Crimes against Children

Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960

By Stephen Robertson

352 pp., 6 x 9, 10 tables, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5596-6
    Published: April 2005
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-7648-0
    Published: March 2006
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7321-7
    Published: March 2006

Studies in Legal History

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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 against children.

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.

About the Author

Stephen Robertson is a lecturer in the department of history at the University of Sydney.
For more information about Stephen Robertson, visit the Author Page.


"Fascinating and disturbing in its particulars, full of careful and illuminating readings of sources."--Law and History Review

"A landmark contribution to analyses of sexual violence and its prosecution in U.S. history."--Journal of the History of Sexuality

"Presents a richly multivalent and revealing history of this violence and law. . . . A valuable contribution to legal, social, and policy history. . . . Robertson has written an original and important history of a difficult subject."--Historian

"[Crimes Against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960] is a complex and provocative book, and [Robertson] demonstrates that ideas about the stages of child development influenced more than parenting advice, medical care, and the child sciences. . . . This book is well worth the effort."--American Historical Review

"Stephen Robertson examines the history of sex crimes against children with great care, sensitivity, and insight. He reveals a legal culture in which prosecutors, reformers, scientists, and working-class New Yorkers contested notions of sexual violence and harm over many decades. In so doing, he offers a striking new argument about the significance of age as a social, cultural, and legal category crucial to our understanding of twentieth-century sexuality and identity."--Kathy Peiss, University of Pennsylvania

"Robertson's research stands out as interdisciplinary in a far more significant sense than that term usually demands. His sample of more than 1,500 cases allows him unprecedented insight into the logic of prosecutors' decision making and the thinking of working-class parents and middle-class jurors that informed that decision-making. It also allows him to place a new perspective on cases that achieved media notoriety. This is truly a remarkable study."--Jonathan Simon, University of California, Berkeley