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Listen Up: Take Victims Seriously

Earlier this year, thousands of us traded our hometowns for the shores of St Andrews for the first time. Ready to embark on what is supposed to be the best years of our lives, most of us came prepared with a hefty stash of alcohol (and maybe one frying pan). Finally, we had the independence, freedom and unrestricted social life that we could have only dreamt of amidst a succession of lockdowns. Talking to even one fresher, you’ll tend to hear stories of their favourite nights out: downing rainbows of Pablo’s to themed cringey music at BOPs; going from flat party to flat party; and of course, ending up near blackout outside Shawarma. We love to hate St Andrews nightlife, but in reality, it’s given us some great memories. But what happens when your neon drink starts to taste funny, or when someone edges a bit too close on your walk back to DRA? Nothing, you’d hope. But these aren’t simply hypotheticals taken from safety videos. It’s sadly become the new reality of going on a night out.

The reality is there’s a hidden and dangerous undercurrent to a student’s experiences on nights out. If you dig a bit deeper with freshers, you’ll find most have horror stories that don’t make the highlight reel. Most of us have either experienced or seen our friends experience all-too-common instances of spiking and sexual assault. And the experience of being harassed on the street is disgustingly common. As women going out, we just accept that these are the risks we face and often, avoid talking too much about it. But why is this? If this is such a big problem, why aren’t we taking it seriously? Hint: It’s not because it’s fake or the product of social media activism.

The problem is, young women, especially those on nights out for some reason, are still seen as hysterical and not all that smart. As has been seen with recent discussions over spiking, however, this is not the case. This is a severe and unrelenting problem, and yet it is not being taken as seriously as it should. Social media is flooded with evidenced claims of assault and spiking, but these are too often ignored. Sadly, the people in power whom we listen to are often too disconnected to care. They live in bubbles of privilege and ignorance, unable to get on the same level as the young women needing help. Rather than dealing with the problem, politicians can often gaslight victims in attempts to minimise the situation. Figures of authority regularly attribute low rates of conviction to us overreacting rather than to the very real problem of reports not being taken seriously. With recent cases of spiking by injection hitting the news, there have been consistent efforts to supposedly stop panicking, by trying to suggest its improbability. Professor Winstock from the Global Drugs Survey tried to reframe the situation as “just not that likely.” Whilst it’s important to scrutinise the information we consume, we can’t simply dismiss dozens of reports and experiences as dangerous rumours. This is not only massively harmful to victims, but entirely dodges responsibility for the problem. This leaves us with the problem we face now: The only people dealing with this problem are those who simply don’t have the privilege of pretending it doesn’t exist.

When action is demanded, like the recent nights in, organised by university students to take a stand against spiking, the detachment between victims and authorities is evident. Firstly, it’s hard to ignore the fact that those showing up and demanding change are largely young women, who have experienced or witnessed these crimes. There is an evident shift of responsibility onto the victims that largely stems from our victim-shaming culture. There is palpable fear that action is not being taken, and can you blame them? These are crimes, and to suggest that only women can understand and care about them is ridiculous. The first solutions that are suggested are not new either. “Don’t leave your drink.” “Be careful what you wear.” “Keep your head down.” “Stick together.” These are phrases that have been parroted at us since our first outings. And only someone seriously out of touch with the problem would think that these are the solutions we need. Not only are they ineffective, but they pile the blame onto the victim.

Sadly, many victims feel their safest and most realistic option is to simply move on. But for those who choose to seek help, the results are often incredibly lacking. Whether it’s going to the hospital for testing or treatment or making a police report, women are far too often talked down to or victim-shamed. The very nature of spiking opens the door for comments of “are you sure you’re not just drunk?” and excessive gaslighting. The guilt and shame that can arise from these crimes builds a barrier for reporting, and often this is magnified when the treatment and understanding offered is so insufficient. The aftermath for victims is an isolating experience.

Ultimately, it’s time to restructure the way we look at spiking and sexual crimes. Until we shift the responsibility onto those in power, progress is impossible. We need to have more female voices projected, but also the expectation that this is a problem everyone should aim to understand and care about. We need to keep a spotlight on these unspoken experiences and demand better treatment for victims. Until they feel believed and cared for, we will be continually failing. We need to deconstruct our biases and gendered associations and rework them from the ground up. After all, shouldn’t we all be able to scream our hearts out at the ABBA BOP without worrying whether we’ll get home safely?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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