Professor Bourke Speaks on Sexual Violence and Medicine

Zoe Frishberg, Maroon-News Staff

On Tuesday, September 12, in the Center for Women’s Studies, Professor Joanna Bourke discussed the evolution of the treatment of rape survivors in a Brown Bag titled, “Sexual Violence, Science and Medicine: A History.” The presentation was an elaboration of her newest study examining the relationship between sexual violence survivors and the doctors and nurses who treat them. 

Bourke is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and fellow of the British Academy. She has won many prizes for her 12 books covering a range of topics including modern warfare, military medicine, psychology and rape. She is currently the Principal Investigator of a 5-year Wellcome Trust project titled “Sexual Violence, Medicine and Psychiatry.”  

Bourke started her discussion by introducing a television show that aired on English TV in 1977 titled, “Act of Rape.” The program was seen by 2.5 million viewers at the time of broadcast and became a very controversial part of the discussion regarding how rape survivors are treated. The show portrays a dramatization of a girl being raped by her boyfriend. The show follows her story as she is doubted by police, the jury and judges. The second part of the show includes a studio discussion with rape survivors, a judge and a police surgeon, who discuss what had transpired in the sexual assault dramatization. 

At that time in the ’70s, rape allegations were often disregarded. The people who primarily examined the survivors were called “police surgeons.” While police surgeons had other jobs like treating prisoners and inspecting DUI suspects, only a small fraction of their job was to examine rape survivors. This position was available to anyone with a medical degree, and often drew some candidates who were not actually qualified for the role. A police surgeon needed to work late at night, collect low pay for exhaustive and time-consuming work and work in jails and cells surrounded by criminals. Most found the job “distasteful,” and the position was often filled with low-quality physicians. This posed a major problem for survivors because it was considered the police surgeon’s job to unequivocally report to the police whether or not the victim was telling the truth about his or her sexual assault. 

The 1987 Cleveland Child Sexual Abuse Scandal proved to citizens and police, who had relied on police surgeons’ reports for decades,  that there was no way to unequivocally corroborate whether a rape had occurred through physical bodily signs and trauma. In the course of this scandal, it was proven that police surgeons could not even determine whether a woman had sexual intercourse before an examination through physical signs. While this scandal was deeply upsetting because it proved that police surgeons had been determining rape trials based on faulty evidence, it did prompt feminists and activists to take new measures to improve the treatment of rape survivors. Rape Crisis Centers opened, and more female police surgeons were hired to treat victims.  

The whole discussion circled around the original topic of the televised “Act of Rape” and what that program revealed about rape survivor trauma treatment. The original assumption was of “no wound no assault,” meaning that if a woman was not physically battered, it was assumed that no assault had taken place. 

Bourke compared that era of treatment to today’s treatment of victims. Some volunteers in the audience explained that Community Memorial Hospital now has a program from 6 p.m. on Thursday through 8 a.m. on Monday to help sexual assault survivors. Bourke concluded the discussion by explaining that even though we have made great strides in rape survivor treatment since the debut of “Act of Rape,” there is still much room for improvement in accommodations and treatment of sexual assault survivors. 

Contact Zoe Frishberg at [email protected].