will be essential. We all need to do better and should all be visibly working together to increase the trust of the student body. We have the potential to make a real difference for the safety of students and future generations: surely now is the time to act?

Key sources

Ghani, H. & Towl, G.J. (2017). Students are still afraid to report sexual assault, In Times Higher, August 7th, London.

Hill, K.M. & Crofts, M. (2020). Creating conversations about consent through an on-campus, curriculum embedded week of action, Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2020.1751092 

Hill, K.M. & Crofts, M. Sexual Violence: Challenges in Changing Campus Culture. (forthcoming)

Crofts, M., Hill, K.M., Prokopiou, E., Barrick, R., Callaghan, J., & Armstrong-Hallam, S. (2018). New Spaces: Safeguarding Students from Violence and Hate. Reported Prepared for the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Catalyst Fund.

Humphreys, C.J. & Towl, G.J. (2020). Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education; A good practice guide. Emerald.

Towl, G.J. and Walker, T. (2019). Tackling Sexual Violence at Universities; An international perspective, Routledge, London. 


This article was first published in The Psychologist. Read it here.