People who have been sexually assaulted or raped can accurately recall details of the attack after drinking, new research suggests. When alcohol is involved, people are often considered unreliable witnesses of their own assault, but the new study challenges that assumption by demonstrating that women could remember details of a hypothetical assault – including whether or not consent had been given – even after moderate alcohol intoxication.
The results contradict the common courtroom perception that someone's account is less credible if they have been drinking, which has long been a major roadblock to getting a conviction.
“We know that sexual assault frequently coincides with alcohol intoxication,” Professor Heather Flowe, who led the research, said in a statement. In fact, up to 80 percent of victims are reported to have been under the influence at the time of their assault, the authors write.
“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,” Flowe added.
There has also been very little research on the subject: the authors believe this study to be the first empirical evidence regarding alcohol consumption and accounts of sexual assault. “Therefore, in the current study we explored whether people differentially remember sexual activity, both consensual and non-consensual, if they had consumed alcohol in the lead up to the encounter,” they write.
To investigate, they recruited 90 women aged 18-32, working or studying at the University of Leicester, UK. Around half were given an alcoholic drink and the rest were given tonic water. However, as a control, some who were told they were drinking alcohol were actually given tonic and vice versa.
Each was then presented with hypothetical written and audio accounts of an encounter with a man, which they were asked to imagine was happening to them. At certain intervals, the women were given the choice to continue or terminate the encounter, which represented their giving or refusing consent.
A week later, their recollections of the events were tested in a questionnaire, revealing that alcohol didn’t negatively impact their ability to recall consensual and non-consensual activities. The memories of those who had drunk alcohol, up to the UK legal limit for driving, were just as accurate as the memories of those who had not. The researchers found no evidence to suggest that consensual sex might be misremembered as non-consensual when someone had been drinking.
Interestingly, they also found that the individuals who thought they were consuming alcohol – including those who were actually just on tonic water – were generally more accurate in their rememberings. This, the researchers suggest, may be because they are aware of their heightened vulnerability and so become “hypervigilant”.
“This research challenges a key myth about victim’s memories regarding rape and sexual assault, which is often used to dismiss the victim’s account,” co-author Laura Stevens said.
“We hope this work will lead to changes in the way courts and expert witnesses manage testimony from alleged victims of rape and sexual assault.”
The research is published in Frontiers in Psychology - Forensic and Legal Psychology.