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  • Respectability on Trial: Sex Crimes in New York City, 1900–1918 by Brian Donovan
  • Catherine Jacquet
Respectability on Trial: Sex Crimes in New York City, 1900–1918. By Brian Donovan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016. Pp. 244. $90.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

In Respectability on Trial, author Brian Donovan delivers an engaging history of the first sexual revolution. Through a close analysis of sex crime trial transcripts adjudicated in New York City's Court of General Sessions, the "busiest criminal court in the world" by the early twentieth century, Donovan explores the changing and contested understandings of sexual and social respectability, notions of proper manhood and womanhood, and the tensions between sexual revolution and counterrevolution at this time (15).

The book is based primarily on Donovan's careful analysis of seventy-five verbatim trial transcripts from four types of sex crime: seduction, rape, compulsory prostitution, and sodomy. Using these transcripts—an impressive sixteen thousand pages of text—Donovan shows that the legal sphere was a prominent site where debates over sexual and social respectability emerged. As he writes, the trials "offer a front-row perspective for understanding the wider contests over gender and sexuality that engulfed the nation at the turn of the century; one can read the trials as miniaturizations of the first sexual revolution" (11). Importantly, the courts were a site where all actors involved—judges, defendants, complainants, and jurors—"actively negotiated the terms and parameters of acceptable sex and sociality" (35).

In his analysis of the transcripts, Donovan makes important interventions into the existing scholarship. He challenges the interpretation of the first sexual revolution as a time of unwavering sexual freedom and progress. While there were dramatic shifts in the history of sexuality at this time—what Donovan rightly terms "an upheaval in sexual manners and mores"—the era was also a time of intense sexual repression and moral reform (29). These forces of repression were particularly active within the criminal justice system, which, Donovan argues, "counteracted the sexual revolution" by [End Page 174] overexposing vulnerable populations to "the harshest elements of criminal law enforcement" while also preventing those groups from finding justice in the criminal courts (29). This is clearly illustrated in the transcripts, where a complainant's race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality status determined the experience he or she would have with the legal system.

The first of the four crimes analyzed is seduction. Nineteenth-century reformers originally promoted seduction laws to protect working-class girls and women from being sexually exploited by wealthy men. While previous historians have argued that middle- and upper-class reformers created and used these laws to control the working class, Donovan finds that seduction cases—nearly half of which included "overt acts of physical sexual coercion"—are better understood as what would now be recognized as date rape or acquaintance rape (42). Thus, rather than viewing antiseduction campaigns simply as "moral panics" or "sex panics," Donovan counters that these laws "created legal tools to fight sexual violence" and could be used to "address the gaps that left working women vulnerable in Progressive Era marriage and sex law" (69).

In analyzing the trials of those accused of raping adult women, Donovan reveals the double bind that early twentieth-century rape law created for rape victims. Understandings and beliefs about feminine respectability were at the core of this double bind and "sabotaged the justice-producing capacities of the criminal justice system" (73). Tropes of feminine respectability put victims in a particularly vulnerable situation as both prosecutors and defense attorneys used them to their advantage. For example, prosecutors used a victim's hysteria and "weakness of mind" during an attack to benefit the complainant and demonstrate the severity of an assault. Defense attorneys, however, introduced a victim's hysterical attacks, nervousness, and other forms of "mental instability" to discredit the complainant as an unreliable witness. Likewise, rape victims were required to resist their attackers for the crime to be considered actual rape, but they were deemed unfeminine, and thus less believable, if they did. Defense attorneys introduced other evidence such as a woman's sexual agency or lack of sexual purity to cast doubt on a...


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pp. 174-176
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