Blacking Out (Blackouts), Passing Out (Unconsciousness), and Rape Allegations

Women who have been drinking alcohol and report being raped often don't remember events surrounding the alleged crime. Defendants frequently claim that the alleged victim gave consent for sex. Juries are left with a confusing situation of "he said, she said."

To avoid becoming a potential defendant, men need to remember that laws prohibit sex with individuals under a specified age or whose judgment is impaired to the degree that they can't give informed consent. Judgment can be impaired because of such things as being developmentally disabled, intoxicated, or high on drugs.

When complainants don't remember what happened during the alleged rape, they may believe that they were unconscious at the time. However, more often, they are suffering from a blackout.

There are two forms of alcohol blackout. In one (en bloc) blackout, the person experiences amnesia covering the entire period of intoxication whereas in fragmentary blackout the person experiences partial amnesia of that period. The latter are more common than the former.

It is important that blackouts not be confused with being passed out or being unconscious. When people are passed out, they are not conscious of what is going on during that period of time. On the other hand, people who suffer a blackout are experiencing amnesia; they were conscious and aware of what was going on while intoxicated but now they can't remember what happened.

People who are conscious may be able to give consent if they choose whereas those who are unconscious cannot ever give consent.

Confusion and later disagreements about the circumstances surrounding sex can be reduced if people avoid intoxication in situations in which sexual activities might occur.

Although blackouts are typically associated with high levels of intoxication, research suggests that the rapidity of intoxication, that is, a rapidly increasing blood alcohol concentration (BAC) may be more important than the level of intoxication.

Note: This website does not provide medical, legal or other advice or opinion and none should be inferred.

Readings:

  • Goodwin, D. W. et al. Alcoholic "blackouts": A review and clinical study of 100 alcoholics. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1969, 126, 191-198.
  • Hartzler, B., and Fromme, K. Fragmentary and en bloc blackouts: Similarity and distinction among episodes of alcohol-induced memory loss. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 2003, 64(4), 547-550.
  • White, A. M. et al. Experiential aspects of alcohol-induced blackouts among college students. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 2004.

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