Alcohol Doesn't Blur Memories Of Sexual Assault, Study Suggests, Which Is a Big Deal For How We Handle Rape Cases

When sexual assault victims come forward, it's not uncommon for their credibility to take a hit — particularly if the alleged assault happened when alcohol was involved. Victims may find everything from their motives to their honesty being questioned, as well as their very ability to get their facts straight. However, a new study from the University of Leicester in the UK is backing them up in a big way: Researchers have found that alcohol doesn't stop women from accurately remembering rape, after all.

The researchers studied 88 women between the ages of 18 and 31 at the University of Leicester (where it should be noted the legal drinking age is 18). Half of the participants were placed in a control group and given plain tonic water to drink, while the other half drank enough vodka tonics to reach a blood alcohol content of around 0.08. (That's about a medium to high buzz, in case you were wondering.)

The women then completed an activity similar to a "choose your own adventure" story, except instead of being a fun tale about space travel or being knighted, the scenario involved a sexual encounter. If at any point the participants chose the option to stop the sexual activity, the scenario turned nonconsensual, and the participants then read a sexual assault scenario based on details from actual rape cases.

Afterwards, each participant was asked to recount specific details about their hypothetical assault twice — first 24 hours after reading it, and then again four months later. While it was in fact more difficult for each one to remember minor details about the pretend assault, all of the women in the study were able to accurately recall the most important parts of what happened. What's more, when researchers pressed participants about specific details, they found that those who had been drinking were more likely to reply that they didn't know or didn't remember. However, when they did remember details, they were no less likely to be accurate than the answers given by women who hadn't been drinking.

In other words, alcohol makes you more likely to forget things, sure; but when it comes to what you do recall, alcohol doesn't make you remember things incorrectly, either. And make no mistake, this is pretty big news. Especially when you consider how often the testimonies of assault victims are considered faulty or unreliable by authorities. And although this study focused solely on women, there is no reason to believe male survivors would be any different.

Of course, it's never possible to make definitive statements based on just one study — especially such a small one. And in this case, it's also worth noting that the participants were only moderately to highly buzzed, whereas real victims could be far more intoxicated at the time of their assaults. Plus, in a real-world sexual assault scenario, there are many other factors that can impede or alter someone's memory.

And then there's this: Numerous studies over the years have found that trauma has a huge impact on memory, and that in trying to piece together traumatic events, people often make mistakes or get details wrong. This doesn't mean they are lying or withholding; it just means that the brain's response to trauma is actually counter-productive for memory formation on a neurobiological level. As a result, in trying to fill in the blanks or piece fragmented memories into a coherent narrative, people who have experienced trauma rarely construct flawless stories.

However, if indeed researchers can verify that alcohol doesn't make victims unreliable, that is still a huge step forward. Although alcohol is a factor in 89 percent of sexual assaults, and although it is well documented that rapists use alcohol strategically in order to incapacitate victims, if said victim was drinking, it's often used as a way of dismissing or discrediting them and their story in court. Research shows that law enforcement officers are less likely to believe them, prosecutors are less likely to pursue a case, and defense attorneys are able to stress the fact.

For now, though, let's just focus on what we've gleaned: If it can be scientifically determined that incorrect recollections are the result not of alcohol — and therefore unfairly "blamed" on the victim — but are actually due to a natural neurological process, we could be at an important turning point in how we handle and prosecute such cases, and treat the victims at the center of them.

Images: Andreas Levers/Flickr; Giphy (2)