A Global History of the Medical and Psychiatric Aspects of Sexual Violence

Medicine and psychiatry have been influential in the understanding and experience of sexual violence. My project explores broad trends from perspectives that are both global and local (in UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand).

The Research Project of Professor Joanna Bourke (Principal Investigator).

Sexually-violent practices and ideologies have varied dramatically over time and geographical region. My research has two parts. First, a history of the medical and psychiatric aspects of sexual violence in UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand between the first decade of the nineteenth century and the present. This is an important time to investigate the relationship between medical professionals and sexual violence in these regions. 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).

Doll-sized bedroom furniture.
Doll-sized bedroom furniture.

Second, the first truly global history of sexual violence, with attention specifically being paid to the medical and psychiatric aspects of this form of harm. Sexual violence has blighted the lives of billions of women in the past and today. It has been a political stratagem (for instance, against followers of Aristide in Haiti or supporters of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in Pakistan), a weapon wielded by one ethnic group against another (the Chinese in Indonesia, the Ogoni in Nigeria, and the Tutsis in Rwanda), a way of collecting information during interrogation (its function for Peru’s counter-insurgency forces), and a way of wreaking religious vengeance (against Muslims and Croats in the former Yugoslavia, as well as against Muslims in India and Myanmar). I will be analyzing historical and geographical differences in the meanings given to sexual violence in these different contexts, as well as the diverse responses of medical professionals.