Winner, 2021-2022 AES Senior Book Prize, awarded by the American Ethnological Society Honorable Mention, Senior Book Prize of the Association for Feminist Anthropology Uncovers how the process of sexual assault adjudication reinforces inequality and becomes a public spectacle of violence
For victims in sexual assault cases, trials rarely result in justice. Instead, the courts drag defendants, victims, and their friends and family through a confusing and protracted public spectacle. Along the way, forensic scientists, sexual assault nurse examiners, and police officers provide their insight and expertise, shaping the story that emerges for the judge and jury. These expert narratives intersect with the stories of victims, witnesses, and their communities to reproduce our cultural understandings of sexual violence, but too often this process results in reinscribing racial, gendered, and class inequalities. Bodies in Evidence draws on observations of over 680 court appearances in Milwaukee County’s felony sexual assault courts, as well as interviews with judges, attorneys, forensic scientists, jurors, sexual assault nurse examiners, and victim advocates. It shows how forensic science helps to propagate public misunderstandings of sexual violence by bestowing an aura of authority to race and gender stereotypes and inequalities. Expert testimony reinforces the idea that sexual assault is physically and emotionally recognizable and always leaves material evidence. The court’s reliance on the presence of forensic evidence infuses these very familiar stereotypes and myths about sexual assault with new scientific authority.
Powerful, unflinching, and at times heartbreaking, Bodies in Evidence reveals the human cost of sexual assault adjudication, and the social cost we all bear when investing in forms of justice that reproduce inequality and racial injustice.
Heather R. Hlavka is Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Sciences at the Klinger College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University. She has published many articles in Gender & Society, Law & Society Review, Violence Against Women, and Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.
Before she joined the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University in 2021, Sameena Mulla was Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. She is the author of The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses and Sexual Assault Intervention, which won the Society for Applied Anthropology and the American Anthropological Association’s Margaret Mead Award.
"Emotionally evocative and theoretically multifaceted . . . Bodies in Evidence is a hallmark of legal anthropology that leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of both the criminal justice system and the possibilities for anthropological studies to inform systemic improvements for a more just and safe society."
~Jennifer Wies, Associate Provost for Academic Programs and Professor of Anthropology, Eastern Kentucky University
"In this beautifully written ethnography, Hlavka and Mulla peel away the dominant cultural veil that depicts US courts as ‘objective’ arbiters of justice that draw on sophisticated forensic technology to arrive at ‘the truth.’. . . It provides a powerful debunking of the all-too-popular fiction of the ‘courtroom drama."
~Claire Renzetti, Judi Conway Patton Endowed Chair for Studies of Violence against Women, University of Kentucky
"The text's most significant contribution is a focus on the holistic nature of the criminal justice system informed by multiple social institutions: the legal system, human rights discourse and practice, gendered private and public domains, the medical system, and histories of race and racism. Readers will come away with a nuanced account of the ways gender-based violence is a costly human activity in its own right."
"Hlavka and Mulla make a monumental contribution to the study of gendered violence and its racialized adjudication. They demonstrate how, through the marshaling of various forms of authoritative knowledge, the justice system reproduces normative narratives of gendered violence that expose and make spectacle of victims’ bodies and leave untouched victimizing bodies."
~Samantha Leonard, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity
"Bodies in Evidence contributes to an already impressive set of literature surrounding topics of adversarial court systems, intersectional feminism, abolitionist feminism, and more. The book is an analytic exploration of the culminating step in the prolonged and arduous criminal legal process that survivors navigate."
~Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Criminology
"Hlavka and Mulla draw on observations of over 680 court appearances in felony sexual assault matters in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, as well as interviews with judges, attorneys, forensic scientists, jurors, sexual assault nurse examiners, and victim advocates."
~Law and Social Inquiry
"Heather Hlavka and Sameena Mulla present a powerful examination of sexual assault adjudication in the United States. Their elegantly written and poignant analysis reveals the ‘human costs’ of court processes that promise, but rarely deliver, justice."
~Gender and Society