Gen Z students have inherited an unsafe nightlife culture – and it needs to change

A girl stands amidst others in a club

As the country reacts to worrying reports of spiking at student club nights, Gen Z students are fighting back – and calling upon venues and universities to keep them safe. 

The spiking epidemic

Freshers 2021 was set to be a triumphant return to clubbing for UK students. Instead, many are left feeling ‘sick, vulnerable and violated’ due to widespread spiking incidents. 

Spiking is not a new crime. Prior to this academic year, a Student Beans survey about campus safety found that one-third of all students have had a drink spiked – across all genders. Spiking is a deliberate attempt to make someone more vulnerable – reasons include sexual assault, theft, or even as a ‘joke’. 

As millions of students celebrate their first term at uni after the lifting of COVID restrictions, reports of spiking have been rife. Students are reporting memory loss and blackouts, with some having to seek hospitalisation. An information post about spiking created by Student Beans has now reached 3.1 million people, and has been shared far and wide. 

This year, spiking of students on nights out has taken a worrying turn. Zara Owen, a student at Nottingham, describes finding a ‘pin prick’ to her leg after a night out, which later developed into an ‘epicentre of pain’ the next day. Zara experienced memory loss for most of the night. She is one of several to report spiking via injection. As well as the terrifying reality of being spiked, needle spikings present a whole new issue – there’s no guarantee that a needle used in this way is sterile.

As clubbers are encouraged to stay vigilant and safe – with tips shared across social media on how to identify and respond to a spiking – there’s an underlying, understandable frustration. Young students shouldn’t have to ‘stay safe’ – the spaces they occupy should already have been made safe for them upon arrival. 

Student nightlife: the wider issues

Spiking is just one of the issues faced by young students navigating nightlife for the first time. A Student Beans survey revealed that 78% of those who identify as female have changed their behaviour to avoid sexual harassment – as have 25% of those who identify as male. 

There is currently a taxi shortage in many of the UK’s towns and cities, making the journey home from the clubs even more difficult. To compound this, many all-night public transport services (such as London’s night tube) haven’t resumed since the clubs reopened after lockdown. Other university cities and towns didn’t have all-night public transport to begin with. 

Many bars and clubs are responding to the spiking epidemic by suggesting an increase in bouncers – at present, though, there’s a shortage of bouncers too. 

Girls Night In 

As spiking, sexual harassment and transport issues converge during Freshers period, grassroots students groups are leading the conversation about what should come next. 

Hannah Thompson, a student from Glasgow, started a petition to make it a legal requirement for nightclub guests to be thoroughly searched on entry. She told the BBC: “I would much rather have a pat-down than a needle in the back.” The petition has now surpassed 150,000 signatures – exceeding the number of signatures required for a parliamentary debate by more than 50,000. 

For the first time since lockdown, clubs are likely to be empty next week – because of very different health and safety concerns. Grassroots groups from a coalition of universities have organised a nightlife boycott, adopting the name ‘Girls Night In’. They are calling for bar staff to be trained in providing an adequate and supportive first response to spiking victims, blanket CCTV coverage in clubs, enhanced screening upon entry and background checks for all staff. Girls Night In has also proposed the introduction of practical measures – such as drinks covers and clear cups. 

As it stands, boycotts will take place next Monday-Thursday, as well as on Wednesday 3rd November. All genders are encouraged to take part.

Responses: clubs, unis and brands 

Already, clubs across the country that welcome students regularly have begun to respond. Subway Cowgate in Edinburgh – the city where the boycott originated – said they were “holding themselves and their staff accountable” and “making serious changes to remedy the situation”, including drinks lids, enhanced staff training, more door staff and more security. 

Club managers and events organisers in Leeds have responded similarly – Sticky Feet DNB organisers announced that they would not go ahead with their event to support the boycott. “We completely recognise how important drink spiking and customer safety at events is”, said one organiser on Facebook, adding: “It isn’t morally right for us to be partying”. 

Wire – a Leeds-based club – also came out in support of the boycott, announcing an increase in searches and the introduction of drinks covers, among other measures. 

Such clubs and events have shown that there is a need for brands to educate and respond – particularly if you operate within the nightlife or events space, or have a large student following. That said, there are good ways to respond as well as bad – our friends over at Voxburner have explored some examples. Be wary of putting the onus on students themselves to prevent spiking. 

As the spiking issue gains traction, it’s important that the response is timely and adequate. Of the 60% of Gen Z students who have reported inappropriate sexual behaviour, sexual assault or sexist behaviour to their university, just 38% said that action was taken. 82% of students think that universities could do more to tackle safety at university, and 86% said the same of the government. 

Now, bars and nightlife venues that get revenue from student visitors fall under the same scrutiny. But it’s clear that a collective response is essential – every institution that welcomes students through its doors has a responsibility to keep them safe. 

To stay up-to-date on Gen Z insights, sign up for our weekly newsletter. 

12 Days of Insights

Unlock your Gen Z strategy for 2022