Crimes Against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City

In Crimes Against Children, Stephen Robertson confirms an array of the important findings of modern legal history and socio-legal scholarship. He demonstrates that law in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century New York City was a negotiation between the beliefs and practices of the working-class majority and legal elites; he finds that the law in practice diverged from the law as written, and that neither statutes nor appellate decisions predicted the actions of judges or juries in lower-level courts; and he shows that the legal arena was a site of competing stories, desires, and understandings of the world. At the same time, he explores an issue (sexual abuse of children) and sources (New York City criminal court records that document prosecutions of child sexual abuse) that have barely been considered by prior scholars. The result is a book that is both fascinating and disturbing in its particulars, full of careful and illuminating readings of sources. Robertson makes an ambitious original argument, while also stretching the limits of U.S. legal history with incisive treatments of gender, age, and sexuality.

Robertson implores historians to “treat age as a category of analysis” (234). He argues that age should matter to us because it mattered to many of the people about whom we write. First among Robertson’s subjects is the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC), a private charity that acquired remarkably broad legal powers. SPCC leaders shared a late Victorian/Edwardian sentimental view of innocent children who were vulnerable to abuse by vicious men. SPCC activists insisted that allegations of rape involving children be prosecuted, and they moved such cases through the courts. They helped raise the age of sexual consent in New York State from ten to sixteen, generating a category of “statutory” rapes for which adults might be prosecuted even if their partners looked grown-up and appeared to acquiesce. Age came to matter to state legislators who were called upon to discuss these matters, to police officers who were asked to arrest adult offenders, and to judges who heard the cases that resulted. As Michel Foucault once pointed out, and Robertson reemphasizes, children are “among the key figures around whom modern sexuality took shape” (9). The data presented in Crimes against Children amount to an argument that children were key figures around whom modern legal practice, too, emerged.

Age did not matter in the same way to those Robertson calls “ordinary” (64) New Yorkers as it did to SPCC reformers and their allies in government. Jurors, virtually all of whom were working-class men, largely disregarded the distinction between childhood and adulthood based solely on age. Robertson finds that jurors “also expected a child to lack understanding, a trait that revealed itself in passive behavior and the use of ‘childish’ language” (39). Reformers and Assistant District Attorneys learned to present girls as naifs and as passive victims. Robertson notes several cases in which well-meaning SPCC activists or ADA’s excised evidence of girls’ resistance to their rapes for fear that it would make them appear too adult and therefore stand in the way of conviction.

Robertson is no doubt correct to read the sources as he does: as evidence of ideological gaps between juries and reformers, and conciliation to the less elite people on the juries by the more elite people who staffed the SPCC. However, I was not fully convinced that these patterns emerged from what Robertson sees as a unitary working-class legal culture (4). I wish he had paid more attention to differences of sex, race, and ethnicity, as well as to differences of perspective and opinion within the working class. Many of his sources reveal that residents of less-well-off neighborhoods became suspicious when they saw older men sneaking off in the company of girls or boys; didn’t these concerned neighbors read sexual trouble from the age difference between the parties, rather than from the children’s lack of “understanding”?

Another, related, disappointment I suffered reading the book was the limited view it offered of New York City. I wondered: Was the SPCC alone in exercising broad legal powers, or did other private charities work similarly? What impact did the New Deal and post-New Deal expansion in public programs have upon the SPCC? How did the legal world of child sexual abuse change with the Puerto Rican and African American migrations to New York City? No doubt, to provide a rich context that paid attention to the diverse communities in the city, and the enormous physical and political changes that occurred between 1880 and 1960 (!), would require another book in addition to Robertson’s. But some aspects of that context would have helped me gain my bearings as a reader and to assess the significance of the remarkable evidence that appears in Crimes against Children.

By Stephen Robertson