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Will Technology Change How We Understand Interpersonal Violence? Maybe. Probably Not.

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tags: sexual assault, technology, child abuse, interpersonal violence



Sarah Horowitz is an Associate Professor of History at Washington and Lee University.

The Atlantic’s August cover story by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, “An Epidemic of Disbelief,” describes how some jurisdictions, in the midst of processing backlogs of rape kits going back years and in some cases decades, are uncovering DNA evidence that is changing what we know about rape. DNA testing has shown that there is an extraordinarily high number of serial rapists out there whose victims include many women whom the police first dismissed when they reported their rapes. Bradley Hagerty raises the possibility that all this processing of old evidence could reverse what she calls the “subterranean river of chauvinism” that leads the police to disbelieve women when they come forward with rape allegations.

This sentiment reflects a kind of technological utopianism: DNA testing can liberate us from our prejudices, help us see the truth about the world, and lead the way to a better society. But there are reasons to be more cautious. This isn’t the first time technology has been heralded for its potential to revolutionize our understanding of interpersonal violence. In the 1960s, doctors maintained that X-rays could help detect otherwise hidden cases of child abuse. And while technology allowed child welfare professionals to see that child abuse was more prevalent than they had previously thought, it didn’t uproot bias. And today, software that claims to assess which children are most in danger of abuse is reinforcing old stereotypes about the propensity of poor parents to abuse their children. Because members of society use technology according to our cultural priorities, we shouldn’t expect it to change the culture. That’s the work that society, not machines, must do.

In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, child abuse was thought to be relatively rare. Because the family was understood as a domain of love, tenderness, and care, it was hard to conceptualize why parents might be violent. If child abuse existed, it was thought to be a phenomenon that only occurred among the families of the poor: those who didn’t have the resources to raise their offspring or, according to the prejudices of the day, didn’t know how to do so.

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