Alcohol, sexual assault and memory loss: new study could disprove a hugely damaging myth about women

woman drinking a cocktail in a bar
Alcohol and being able to recall a sexual assaultJohn Fedele - Getty Images

Trigger warning: mentions rape and sexual assault

We all know the stark facts about rape and sexual assault conviction rates in the UK – they are abysmally low, and when trying to explain why this might be, campaigners often cite a number of common myths surrounding the issue, as well as a lack of proper understanding from jurors and the police. The legal roadblocks are stacked high and stereotypes perpetuated by culture at large eschew the reality.

Rape and sexual assault survivors are often discredited in the courts. Especially if it was known that they'd been drinking alcohol prior to being attacked. It's been a severely damaging trope levelled (largely) towards women for years. Now, a new study is going some way to dismantling the 'alcohol = unreliable witness' myth.

Research by the University of Birmingham has found that alcohol intoxication doesn't necessarily impair a person's ability to recall sexual assault or rape with accuracy. Professor Heather Flowe, from the university’s School of Psychology, and who led the research said of the findings: "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."

How was the study carried out?

The study worked with 90 women who took part in hypothetical rape scenarios, via both a written and audio-presented account, of an encounter between themselves and a man. They were asked to imagine how they would actually think and feel if the incident had really happened to them.

Half the group were given an alcoholic drink, while the other half were given tonic water. Some of the women taking part were also told they were drinking alcohol but were given tonic water instead. Likewise, some were told their drink was tonic water but it in fact had vodka in it. Even those who expected to drink alcohol showed an increased awareness of where they were and their interactions.

The findings demonstrated that the women who had drunk alcohol (up to the legal limit for driving) were still able to recall details of an assault in a hypothetical scenario, including details of activities to which they had and hadn’t consented to.

What were the findings?

One week on from the experiment, the women were then asked to complete a questionnaire which asked them questions about the events of their hypothetical evening. The research revealed that the women who consumed the alcohol during the experiment were just as accurately able to remember consensual and non-consensual sexual activities.

The researchers 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. The findings also revealed that the participants who expected to consume alcohol – whether they did so or not – were more accurate in remembering specific details about the rape.

So, what does this suggest? It's evidence to support women, even going as far as implying not only is the memory not impacted after moderate alcohol consumption, but that actually women become 'hyper-vigilant' in situations where they felt more vulnerable.

Co-author on the paper, Laura Stevens, said: "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 and also improving the realism of the scenario presented.

While further research is needed, and this is just one study involving 90 women, it's a really positive step in the right direction when it comes to dismantling harmful beliefs surrounding consent, alcohol and assault.

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