Journal of Interdisciplinary History 38.1 (2007) 151-152

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Reviewed by
David S. Tanenhaus
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Crimes against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880–1960. By Stephen Robertson (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2005) 337 pp. $59.95 cloth $22.50 paper

In the haunting film The Woodsman (2004), Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a parolee who is guarded about his past. When pressed repeatedly by his new "girlfriend" (Kyra Sedgwick) to reveal what he had done, he finally tells her, "I molested little girls." She laughs until he says, "Twelve years in prison is no joke." After a long and painful silence, she asks, "How young?" Stephen Robertson's remarkable book helps to explain why this question sounds so natural, and why Walter's age-specific answer ("between ten to twelve") is so deeply unsettling. Moreover, Robertson's analysis also suggests why Walter's violent assault on a man who molests young boys serves as a symbolic act of rehabilitation and a pathway to social acceptance.

To research the subject of sexual violence in New York City, Robertson draws on a large sample of case files from the Court of General Sessions in 1886 and 1891, and from the District Attorney's Office from 1886 to 1955. He uses his findings to ground his claim that twentieth-century Americans increasingly viewed sexuality through the prism of age, which involved seeing pedophiles as developmentally immature. In the process, Robertson builds on the important work of such scholars as Chudacoff, who argue that "age" is a significant category that should guide "the analysis of American history" (234).1

In addition to demonstrating the fluidity and contested nature of age, Robertson also contends that scholars should take a local (as well as a long) view of legal-cultural constructs like sexual violence. From this perspective, he reconstructs a history of sexual violence that highlights the interactions among working-class communities, middle-class reformers, and the legal system. Thus he reveals why the efforts of child savers—for example, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—to define and monitor childhood met resistance, and how assistant district attorneys learned which cases of sexual violence to prosecute and how to present child witnesses to skeptical jurors.

Robertson faces a major challenge in moving from the individual case files to a broader cultural history of sexual violence. By paying close attention to language, he makes this move gracefully. He highlights how Americans invented and used the terms boyfriend, girlfriend, jail bait, child molester, and sexual psychopath to make sense of appropriate sexual actors and to classify criminal ones.

Although Robertson does a splendid job of crossing humanities- based disciplinary boundaries, ranging from critical legal history to cultural studies, his nuanced approach raises an important question about the limits of historical approaches to age. For instance, historians who [End Page 151] privilege the social construction of human nature often have a difficult time conversing with scientists who start from essentialist assumptions about human development. Despite such collaborative efforts as Children in Time and Place: Development and Historical Insights, a fundamental divide remains.2 If historians follow Robertson's call to make age a category of historical analysis, they will need to do more to bridge this divide.


1. Howard Chudacoff, How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture (Princeton, 1989).

2. Glen H. Elder, Jr., John Modell, and Ross D. Parke (eds.), Children in Time and Place: Developmental and Historical Insights (New York, 1993).