Andrea Quinlan’s 2017 book The Technoscientific Witness of Rape: Contentious Histories of Law, Feminism, and Forensic Science (University of Toronto Press) is one of the most critically provocative books on rape and science that I have read in recent years. Quinlan is a Canadian sociologist based at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. Her main interest is in the way that scientific technologies such as “rape kits” have been used in court. From the 1970s, “rape kits” (also known as “sexual assault investigation kits”) were introduced in an increasing number of countries in an attempt to provide medical personnel who examine victims of sexual assault to collect forensic evidence that can be later used in court. These “kits” not only provide standardized procedures for forensic personnel on how to carry out their task, they have also dramatically improved the reliability of the evidence gathered. The kits are generally assumed to improve the credibility of women reporting sexual assault. The enhanced credibility of forensic evidence in law courts would lead to an increase in rape conviction rates. It all sounds incredibly laudable.
Quinlan is not convinced. She launches one of the most trenchant critiques of the way these technologies are used in practice. She argues that the rape kit is an example of a “boundary object”, that is, a technology that “reflects and maintains the histories and politics of the worlds of which it is a part”. In other words, rape kits straddle law and medicine and are therefore deeply implicated in the patriarchal and racist histories of those institutions. The kit makes assumptions about the identity of “real perpetrators”—they are almost always strangers, rather than husbands or lovers. The technology also positions physicians and forensic examiners as “expert users,” while rape victims are pressed into conforming to a particularly unhelpful “forensic script” in which their bodies become little more than a “walking crime scene.” The kit becomes the active witness—a “technoscientific witness”, as Quinlan puts it, to crime. Indeed, the victim is increasingly distrusted: she is the one who destroyed evidence (by showering, for example). Crucially, kits encourage an individualized understanding of sexual violence, rather than a social one. Responsibility devolves to victims, who can never actually live up to the “hype” of scientific authority.
This is also a book deeply informed by feminist analyses of science. It is a fascinating analysis of the role of science in rape cases. Crucially, though, she ends by discussing how “it could have been different.”