Women Under the Influence

By Neville Elder 09/20/15

A new UK study shows rape victims who have been drinking remember just as much about their assault as those sober.

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Women under the influence
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Police and investigators see alcohol as a stumbling block when building a case for a victim of sexual assault. Investigators—as do many people—tend to assume alcohol interferes with memory during an assault. But a new study by Dr. Heather Flowe, PhD, senior lecturer at Loughborough University—conducted during her recent term at the University of Leicester’s Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behavior—in the UK, says this may not be the case. In a controlled hypothetical experiment in which female volunteers were dosed with alcohol and then took part in an interactive scenario about a hypothetical sexual assault, her team discovered that women under the influence of alcohol remember less than sober volunteers but their recall of key events—such as the perpetrator’s identity—was the same.

Dr. Flowe told The Fix:

“When you look at items they do answer—in terms of their accuracy—they are just as likely to be accurate as sober women.”

Not only that, but women who answer "I don’t know" when quizzed, likely don’t know and no amount of pressure or questioning will jog their memory.

When Dr. Flowe looked for any scientific studies on the effects of alcohol on memory, she found only a small amount of literature on the subject, so it's not surprising that police forces around the world have no official guidelines for interviewing sexual assault victims where alcohol was involved.

“[Police interviewers] don’t know what to make of it when someone is intoxicated...Do you interview right away? Do you delay the interview? How long should you delay it?”

From her work in a large prosecutor's office in the US, and a strong relationship with Leicestershire police in the UK, Dr. Flowe was able to see the way women who make accusations of assault are treated during the interview process.

In the UK, the complainant is interviewed on video once and it’s this first recorded testimony that’s entered into evidence and played back in court.

In the US, the procedure varies from state-to-state. The victim will be questioned many times and there is no video recording made of the interview. Several different officers might conduct interviews in an attempt to gather "best evidence." In fact, police in the US seem to spend a lot of money making the testimony worse. Different interviewers listening to the victim’s statement will bring different points of view and what the victim ultimately reports over the course of time, sober or not, will be affected. "Best evidence" needs consistency.

Two groups of women were involved in the study. Most of them, undergraduates at the University of Leicester— co0incidetally, women of college age (16-24)—are four times as likely to experience a sexual assault. One group was given alcohol, the other—the placebo group—given non-alcoholic drinks. None of the women knew for sure whether they had been given alcohol. They spent 15 minutes drinking and were then given a hypothetical "dating" encounter with a man that they read on a computer in the lab.

In the scenario images of the events (such as pictures of a room, or other people, or bystanders) were included as was audio and lots of details. The participant would then read the scenario on a computer in the lab. There were 16 scenarios that varied in terms of events and details to avoid false findings but essentially involved a date with a man and drinking, which led to sex. If a volunteer wanted to stop the encounter at any point before sex, they were then directed to a second scenario where the man continued sexual activity without consent. The volunteer was then hypothetically "raped."

The next day—because women often do not report sex crimes immediately—the volunteers were asked to complete a multiple choice, 30-point recognition test. They were questioned about the event and surrounding details. They were also asked if they believed they had been raped during the scenario, and if they would have reported it to the police if it happened in real life.

“We were interested In the amount of information they volunteered,” said Dr. Flowe. “Women who were intoxicated during the scenario reported fewer details [and] were more likely to say, ‘I don’t know.'”

But when they did answer they were just as accurate as the women who were given non-alcoholic drinks. This was very significant, said Dr. Flowe. “[It] indicat[ed] that they were monitoring the accuracy of their memory and deciding whether to report information based on how confident they were and the likelihood it was accurate.”

Often police and prosecutors are worried about how the victim will be perceived in court by the jury. There are issues—particularly in rape cases—around credibility. If she says, "I don’t know," does that mean her whole testimony should be thrown into doubt? How consistent is the testimony if there are gaps and what kind of information is that going to be? Is it going to be information about the perpetrator or—for example—more peripheral information about bystanders? If they say, "I don’t know," on one occasion, are they going to change their answer later?

The defense team of the accused will attempt to exploit, or to discredit the victim in front of the jury. They’ll highlight "missing" information—despite the fact that the victim remembers the key elements of her attack on the stand.

Victims often report feeling re-traumatized under cross-examinations and prosecutors stress the nature of this experience. This may appear unsupportive to the victim. The prosecutor may not have faith in a victim under the influence of alcohol during the rape.

Dr. Flowe says her work should build the confidence of the prosecutor, to trust their victim’s account. She said, “I hope the research helps [the prosecutor] feel reassured that when they have somebody who says they don’t know, or if there’s gaps in their memory, that they can have faith that this is a witness who’s really trying to remember in earnest, information that’s accurate.”

This was a blind study. No one on Dr. Flowe’s team knew which women were getting alcohol. This allowed the participants to make assumptions as to how they would behave if they thought they were intoxicated. Some of the assumptions the volunteers made about their behavior affected their own confidence when recalling details. “If people thought they had been drinking,” said Dr. Flowe, “they tended to blame themselves and this is peculiar to me because we served them alcohol.” Dr. Flowe said if volunteers had engaged in some form of sexual activity in the scenario up to the point when they said "no," they felt guilty about their actions.

Clearly, Dr. Flowe’s study could be a great tool in building the confidence of prosecutors and helping the credibility of victims before trial, but the study could also give victims of sexual assault confidence in their own recall of events. The strength to stand up to an accuser, knowing that what she remembered was accurate and the prosecutors had her back. And just because a victim can’t remember every detail, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He recently wrote about the end of the Silk Road and how the DEA under Michele Leonahrt was rotten to the core.

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