Book Notice

By Cassie Watson; posted 21 July 2017.

Victoria Bates. Sexual Forensics in Victorian and Edwardian England: Age, Crime and Consent in the Courts (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). ix, 202 pp, £58.00.

Historians of law, crime and justice should read this book. It will of course appeal to those who have an academic interest in the history of sexual offences, but will make for illuminating — indeed, thought-provoking — reading for anyone who researches the links between medicine, law and crime. This interdisciplinary study, based on case files from quarter sessions courts in four counties (1850-1914), argues convincingly that medical witnesses played a significant role in constructing and reinforcing rape myths during a period of growing public concern about sexual offences and working-class sexuality. The author’s approach is especially novel in its focus on age. Although the law defined the age(s) at which consent to sexual contact could be given, this was not necessarily mirrored in popular understanding of the difference between a child and an adult. Pubescent girls were caught in the middle because medicine defined puberty as a transitional stage between the two; mental and physical capacity might not necessarily match. Thus, rather than the modern historiographical distinction between “child sexual abuse” and “rape,” Bates’s analysis demonstrates that Victorian and Edwardian forensic testimony focused on individual victims, weighing up age against any suggestion of “precocity” but paying little attention to the perpetrators or even the particular nature of sexual offences against girls.

My review of this book is published by the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 13 July 2017,