Women can accurately recall details of rape even if they’ve drunk alcohol

·3-min read
Woman drinking wine
Woman drinking wine

Women are still able to accurately recall the details of sexual assault and rape even if they’ve drunk alcohol, according to a new study.

The findings are an important step in challenging courtroom perceptions of women being unreliable as witnesses in cases where they were intoxicated at the time of assault, researchers say.

The team discovered that women who had drunk alcohol up to the legal limit for driving were able to accurately recall details of an assault in a hypothetical scenario.

These included details of activities to which they had and had not consented.

Research leader Professor Heather Flowe, of the University of Birmingham’s school of psychology, 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, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found no evidence to support the idea that if a woman participated in consensual sex while intoxicated, she might later remember it as non-consensual.

Research participants took part in hypothetical rape scenario

Researchers worked with 90 women who each took part in a hypothetical rape scenario under one of four conditions.

Around half the group were given alcohol, while the other half were given tonic water.

Within each group, some women were told they would be drinking alcohol but were given tonic water.

Others were told their drink was tonic water but it contained vodka.

The women worked through a written on-screen and audio account of an encounter between themselves and a man.

They were asked to imagine how they would think and feel if the incident was happening to them.

As the scenario unfolded, the women were asked to make decisions about whether or not to continue the encounter.

If they chose to end the encounter, they were presented with a screen detailing a hypothetical rape taking place at the end of the evening.

Seven days after the experiment, the women completed a questionnaire where they answered questions about the events of the evening.

The results revealed that women who drank alcohol during the experiment were just as accurate in remembering consensual and non-consensual sexual activities.

The study also showed that the participants who expected to drink alcohol - whether they did so or not - were more accurate, overall, in remembering specific details about the rape.

Women likely to be ‘hypervigilant’ when drinking

This suggests that women are likely to become “hypervigilant” in situations where they believe themselves to be under the influence of alcohol and more vulnerable.

Laura Stevens, a PhD student and co-author of the paper, added: “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.

“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 team plans to continue their research, testing recall at different levels of intoxication by improving the realism of the scenario presented.