‘Thumbs pressed over bottles is a reflex’: nightlife anxiety hits students

Reports of an increase in spiking have been a cause for concern across the country and the region. What impact has it had on student life in Norfolk?

ABOVE: David Jackson

[This article was originally written for and published by the Eastern Daily Press.]

After 18 months of online learning, the University of East Anglia has been bustling with activity since the start of a new term in late September, but not all of the buzz has been positive.

The cohort of 2020 completely missed out on a traditional Freshers experience. Instead of getting to know their flat mates and going on club nights, the vast majority of students were isolated at home for the start of their first year at university. Among these students, the disappointment of missing out on ‘the best time of your life’ was palpable. Skip ahead to September of this year, and a whole new year group of Freshers moved onto UEA Campus. When Welcome Week kicked off on September 20, two years worth of students, eagerly waiting for their experience to finally start, were released onto the streets of Norwich.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the excitement of the ‘new normal’ was eclipsed by a growing sense of danger. October 2021 saw reports of spiking cases across Norwich, including at UEA’s venue, The LCR, which hosts two club nights every week.

Spiking is not a new concept to young people. It’s been a part of nightlife culture for as long as anyone can remember. In particular, young women are already completely accustomed to taking measures to keep themselves safe, including never wandering off alone, keeping a constant eye on your drink and checking in with others.

Men are also victims of spiking, and are usually further exposed to trauma by club staff who assume they’re simply too drunk. One male acquaintance remembers going to a bouncer to ask for help as he felt unusually unwell, and instead being separated from his friends by being kicked out of the club completely.

One of the most popular drinks at the LCR is the VK, but not just because of the sweet taste and the cheap price. VKs are much easier to protect from spiking attempts, as they are the only drink which comes in a plastic bottle, rather than an open-top cup. For the young women I’ve spoken to, keeping your thumbs pressed over the top of your VKs while you’re out is a muscle reflex. Both victims I spoke to recently said that even before they were spiked, VKs were their drink of preference for this very reason.

Attitudes and perception, too, are still an issue. In October, the university’s student union released a statement via Instagram saying ‘top tips for keeping your nights fun and safe’. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with students feeling it put blame on those being spiked. The student union later updated its statement, saying: “Let us be clear – we will never blame someone for being the victim of spiking, or any other harmful behaviour. We are on your side and will make sure that people found to be spiking are held to account.” It has also said it is working to prevent more cases and has urged people to report incidents if they feel they have been a victim.

But there is still a long way to go. A young woman who was spiked in October recalls that when she handed her drinks back to the bar because of an odd sour taste, the bartender looked at her blankly, not knowing what to do. The drinks were eventually disposed of, which she was later told by police was a mistake – she should have held onto the drinks and had them tested. The confusion and anxiety felt by club-goers seems to extend to the staff of those same venues.

There is a great deal of fear among young people at the moment. What was supposed to be a chance to reconnect with friends and blow off steam has turned into a constant stream of risk assessment. All that there is left to do is continue to raise awareness and stay vigilant.

[This article was originally written for and published by the Eastern Daily Press.]

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