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

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

Sarah Horowitz

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 occured 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.

Anonymous drawing presumed to be of Charles de Choiseul, Duke of Praslin. (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)

As a result, child abuse in middle-class and wealthy families was often hard to see, even when the evidence was in plain sight. For instance, in 1847, the French public was transfixed by the Choiseul-Praslin Affair, a domestic violence case in an aristocratic family. After the Duke of Choiseul-Praslin killed his wife and then committed suicide, her correspondence with him was published and widely disseminated. The public had little difficulty understanding that he was a violent abuser, but ignored the Duchess’s mistreatment of her children, despite the fact that she referenced it in her letters. Instead, she was cast as the perfect mother, one who was completely loving and dedicated to her offspring. Because she was a woman from the highest reaches of French society, it was hard for people to understand that she could have abused her children.1

In the middle of twentieth century, cultural understandings of child abuse shifted, thanks largely to an 1962 article by pediatrician C. Henry Kempe titled “The Battered Child Syndrome.” It showed that child abuse was much more common than many imagined and did, indeed, occur in middle-class families. Kempe and his co-authors relied on X-rays to reveal just how many children had been so severely abused as to have broken bones. They were struck by the number of cases in which children had fractures and subdural hematomas (visible to radiologists, but not to the naked eye), and their parents were unable or unwilling to account for their children’s injuries. According to the authors, “To the informed physician, the bones tell a story the child is too young or too frightened to tell.”2 For these men, technology provided clear, objective proof of abuse, and told doctors whom to believe and whom to treat with skepticism.

Of course, technology wasn’t the whole story, since we use it and interpret its results according to our cultural frameworks. X-rays had been around since the late nineteenth century, but the idea that many children might be subject to parental abuse made more sense in the increasingly anti-authoritarian 1960s. In particular, the work of Kempe and his colleagues was rooted in the idea that parents might use their authority over their children to perpetrate violence and then lie about it to doctors. “The Battered Child Syndrome” was also published a year after Adolph Eichmann’s trial for helping to organize the Holocaust, an event that led many to wonder how violence could lurk in the hearts of those who seemed to be entirely ordinary. (Kempe, it is worth noting, was a German Jew who fled the Nazis in the late 1930s.)

Rib fractures in an infant secondary to child abuse. (National Institute of Health/Wikimedia Commons)

These physicians’s work is heralded for improving our understanding of child abuse and calling attention to its frequency. Nevertheless, the old prejudices about the nature of familial violence haven’t gone away. Because policing is so racialized in this country, non-white folks are a lot more likely to get reported for child abuse.3 Technology can also exacerbate racial and socio-economic disparities. New predictive models for child abuse that promise to eliminate bias actually replicate it, since these programs are designed around the idea that children from poor households are more likely to be subject to abuse and neglect. For instance, one program used in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania draws on information about a household’s reliance on public assistance programs to assess the likelihood that a child is being abused — but, of course, middle class families don’t use these programs. In the words of the political scientist Virginia Eubanks, this is “poverty profiling” that “confuses parenting while poor with poor parenting.”

What can the story of technology’s use in detecting child abuse tell us about what might happen to our understanding of rape? It suggests that, as much as we might hope that we are on the brink of a cultural shift — that DNA evidence might provide a clearer picture of who commits rape and how prevalent it is — we shouldn’t be too optimistic about how much and how fast society will change. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that technology can help us find the evidence that we are culturally primed to look for. Ideas about violence and authority in the 1960s led to new uses for X-rays. Yet, today, years of activism around sexual assault (along with a lot of federal money) has not made the processing of rape kits a priority in certain jurisdictions. Technology doesn’t get rid of old and pernicious prejudices — we do.


  1. Dorothy Scott, Confronting Cruelty: Historical Perspectives on Child Abuse (Carlton South: Melbourne University Press, 2002); Louise A. Jackson, Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England (London: Routledge, 2000); Larry Wolff, Postcards from the End of the World: Child Abuse in Freud’s Vienna (New York: Atheneum, 1988); Sarah Horowitz, “The End of Love: Politics, Emotions, and Domestic Violence in the Choiseul-Praslin Affair,” Journal of Family History 42, no. 4 (October 2017): 381-400. Return to text.
  2. Jennifer Crane, “‘The Bones Tell a Story the Child Is Too Young or Too Frightened to Tell’: The Battered Child Syndrome in Post-War Britain and America,” Social History of Medicine 28, no. 4 (November 2015): 767–88. Return to text.
  3. Frank Edwards, “Family Surveillance: Police and the Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect,” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 5, no. 1 (February 1, 2019): 50–70. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Buckle fracture radius in a child. (Courtesy Lindsay Davidson/Flickr)

Sarah Horowitz is Associate Professor of History at Washington and Lee University. She is the author of Friendship and Politics in Post-Revolutionary France (Penn State University Press, 2013) and is currently working on a study of the Steinheil Affair and the politics of scandal in Belle Époque France.