Digital Editor Cara-Louise Scott reports on a recent study of the impact of alcohol on memories of sexual assault
Content Warning: This article mentions sexual assault.
A study conducted by the University of Birmingham has found that women are able to recall the events of sexual assault and rape with accuracy even if they are drunk.
The findings were published in Frontiers in Psychology – Forensic and Legal Psychology and are a step towards challenging ‘courtroom perceptions of women being unreliable as witnesses in cases where they were intoxicated at the time an assault took place.’
Statistics by Rape Crisis found that only 1 in 100 rapes recorded by police in 2021 resulted in a charge that same year despite the fact that in a 12-month period ending in September 20202, 70,633 rapes were recorded by the police.
The study demonstrated that women who had drunk alcohol up to the legal limit for driving were able to give details of an assault in a hypothetical scenario, including ‘details of activities to which they had, and had not, consented.’
Acute alcohol intoxication has a significant impact on criminal proceedings, with up to 80% of victims reported to have been alcohol intoxicated when their attack occurred. Professor Heather Flowe, who is part of the University’s School of Psychology, and led the research, said: ‘We know that sexual assault frequently coincides with alcohol intoxication. This means that, during trials, victims’ and witnesses’ accounts will often be contested, which is one of the reasons why so few cases lead to conviction for defendants and this needs to change.’
The study involved researchers working with 90 women who had to take part in a hypothetical scenario under one of four conditions; around half the group were given an alcoholic drink, while the other half were given tonic water. But within each group, some women were told they would be consuming alcohol, but got given tonic water, and some were told they’d be drinking tonic water, but received vodka.
After drinking, the women worked through a written and audio presented account of an encounter between themselves and a man. They were asked to imagine how they believe they’d think and feel if the incident had happened to them. The women were then asked to make decisions about whether to continue the encounter with the man and if they made the decision to end the encounter, they were presented with a screen which informed them of a hypothetical rape taking place at the end of the evening.
In the experiment, even from drinking tonic water, the women showed a heightened awareness of their surroundings and who they were interacting with.
A week later, women were asked to complete a questionnaire asking them to answer questions about that evening’s events. It was discovered that women who consumed alcohol during the experiment were just as accurate in remembering consensual and non-consensual sexual activities.
Most significantly, the researchers found no evidence to suggest that if a woman participated in consensual sex while intoxicated, ‘she might later remember it as non-consensual’.
Laura Stevens, co-author of the paper, said: ‘This research challenges a key myth about victim’s memories regarding rape and sexual assault, which is often sued to dismiss the victim’s account.’