Does Drinking Really Make Sexual Assault Survivors' Testimony Unreliable?

Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
Society tends to assume that our memories go out the window with every sip of a margarita. But, as usual, the process is more complicated than that — and it could have a huge impact on the way we view those who have been sexually assaulted. In particular, a new study suggests that drinking doesn't negate a survivor's memory of assault, and our current all-or-nothing approach to these experiences isn't helping anyone.

In the study, published online this week in the journal Memory, researchers gave 88 undergraduate women either a high or low dose of alcohol (vodka and tonic water) or a placebo (just tonic water). After the drinks, participants went through a computer simulation of a sexual encounter and were given the chance to leave the situation at any moment.

If the participant opted to continue through the whole thing, it ended with consensual sex. But, if she wanted to leave, she was met with what the researchers describe as "a sub-scenario, which describes a legally definable act of rape." Then, first 24 hours and then four months afterwards, researchers gave participants a multiple-choice memory test about the simulated encounter and perpetrator. Crucially, the test included an "I don't know" option for each question that would not be counted as incorrect.

Results showed that, overall, participants who were sober reported more information than those who had been given alcohol. However, the information that the intoxicated participants did provide was just as accurate as that from the sober participants. And, participants who had simply thought they were drinking alcohol — based on the labels on their glasses — were actually more accurate than those who expected they were still sober (regardless of what the latter group actually drank). According to the researchers, this suggests that participants may have been compensating for their perceived intoxicated state by becoming "hypervigilant."

Of course, alcohol does affect our memory, but it's clear that effect is often more complicated than we realize. There is certainly a wealth of studies suggesting that drinking makes it harder for us to remember things. But many of those looked at participants' abilities to recall lists of neutral words rather than emotionally important moments in their lives, making the memory-retention capacity somewhat difficult to translate into real life. (You're probably more likely to remember a car accident than your grocery list, right?) And, there are plenty of other studies contradicting those results, anyways. Even if someone totally blacked out, that doesn't necessarily mean that person doesn't remember anything that happened that night. And, this study suggests that what he or she does remember may be more reliable than we thought.

But there are two larger points this study brings up. First, the way we ask survivors for information is extremely important. According to these results, simply offering people the option to say "I don't know" to a question without it being treated as a wrong answer is crucial to getting as much information as possible.

The second point is that a survivor's reports shouldn't be ignored just because he or she was drinking. Continuing to admonish or ignore the words of people who have been through an extremely horrifying experience, just because they had a drink, will get us nowhere.

There's already some encouraging news to come out of this study, too. With help from the Crown Prosecution Service and the Leicestershire Police, the findings are being used to help create new U.K. national guidelines for the way police should question assault survivors. We can only hope the trend continues — and reaches this side of the pond.

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