- Medicine, The Penal System and Sexual Crimes in England, 1919–1960s by Janet Weston
Sexual Crime, Modern England, Criminal Justice, Penology, Institutionalization
Janet Weston’s new book explores the medicalization of sexual crime in English criminal justice in the half century between the close of World War I and the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Her work carefully teases out how medical researchers and practitioners claimed expertise over that subset of male sexual offenders whose crimes they understood to proceed from psychological abnormality. The arc of her narrative covers a “modest golden age” in research and practice (p.4), beginning with these claims and a rehabilitationist optimism in the prospect of long-term cures for such offenders. By the end of that period, optimism had waned, and attention and resources moved elsewhere. This golden age nonetheless fundamentally reshaped how medicine and criminal justice dealt with sex offenders, and Weston’s lucid and important treatment of this history is essential reading for anyone interested in the [End Page 234] intersections between medicine, the law, and sexual crime. This book will also be of interest to a wide variety of readers seeking to learn about topics like criminal justice and criminology, penology and carceral institutions, forensics, sexology, psychiatry and psychology, and “deviance.”
Medicine, The Penal System and Sexual Crimes in England is a relatively short book with a somewhat narrow, if productive, framing. By focusing closely on perceived mental disorder among sexual offenders in criminal justice contexts, Weston is able to construct a rich holistic account of a particular historical moment, one that would be impossible if the study focused instead on particular disease categories, occupational groups, or institutions. Her approach does necessarily entail a heavily top-down perspective, though, as we follow the ideas and doings of medical men and criminal justice actors, and their movements through the different institutions that dealt with sexual offenders. Her sources largely come from those in charge, be they doctors, members of the judiciary, those working in or before Parliament and the Home Office, and the like. Offenders, those they offended against, and others who would be the subject of a history of sexual crime “from below” are a shadowier presence here, challenging as their words are to locate and access.
Medical men interested in abnormal psychology only ever devoted their attention to a small slice of sexual crime. Contemporaries were particularly concerned about apparent deviations from and perversions of appropriate English masculinity (with all the racial, class, and other implications that that held). Thus indecent exposure, sexual sadism, and, after World War II, homosexuality commanded attention as deviant, while offenses like the sexual assault and rape of women did not. The latter were crimes, but crimes that seemed to proceed from what was understood as men’s normal and natural reproductive drives, and thus not deviant. Female sexual offenders also escaped scrutiny. Deeply embedded cultural attitudes connected all female criminality to sexual abnormality; all female offenders were “by definition sexually wayward” (p.57), and therefore merited little attention from researchers and clinicians. Traditional methods of understanding, trying, and punishing them seemed entirely appropriate.
Weston recreates a pluralistic medical and medico-legal community that attended to these men. Among other important findings, she draws our attention to the essential contributions of prison medicine to introducing and broadening the remit of psychological approaches to sexual crime in criminal justice contexts in the early years of her narrative. The full community of researchers and practitioners she describes offered a diverse array of explanations for offending and therapies to try to achieve cure. By tolerating “ontological anarchy” (p.3, p.128), they gave fellow practitioners and the criminal justice system enormous flexibility in making sense of and dealing with offenders. This flexibility was important for the medical profession, helping “a potentially fractured field to remain sufficiently unified to have some influence” (p.79). It also allowed medicine to offer a flexible range of tools and ideas for the state and various criminal justice institutions to use or disregard at their discretion.
To explain offending, practitioners pointed...