Dr. Holly Reeve is HydRegen Project Manager and Co-Investigator at the Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford. In 2018 she undertook a BSA Media Fellowship at The Mirror, sponsored by University of Oxford MPLS Division.

Please note: this post contains sensitive information and is not recommended for people under the ago of 16.

A large percentage of sexual assaults still go unreported. A belief that the police will not do anything and that it is a ‘personal matter’ are amongst the most common reasons for this. New research presented at the British Science Festival is helping to improve our justice system and aims to encourage people to report rapes and incidents of sexual violence.

We hear in the news that rapes go unreported, and that many rape cases don’t lead to prosecutions. Add alcohol into these situations, and the number of unreported and unprosecuted rapes increases. The reasons for this are complex, but new research presented at a press conference by Dr Heather Flowe at the British Science Festival, sheds light on the link between alcohol, victim self-blame and likelihood of a rape being reported.

There is a strong connection between alcohol consumption and sexual violence. There are also stereotypes around drinking, particularly for women who are intoxicated in bars and pubs being perceived as promiscuous. Therefore, this new research seeks to untangle self-blame and likelihood of reporting a rape from a complicated backdrop of societal stereotypes about drinking and reasons for self-intoxication.

Much research examines the psychological and physiological effects of alcohol and the implications for rape survivors. In the past, much research of this kind takes place ‘in the field’, that is, in bars and pubs. This research therefore relies on people being self-intoxicated and means that a whole range of physiological attributes are superimposed on the study results.

What does the new research show?

This new research by Dr Heather Flowe and Professor John Maltby reports the first lab-based study on the effects of alcohol on likelihood of reporting a rape. Participants were randomly assigned alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks. Half of each group were told they had been given an alcoholic drink and the other half of each group were told that they had not. The participants were then asked if they believed they had been given an alcoholic drink and were asked if they felt intoxicated. They then participated in a virtual event which led to un-consensual sexual intercourse, after which they were asked if they believed the incident had been rape, about their level of feelings of self-blame and their likelihood of reporting the incident.

The virtual event involved them ‘meeting’ a man and following a set of steps such as getting in his car and letting him into their home. At any point they could say yes or no. Nearly all the participants said no at some point, but in each case, this led to un-consensual sexual intercourse. In all of these cases, the participants perceived this as rape.

Women in the study were more likely to blame the hypothetical rape on their behaviour and character if they believed that they had consumed alcohol

The most significant findings were that if the participant blamed themselves, they were less likely to report the rape, and that self-blame was linked to a belief that they were intoxicated. Whether or not the participant had actually had an alcoholic drink, or been told that they had been given one, had no significant effect on the results.

This is a particularly interesting finding in this controlled environment where the participants did not self-intoxicate; their level of intoxication was prescribed by the study and so was not their choice. Still, a belief that they were intoxicated led the participants to blame themselves for the rape, making them less likely to report it.

Dr Flowe said: “It’s concerning that women in the study were more likely to blame the hypothetical rape on their behaviour and character if they believed that they had consumed alcohol.

“Even more concerning is that the effects of alcohol on rape reporting in the real world might be even stronger than that found in the present research, given the intense levels of scrutiny that survivors are under in real world cases.”

What can we learn from this?

This is particularly interesting when taken into consideration alongside research about alcohol, memory and giving police statements, presented by Dr Flowe at her public event, Drunk Witness. The findings show that people giving statements to the police while intoxicated often include less information, but not any more incorrect information. Many police forces do not have a policy on taking statements while a person (witness, victim etc.) is intoxicated. In some cases, a victim will be left to sober up before a statement is taken. However, the more time that passes, the less accurate a statement is likely to be. A good, and timely, first account is essential to getting the best information, and is particularly important to a victim in feeling believed and like they have access to justice.

For victims of assault, the advice is the same regardless of your intoxication level, and the type of assault that you have been subjected to. Provide a statement as soon as possible – whether this is written down, using an app, or verbally to the police or another first responder. This first statement will be the truest and it will ensure that the details are transferred to your long term memory.

As a society we should be aware of this link between self-blame and unreported sexual violence, and understand that intoxication increases the likelihood of self-blame. That means whether you are a friend, a charity volunteer or a member of the police force, if you are the first person a rape survivor talks to, you should ‘take alcohol out of the picture.’ A raised eyebrow or an ill-informed comment is likely to increase the feeling of self-blame and therefore decrease the likelihood of the rape or assault being reported.