Access explores the concerning trend of drink spiking at live events and how the industry is working to combat harassment and ensure women’s safety at festivals

An issue that has been widely covered in mainstream media over the past few weeks, drink spiking has put UK nightclubs under immense scrutiny and called into question security measures at other venues.

While it is certainly not a new issue, there has been a rise in cases across the UK in recent weeks, as confirmed by the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), and along with drink spiking, there have been reports of hypodermic needle attacks in various clubs – including stories of victims blacking out, being unable to speak and finding puncture wounds on their skin.

It is a societal problem that cannot be solved overnight but event and venue operators are taking steps to help protect victims and ensure perpetrators are caught.

Following several concerning social media posts from young women telling their harrowing stories, as well as nationwide boycotts and demonstrations, the NTIA has urged the Home Office to launch an inquiry into the issue, while the Warehouse Project in Manchester is offering on-site urine tests for anyone that believes they may have had their drink spiked.

Of course it is not just drink spiking that leads many women to feel unsafe at events, with nearly half of women attending music events saying they have suffered some form of harassment, according to a YouGov survey.

Ahead of next year’s festival season, the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) is relaunching its Safer Spaces initiative, originally set up in 2017, which aims to raise greater awareness about sexual violence at festivals. Similarly, the Safe Spaces Now initiative, launched by UN Women UK (UNWUK) and S&C Productions’ 10,000-capacity Cambridge festival Strawberries & Creem earlier this year, involved an open letter calling for sector-wide change, signed by the likes of Glastonbury co-organiser Emily Eavis, The Eden Project in Cornwall and ticketing company DICE.

Home Office calls

NTIA CEO Michael Kill says the association has called for a Home Office inquiry to provide clarity on how prevalent the issue of drink spiking is, and “characteristics” of the crimes such as what settings are most common, who is being targeted and what drugs are being used.

“We need to be forearmed,” says Kill. “If we can’t understand what the toxicology is or what the breadth of those drugs are, then there is no point in going out buying tests because we may miss one, and that might be the critical one that’s used within an incident. There’s lots that need to be accounted for, and it all starts with the quality of information.”

Kill admits the issue is widespread, often occurring at unregulated venues such as illegal parties and he says the organisation is addressing it as a societal problem: “We all have a part to play whether you’re a police officer or whether you’re someone who highlights that there is someone that’s vulnerable in a venue. We need to attack this as a community.”

Another key concern, says Kill, is the transition from capturing someone doing the crime, safeguarding the victim, and ensuring that evidence is gathered appropriately so there is a smooth transition between the event operator and police: “Without that consistency, it is going to prove very difficult, and we need the Home Office to help with that.”

Girls against

Two organisations working to tackle the issue of women facing harassment at live events by working with venues, promoters, artists and gig-goers are Safe Gigs for Women (SGFW) and Girls Against.

“Our work primarily involves helping people to be confident active bystanders and intervene safely if they see someone being harassed or assaulted,” says SGFW co-founder Mel Kelly. “Live music is a community, and we can and should be able to look out for each other to prevent sexual violence in the first instance.”

Girls Against’s Ciara Johnson says it is essential for venues to create safe spaces and retrain staff to properly deal with cases of sexual assault: “It’s also important to educate people on what to do if someone they know has been spiked in order to prevent any further harm coming to them. Basically, just looking out for each other and calling out suspicious behaviour is key.”

After a man was arrested following a woman being spiked at Warehouse Project, the founder of the 10,000-capacity venue, Sacha Lord, said the venue became the first to offer on-site urine tests to clubbers.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Lord, who is also the Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester, have committed to launching an anti-spiking partnership.

“I’ve spent the last two weeks speaking with victims who have been spiked,” Lord said on Twitter. “Enough is enough. The industry needs to stand together and eradicate this evil.”

Another initiative is the Ask For Angela campaign, whereby someone feeling vulnerable can approach venue staff using the codeword “Angela” to seek help. It has been run across UK venues for the past five years and was recently relaunched by the Metropolitan Police. The NTIA has partnered with ordering and payment app Zapaygo to launch a feature within the app, so users can select Ask For Angela from a venue’s app menu, as simply as if they were ordering a drink.

A Women at Night Taskforce has also been created to address issues facing women, following the publication of a report by the Savenightlife CIC and Lady of the House groups. The report calls on events businesses and associated industry groups to sign up to a Women at Night Charter that includes commitments to improve the experience of women in the sector. It includes the results of a survey of 1,300 women – around 40% of who were women who worked in the music, entertainment and leisure sectors. It revealed that 91.8% did not feel the police force does enough to make women feel safer at night, while 84.7% agreed that certain inappropriate behaviours towards women were now perceived as “normal” within the night time economy.

Festival actions

Despite their euphoric and joyous nature, there can be a dark side to music festivals for women. A study at Durham University estimated that the number of sexual assaults that take place on-site every year could be close to 250,000. Work is being done to help tackle this issue and at the heart of it is the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), led by CEO Paul Reed. The AIF’s Charter of Best Practice, which aims to train staff, provide victim-led contingency planning and specific facilities for survivors of sexual assault, was developed with guidance from Crisis England & Wales, Girls Against, Safe Gigs For Women and the White Ribbon Campaign.

The initiative has been designed to encourage event attendees to not be bystanders and to take a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of sexual assault. Also at the forefront of the issue is S&C Productions, the promoter of the Strawberries & Creem Festival, which was used as a pilot event this year for the Safe Spaces Now initiative with UNWUK.

It involved using ‘guardian angel’ volunteers who were on hand to support potential victims. The campaign group claims that more than 40% of women under 40 have experienced sexual harassment at a live music event, 70% of women in the UK have been subjected to sexual harassment and 60% of music industry workers face harassment.

S&C Productions co-founder Chris Jammer (pictured right) says, “It’s an issue that might be more prevalent than we think it is because only 5% of sexual harassment is actually reported, as women don’t think it is going to lead to any action. As a male-led team, we thought we needed to do something about this and make sure that guys are being made aware of this issue. So it is not women talking to women about it, it’s also including guys in the conversation.

“We’re encouraging our audience to provide feedback on our policies and what we can do to improve. The next step with the campaign is to really bring the whole industry together and combine our efforts to target this issue and make some changes together.”

Jammer says the Safe Spaces Now campaign, which has won the support of artists including Ellie Goulding and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, has also been warmly received by the wider industry: “We’re really happy with the reach it has got and the reception. We had good feedback from our festivalgoers about how safe they felt on site. We want to build on that.”

In terms of what the wider industry can do, Jammer says working collectively with a synchronised approach is key, and that S&C plans to work with the AIF on its scheme. An industry roundtable discussing the issues involved is planned for early 2022.

UNWUK executive director and creator of the Safe Spaces Now campaign Claire Barnett (pictured right) says, “The levels of interest from the events industry have been good, though less so than from festivals specifically. What we need now is to ensure that this is a movement for change and not just a moment. In 2022 we want to see all the major music festivals in the UK implementing Safe Spaces Now measures.”