Bodies in Evidence:
Race, Gender, and Science in Sexual Assault Adjudication
by Heather Hlavka and Sameena Mulla
Bodies in Evidence is a powerful and brilliant team ethnography that explores forms of re-injury and injustice in sexual assault adjudication in the U.S. justice system. Co-authors Hlavka and Mulla detail these forms by investigating the day-to-day operations of the Milwaukee County Courthouse’s felony sexual assault courts. Together with a team of students the co-authors attended nearly 700 court hearings, analyzed trial and sentencing transcripts, and interviewed an impressive range of actors including prosecutors, defense attorneys, advocates, nurse examiners, and jurors. Their resulting study highlights what they term the nomos of sexual violence that inheres in adjudication–that is, how justice is thwarted through the cultural evaluation of certain types of evidence, and the circulation of sexism, racism and classism through due procedures. To show this, the book carries the reader through jury selection, victim-witness and defendant testimonies as well as expert testimonies by police, detectives, nurses, and forensic experts. Grounded in feminist praxis, Hlavka and Mulla handle the topic of sexual assault carefully in the writing. They focus not on the spectacle of violence re-enacted, but rather on the ways in which court procedures compel victim-witnesses to endure trauma again and again in the court. As Hlavka and Mulla show, racist, gendered and classist assumptions and hierarchies are reinscribed in these proceedings, as well, through enduring frames of “victimhood” and “aggressor” in the criminal justice system. The book also takes on the challenge of exploring the intimacies of sexual assault–including the fact that it often occurs among members of the same family. Ultimately, through this systematic and clearly written ethnography, the authors ask readers to confront the complicities and structural violence embedded in the American court system. By querying the very limited forms of justice made possible through court proceedings, the co-authors also offer a compelling case for imagining alternative and abolitionist notions of justice and repair.
In addition to the book’s contribution to feminist and legal anthropology and the anthropology of science, this work is an excellent model for anthropologists interested in doing local research, and in collaboration with others. Hlavka and Mulla worked across sociology and anthropology, bringing together their backgrounds researching sexual violence and its reframing in forensics, in emergency rooms, and child advocacy contexts. They also conducted the research near their home institution (at the time) and involved undergraduate and graduate students in the research. As such, Bodies in Evidence is both an important contribution to critical legal studies, as well as a powerful example of engaged, collaborative and locally sited ethnographic research that will inspire future anthropologists.