Women can still accurately recall details of sexual assault and rape, even if they’ve had alcohol, according to a new study.
The findings are an important step in challenging court perceptions that women are unreliable as witnesses in cases where they were intoxicated at the time of the assault, researchers say.
The team found that women who had drunk alcohol up to the legal driving limit could accurately recall the details of an assault in a hypothetical scenario.
These included details of the activities to which they had and had not consented.
Research leader Professor Heather Flowe, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, said: “We know that sexual assault frequently coincides with alcohol intoxication.
“This means that during trials, the accounts of victims and witnesses will often be challenged, which is one reason why so few cases lead to convictions of defendants and this must change.”
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found no evidence to support the idea that if a woman engaged in consensual sex while intoxicated, she might later remember it as non-consensual.
Research participants took part in a hypothetical rape scenario.
The researchers worked with 90 women, each of whom participated in a hypothetical rape scenario under one of four conditions.
About half the group received alcohol, while the other half received tonic water.
Within each group, some women were told they would drink alcohol but were given tonic water.
Others were told that their drink was tonic water but that it contained vodka.
The women worked through a written on-screen and audio account of an encounter between them and a man.
They were asked to imagine how they would think and feel if the incident happened to them.
As the scenario unfolded, the women were asked to make decisions about whether or not to continue with the encounter.
If they chose to end the encounter, they were presented with a screen detailing a hypothetical rape at the end of the night.
Seven days after the experiment, the women filled out a questionnaire where they answered questions about the events of the night.
The results revealed that the women who drank alcohol during the experiment recalled consensual and non-consensual sexual activities with the same accuracy.
The study also showed that participants who expected to drink alcohol, whether or not they did, were more accurate, overall, in recalling specific details about the rape.
Women tend to be ‘hypervigilant’ when they drink
This suggests that women are likely to become “hypervigilant” in situations where they believe they are under the influence of alcohol and are more vulnerable.
Laura Stevens, PhD student and co-author of the paper, added: “This research challenges a key myth about victims’ memories of rape and sexual assault, which is often used to discount the victim’s narrative.
“We hope this work will lead to changes in the way that courts and expert witnesses handle the testimony of alleged victims of rape and sexual assault.”
The team plans to continue their research, testing memory at different levels of intoxication and improving the realism of the scenario presented.