Damaged daughters: the history of girls' sexuality and the juvenile justice system.

Author:Pasko, Lisa
Position:Centennial Symposium: A Century of Criminal Justice

We try to give the girls the skills to make better choices and take responsibility for their actions. We tell them, "It's now up to you when you leave here," but I know it's not going to work for most of them .... They're just too much in the life, you know? They come in here with a lot of damage.

--Therapist, girls' residential facility


    In the early years of the juvenile justice system, adolescent offenders were viewed as little adults, often receiving punishments--in the form of retaliation, retribution, and banishment--commensurate with older lawbreakers. By the late 1800s, increases in immigration, urbanization, and industrial jobs heightened poverty and subsequent societal concerns. Poor became synonymous with delinquent, as poor and neglected children often turned to criminal activity as a means of dealing with familial neglect and abandonment. (1) Because incarceration with adult offenders did not seem to deter youth from criminal behavior, reform schools--Houses of Refuge-were founded. Their primary intent was to provide discipline and education to incorrigible youth who lacked desirable character--to save these children from themselves and their surroundings.

    The movement to create separate institutions for juvenile offenders was part of the larger Progressive movement that, among other things, was ardently troubled about social and moral evils, such as promiscuity and prostitution. (2) Spearheaded by privileged women, the child savers' movement and the establishment of family courts provided an opportunity for these women "to patrol the normative boundaries of the social order." (3) Particularly concerned with sexual morality, "fallen" rescue homes, homes for unwed mothers, and girls' reformatories served the multiple functions of restoring girls' moral core, providing prenatal and natal care, and containing sexually transmitted diseases. Whereas the first juvenile court originally defined "delinquent" as those under sixteen who had violated a city ordinance or law, when the definition was applied to girls, the court included incorrigibility, associations with immoral persons, vagrancy, frequent attendance at pool halls or saloons, other debauched conduct, and use of profane language in its definition. (4)

    Ultimately, many of the activities of the early child savers and juvenile courts revolved around monitoring the behavior of young girls, particularly immigrant girls and girls of color, to prevent their straying from the path of sexual purity. This Article examines such efforts, from the genesis of the first industrial school to contemporary correctional residential settings. It shows how legal actors and correctional practitioners historically framed girls' sexuality issues--from promiscuity and prostitution to sexual orientation and sexual offending. Using interview research performed in girls' youth correctional facilities, this Article also examines the current construction and control of girl offenders' sexuality in the juvenile justice system.


    In the early years of juvenile corrections, the concerns with girls' sexuality were moral, with a few categories of behaviors explicitly labeled as "sex offenses," and the primary cure for such moral disorder was rescue from and of the family. For example, Barbara Brenzel wrote that in late-nineteenth century Lancaster, Massachusetts, girls were sentenced to reform school in order "to punish petty larceny; to supply a home; to effect moral salvation; to prevent further 'lewd' acts; and to provide protection from physical abuse." (5) Similarly, Ruth Alexander traced how delinquent young women in early-twentieth century New York--"wayward" girls institutionalized for various morals offenses contested constraints of female heterosexual virtuous norms and were sent to reformatories for indulging in the sorts of freedoms that their wealthy sisters exercised, such as going on unsupervised dates and spending their money as they pleased; yet their wealthy sisters were not branded as being "wild," immoral, deviant, or useless to their families. (6) Sexual purity became the ultimate marker of femininity, as mothers and fathers believed it solidified their daughters' chances of leaving the home, of maintaining a good reputation for the family, and of becoming a good wife and mother.

    Mary Odem, in her study of juvenile justice in late-nineteenth century Los Angeles and Oakland, also found that working-class young women who sought opportunities for social and sexual independence ended up in police holding cells, juvenile courts, and training schools for their morally offensive behaviors. (7) Odem showed that reform efforts led by morally concerned, conservative women to protect girls from marauding men were ineffectual. (8) The girls themselves received judicial penalties for their willfulness and sexual encounters (even if such encounters were coerced), whereas their male partners received little to no legal or social condemnation. (9) Indeed, not only did girls remain sexually vulnerable, but justice professionals, as well as familial intimates, openly questioned whether girls' victimization resulted from fervent promiscuity or personal feeble-mindedness.

