This research project places medical professionals at the heart of debates about sexual violence. They have been increasingly influential agents in the understanding, interpretation, medicalisation, and adjudication of sexual attacks. The research focuses on the constituent parts of the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand between the first decade of the nineteenth century, when Forensic Medicine became a separate discipline, and the present. This is an important time to investigate the relationship between medical professionals and sexual violence. Scandals around medical and psychiatric responses to sexual abuse emerge on a regular basis (viz. Nauru detention camp; high attrition rates; the abuse of patients in psychiatric wards; failures to send the biological samples from ‘rape kits’ for forensic examination; complaints about medical examinations; popular anxieties about the medical treatment and rehabilitation of violent offenders). The project will be a powerful example of how historical scholarship can inform contemporary debates.
In the US, 33 Americans over the age of 12 are raped and sexually assaulted every hour. That makes 288,820 legally acknowledged victims. In England and Wales today, 11 people are raped every hour, affecting approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men; another half a million adults are sexually assaulted. The Australian rate of sexual violence is more than double the global average. Physicians and other medical professionals play a central role in the examination, treatment, and counselling of victims of sexual violence. Their scrutiny of the complainant’s body for signs of non-consensual sex is decisive in determining whether or not the police take the assault seriously and whether legal proceedings are instigated. Women, men, and children who are sexually abused depend on the medical and psychiatric professionals for physical and emotional care. Physicians also play significant roles in determining whether an accused person is subsequently convicted, punished, or treated.
The changing functions of medical professionals in understanding, interpreting and adjudicating on instances of sexual violence have been insufficiently conceptualised. Except in times of increased public unrest caused by a scandalous case (often involving child sexual abuse), the pivotal roles played by police doctors and forensic medical examiners, GPs, gynaecologists, surgeons, nurses, midwives, prison surgeons, psychiatrists, and therapists have not been given the attention they warrant. A better understanding of medical responses to sexual violence is imperative given its significant health outcomes – including physical harms (injury, sexually transmitted infection, unwanted pregnancy), psychological disturbance (anxiety, depression, PTSD), and life outcomes (sexual and social dysfunction, drug and alcohol abuse, self harm, suicide). Sexual violence also generates major negative health outcomes for the victims’ families, friends, and communities. A sustained analysis of the history of medical engagement with sexual violence addresses current debates about the treatment of rape victims and the needs of justice.
Find out more about the ‘Sexual Violence, Medicine, and Psychiatry’ Research Group.