New research calls into question courtroom preconceptions of women being untrustworthy as witnesses in situations where they were drunk at the time of the attack.
Women can remember exactly what happened when they were sexually assaulted or raped, even if they had or were going to have a few drinks.
A study done at the University of Birmingham showed that Women who had consumed the legal limit of alcohol for driving could remember specifics of a hypothetical attack, including whether or not they had given their permission for certain actions.
Women who were told they would be drinking alcohol but were instead given tonic water showed heightened self-awareness and social engagement.
Frontiers in Psychology: Forensic and Legal Psychology published the results, which constitute a significant step toward changing how juries see female witnesses who were intoxicated during an attack.
“We know that sexual assault frequently coincides with alcohol intoxication,” says lead author Prof. Heather Flowe. “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.”
For the purpose of the study, researchers collaborated with ninety different women and requested each of them to take part in a fictitious rape experience under one of four different circumstances. About half of the group received alcohol, while the other half received tonic water. In each group, some women were informed they would consume alcohol but were given tonic water, while others were told their drink was tonic water but really contained vodka.
The participants were then instructed to go through a written (on screen) and audio-given description of an interaction between themselves and a guy, and they were asked to envision how they would truly think and feel if the occurrence actually occurred to them. As the scenario played out, the women were given choices on whether or not to proceed with the encounter and asked to make their decisions as the story progressed. If they left, a screen showed a possible rape at night.
After the experiment had been conducted for a week, the participants were given a questionnaire to fill out, in which they were questioned about the events that had unfolded the previous evening.
The researchers discovered that women who took alcohol throughout the trial remembered both consenting and nonconsensual sexual acts with equal accuracy. In particular, the researchers didn’t find any evidence to back up the idea that a woman who had consensual sex while drunk might remember it as non-consensual in the future.
The research also revealed that those who anticipated drinking alcohol, whether they really did or not, were often better at recalling specifics of the rape. This shows that women are more prone to become “hypervigilant” in circumstances when they perceive they are more vulnerable due to alcohol use.
“This research challenges a key myth about victim’s memories regarding rape and sexual assault,” adds co-author Laura Stevens, “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 keep doing research, including testing memory at different levels of intoxication and making the scenario more realistic.
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