    Likewise, Anne Knupfer found in her analysis of the early juvenile court in Chicago that between 1904 and 1927, 60% to 70% of delinquent girls placed on probation or in institutions were charged with incorrigibility. (10) Judges more frequently institutionalized girls than boys for sexual delinquency or immorality, considering it a "more dangerous" sex offense. Embedded in these deliberations was a dichotomous image of girls on one hand, a victim, an errant yet essentially good girl, and on the other, a "sexualized demon," a danger not just to herself but to the larger society. (11) Consequently, nearly all girls who had sex with more than one partner were institutionalized. Additionally, nearly 70% of the girls who were institutionalized were victims of incest, although this "discovery" was noted mostly as fact and not as a mitigating circumstance. (12)

    Discourse surrounding girls' "sexual offending" in early 1920s New York and Illinois revealed similar conclusions. Psychiatrist William Thomas asserted, in his summary report of "unadjusted" girls from juvenile courts in these two states, that sexually promiscuous and prostituting girls were "wild" in their character and their casual sexual behaviors were part of a "high life," in which girls used sex for access to restaurants, shelter, moving pictures, and clothes. (13) Asserting that sexually active girls do not enjoy sex and have no sexual awakening, he also wrote that "sexual passion does not play an important role" and "very few girls ever allege actual want ... as a reason for entering prostitution." (14) Understanding this economic motivation, Thomas continued by explaining that the girls' fathers claimed to "have no use for them if they did not bring home all their pay," which led girls into a predicament of fighting with their fathers for their earnings or exchanging sex for money or desired goods to supplement what their fathers harvested from their daughters' paychecks. (15) He wrote, "It is true in general that if you have a good family you do not have a bad individual. The well-organized family, with property and standing, is in a position both to regulate and gratify the wishes of its members." (16) Blaming poverty and immigration, he stated that girls' sexual "tendency to demoralization" was the result of immigrant and disordered families in need of visiting by Christian women, receiving food or money, and coming to the rescue in times of crisis. (17)

    Thomas's account of the girls also underscored the constant ways sexual assault was constructed by the institutions--as a form of sexual delinquency and a result of girls' bad choices. For example, he wrote about Annie, age fifteen, who had suspected sexual relations with two men prior to her appearance at juvenile court for the offense of prostitution and incorrigibility:

    January 22, 1922. Her story goes as follows: She met Simon Craw in an ice-cream parlor, flirted with him, and they became acquainted. He asked her to go joy riding. She said "no" but made a date with him to go to a moving picture. After the show they went to an ice cream parlor and ate hot chocolate. Simon introduced her to a soldier whose name she forgot. She told them she did not want to go home, as it was 11 P.M. and she had promised to be home at 8 P.M. The soldier said he knew that the proprietor of the Ohio Hotel would let all three of them have one room for the night. She said, 'I don't want to go. I don't want to be used by everybody." Simon said "you don't have to" and the two men persuaded her to go, where she proceeded to have relations with them. (18) Similarly removing aspects of coercion or victimization, Katharine Davis, a superintendent of the New York girls' reformatory, wrote about girls' prostitution as often being the outcome of the girls' having been easily "convinced to engage in relations" and "to become sexual servants" due to weak minds and weak controls at home, at school, and from the Church. (19) She stated in her 1922 report: "Very few prostitutes come from homes where all the conditions are good--good family life, opportunity for education, economic security. The occupations of the fathers show low economic status." (20) This lack of economic security in girls' lives then produced "defective" girls who became unwed mothers, used "drink or drugs," and found "bad company." (21) She then "assure[d]" the state that the "prostitute status" is not fixed and that the girl can emerge from it via marriage to a "man who has a great deal of money" and "attends church regularly." (22)

    Also focusing on how poverty produced immorality, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual delinquency, case file reports on girls who were in New...

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