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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.4 (2005) 383-414

Embodying Delinquency:
Boys' Bodies, Sexuality, and Juvenile Justice History in Early-Twentieth-Century Quebec
Tamara Myers
University of Winnipeg

Juvenile justice was born in the reform schools of the nineteenth century and matured in the juvenile courts of the early twentieth. From the outset, juvenile delinquency was a subjective concept, invoking gender, class, and racial understandings of behavior and opening the door to the policing of a broad range of minor acts of adolescent recalcitrance. The gendered orientation of the juvenile justice system has perhaps been most striking because the acts that landed boys in juvenile institutions consistently differed from those implicating girls.

For girls, what connected their experience of juvenile justice through time and across cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial lines was the policing of their sexuality. The tight link between female deviance and sexuality is demonstrated in the juvenile court's obsession with and aim to contain girls' bodies. In short, girls embodied delinquency. The literature on gender and delinquency has amply proven that girls were constructed as sex delinquents, which overly determined their experience of juvenile justice. 1 Research into one of Canada's first juvenile courts, the Montreal Juvenile Delinquents' Court, provides ample evidence of girls' experience of sexuality—both coerced and consensual—and the juvenile court's comprehensive project to regulate it. Girls brought to juvenile court were sent for medical verification of the state of their hymens; in cases where medical reports condemned [End Page 383] girls, they were required to submit to "sexual confessionals" and bare all to probation officers and the judge. So many girls came forth with names of boys and stories of sexual experiences in dance halls, theaters, automobiles, and their neighborhoods that one could well imagine that the libidinous adolescent male delinquent might also have been questioned about this behavior. Yet, in juvenile justice history, the policing and protecting of boys' bodies and sexuality remain unexplored.

One is hard pressed to find mention of boys' sexuality—or the corporal dimension of their designation as delinquents—in the literature on boys and juvenile delinquency. 2 This absence is in part explained by the fact that official documents from juvenile justice institutions, like annual reports, are silent on the issue of boys' sexuality. Similarly, newspaper accounts largely ignored this aspect of boys' lives and delinquency. In fact, in early-twentieth-century Montreal the public image of the male delinquent was constructed purposefully to elicit pity and compassion from the community and derive support for the new court, ostensibly a child "protection" agency. Thus images of delinquent boys tended to emphasize their prepubescent, sexless, and neglected state. Yet does historians' inattention to boys' sexuality in early juvenile justice confirm a silence in the archival record? Or have boys' bodies merely been overshadowed by the evidence and scholarly assumptions of a more problematic female adolescent body?

In this essay I turn to the Montreal juvenile court records, which provided me with countless stories of girls' sexuality, and ask, Where are the boys? I found a not insignificant body of evidence concerning boys' sexuality. The court's investigation of boys' sexuality was not routine, but from the outset in the 1910s the young male body became a factor in delinquency cases when associated with violence and what the court deemed "perversion," that is, homosexuality. This approach continued throughout the early twentieth century. By the 1940s, however, the court engaged in more widespread policing of boys' sexuality, focusing on boys' sexual agency and heterosexual (mis)adventures. In this way, the policing of boys' "immoral acts," as the court referred to them, began to parallel the policing of girls, though it diverged in two important ways: first, boys' immorality was investigated on a much smaller scale, and second, these investigations produced very different outcomes. Where girls were incarcerated, boys were sent home after promises to do better.

In early-twentieth-century Quebec juvenile justice authorities expected, tolerated, and normalized certain boyish...


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pp. 383-414
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