Crimes against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960

Crimes against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960

Crimes against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960

Crimes against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960

Synopsis

In the first half of the twentieth century, Americans' intense concern with sex crimes against children led to a wave of public discussion, legislative action, and criminal prosecution. Stephen Robertson provides the first large-scale, long-term study of how American criminal courts dealt with the prosecution of sexual violence.

Robertson describes how the nineteenth-century approach to childhood as a single phase of innocence began to shift at the end of the century to include several stages of childhood development, prompting reformers to create legal categories such as statutory rape and carnal abuse to protect children. However, while ordinary New Yorkers' involvement in the prosecution of those offenses reshaped their understandings of who was a child and produced a new concern to establish the age of their sexual partners, their beliefs in childhood innocence and in a concept of sexuality centered on sexual intercourse remained unchanged. As a result, families' use of the law and jurors' decisions ultimately diminished the protection the new laws offered to children. Robertson's study, based on the previously unexamined files of the New York County district attorney's office, reveals the importance of child sexuality and sex crimes in twentieth-century American culture.

Excerpt

In 1905, shortly after retiring from his position as professor of legal medicine at Harvard University, Frank Winthrop Draper published A Textbook of Legal Medicine. For almost a century, American physicians had been seeking a more prominent role in the legal system, and during that time they had learned much about the realities of what went on in the courts. in part, Draper wrote his textbook to pass on that knowledge, to ensure that future medical students would be better prepared for what they would encounter in the legal system than their predecessors had been. To that end, he included in his book a passage from the work of the eminent French medical jurist Paul Brouardel, which he clearly felt captured the thinking of Americans just as it did that of Europeans. “People unfamiliar with medico-legal practice,” declared Brouardel, “have an idea that a rape or an attempt at rape is a struggle in which a young man, in full vigor, amorous, excited, brutal, endeavors by violence to obtain the favors of an attractive young woman, who succumbs to him only after energetic resistance. All the details of this picture,” Brouardel wrote, “are false or only exceptionally true.” the “reality” was “much sadder.” the typical victim of rape was in fact “a little girl, defenceless, generally a mere child with stunted intellect, bred in poverty; one upon whom it is easier to distinguish the disorders and effects resulting from repeated acts to which she has habitually consented, rather than the traces of a single brutal assault leaving evidence of the violence used.”

Draper likely felt the need to include Brouardel’s statement because in the United States the predominance of children among the victims of rape was a . . .

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