Having sex with blacked-out women is part of the curriculum at the University of Texas

Having sex with blacked-out women is part of the curriculum at the University of Texas

SexAugust 11, 2017 By Rachel Chesbrough

The conversation surrounding consent and rape culture is ever evolving, ebbing and flowing on the bank of clarity.

The latest to add to the tide is Kim Fromme, due largely to BuzzFeed’s recently published profile on the infamous clinical psychology professor. According to the article, Fromme has spent 30 years studying alcohol’s effects on consumers, and has consequently testified in, consulted on, or provided depositions for more than 50 criminal, civil and military cases since 2009. And her hot take? That an individual can consent to sex, even when blacked-out.

If Fromme’s opinions make your eyes roll harder than a raver, you’re not alone. She’s garnered criticism from colleagues, legal professionals, and the general public. And yet she claims to be impartial, seemingly shocked by the criticism.

Impartial? You sure?
Fromme was notably called out by a prosecutor, during the Brock Turner trial for which Fromme was an expert witness. The prosecutor shared emails from Fromme to the defense, wherein she lauded the acquittal of a man who had confessed to rape, and hoped for a “comparable outcome for our client.”

A separate email to the same defense attorney shows Fromme concerned about providing information externally, as it’d be “akin to showing our entire poker hand prior to making a bet.” It hardly sounds impartial, and she was lampooned for it at the time. BuzzFeed’s Katie JM Baker had Fromme touch on this in their recent interview together.


[Kim Fromme]

“I thought it would be awful, frankly, for a kid that age to have his life ruined,” Fromme said of the convicted sex offender, “which it has been.”

Baker also notes that Fromme’s sympathies remain with the defense even after a trial, applauding (via email to Baker) an article that claimed Turner was “railroaded,” and calling a different guilty rape verdict “heartbreaking.” Won’t someone think of these poor rapists?!

Fromme has also been criticized for her fee of around $10,000 per trial. Baker notes this is fairly standard for expert witnesses, but let’s keep it real, ten grand can have a funny way of fucking with neutrality.

About those methods…
The bulk of Fromme’s findings have come from her past 24 years at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research generally posits that an individual who is drunk or even in a blackout can seem normal and can in fact willingly make decisions like driving a car or having sex — even though they can’t store those memories. Her methodology sounds dynamic and interesting, including a bar lab with before and after tests for participants consuming alcohol (sign us up).

But, as Buzzfeed explains, none of those participants reach a blackout (they’re cut off at .08 BAC). Rather blackout data is gathered from individuals’ accounts of their blackout experiences outside a lab. If that sounds sketchy, it’s because it is. Bustle points out, “Although there is usually testing for reliability for surveys, it's nearly impossible to guarantee that participants are telling the complete truth. So, Fromme's research in the lab at UT Austin doesn't observe blackout states in participants. And she relies on self-reported data — which can't be guaranteed to be 100 percent accurate — to shape her research on alcohol-induced blackouts.”

Do you even want to hear about the cases?
Maybe the most glaring strike against Fromme, at least in the court of public opinion, is the type of legal cases she’s been linked to. Most notably she was the expert witness for the defense in both the Brock Turner and Steubenville cases. For the unfamiliar, Brock Turner was the college student who was discovered by two witnesses to be sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.

“She was unconscious. The entire time. I checked her and she didn’t move at all,” one witness said. “The guy stood up then we saw she wasn’t moving still. So we called him out on it. And the guy ran away, my friend Peter chased after him.”

They caught Turner and held him until police arrived — the victim didn’t regain consciousness until hours later in the hospital. Turner claimed she consented.

The Steubenville case involved a 16 year-old girl who was raped by two classmates over the course of one night involving several parties. There were photos of the young men carrying her limp body from one party to another, as well as witnesses to the assault — one who allegedly asked the rapists to wait until she woke up, but was told, “it’s okay, don’t worry.” Charming.

That line of thinking is a dumpster fire anyway
Fromme is not the terrifying Disney villain in this ongoing consent fable, she’s just the asshole bird perched on their shoulder. The real beast is rape culture, which Fromme eggs on whether she means to or not. In an email interview, Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, clarifies consent for us: 

“Consent is mutual, voluntary agreement. It’s more than not hearing a “no” or making assumptions based on someone’s body language or past interest. It needs to be an enthusiastic expression of interest. To give consent someone needs to be of clear and conscious mind. A person who is intoxicated or impaired cannot give consent.”

And when initiating, if we’re on the fence about whether or not our intended sex partner is too impaired to give consent, we need to take some responsibility for ourselves and our actions. Politely decline and wait it out. Or hell, hop on Tinder and start swiping. 

Of Fromme’s assertions that people in a blackout can consent, Palumbo explains, “This approach fails to recognize how intoxicants are used strategically. People who commit acts of sexual violence know that someone who is intoxicated will have less control of their body and surroundings, sometimes even losing consciousness. Additionally, a person who is intoxicated will likely have gaps in memory, which may increase doubts about their own memory and make it more difficult to accurately report what happened to them.”

So survivors blame themselves or fear others will blame them, and often they don’t report. Rape culture (and Fromme’s logic) would have us believe that all of the responsibility lies with the victim to not be raped, rather than with the assailant to not rape. When in fact the opposite should be true.

Brie Franklin, Executive Director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault spoke to this in a phone interview. “Rape is one the few crimes where we really see this huge burden put on victims, to stop it from happening," she said. "When somebody is drunk, they can’t drive. If somebody is blacked-out, they can’t consent to having sex. And we need to start looking at the people who are then having sex with them. Why would you, as a healthy person, want to have sex with someone who is blacked-out? That’s not a mutual exchange. That’s not a mutual activity. That’s someone doing something to someone else.”

And that’s just it. So much of the burden already lies with the survivor, so it’s infuriating when someone builds a healthy living off of making sure everyone knows, hey they could have wanted it. It perpetuates a hideous social mentality, and sets a dangerous legal precedent. Kim Fromme claims her research has always been intended to prevent the negative consequences of alcohol consumption. Fair enough. Drinking yourself into oblivion is stupid (the headaches alone). But it’s not a crime. Sexually assaulting someone who can’t give informed consent on the other hand, should be.