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“Respectability on Trial” by Donovan

The problem of sexual violence has been an issue that perpetuated the social discourse for ages, with no legal protection having been offered to vulnerable groups based on their sex, sexual orientation, or gender expression. Even nowadays, the debate is not over, with the concept of sex having been underrepresented in the range of factors based on which legal protection is offered to people belonging to vulnerable categories. Thus, delving into the history of the problem and exploring the legal cases involving sexual violence, assault, and the related charges tried in court will help to approach the current state of events. In his book “Respectability on Trial,” Brian Donovan considers 75 cases of sexual assaults and related crimes to paint the picture of how sex-related charges were investigated and handled in New York at the time. By paying unprecedentedly close attention to the experiences of city residents that participated in court sessions during the specified trials, Donovan outlines that how the specified communities used the justice machine and the legal framework was the main reason for the miscarriage of justice observed. The goal of this paper is to consider the statements made by Donovan (2012) in his book based on the key tenets of the existing criminology theories.

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Theoretical Perspectives

Donovan’s (2012) massive work has an enormous number of strengths and offers a plethora of crucial insights into how the perception of justice and the legal framework have changed over time. Namely, the author outlines the crucial problems in the interpretation of sexual crime and sexual aggression as the foundation for the cases on sexual misconduct, rape, and the related issues to have been dismissed on the identified time slot.

Strain Theory

Applying the principles of the Strain Theory to Donovan’s (2012) work will help to understand the arguments that the author makes better. Being a part of the Functionalist subset of theories on crime, the Strain Theory suggests that deviance is inevitable in a functioning society, also pointing to the fact that socioeconomic factors are most likely to encourage a rise in crime (). From the specified perspective, the book by Donovan (2012) lacks the analysis of the social factors that may have contributed to a rise in sexual violence. Namely, the possibility of sexual offenders being the product of sexual abuse to which they were subjected as children or adolescents could have been explored in greater detail.

Durkheim’s Theory

However, when pushing the idea of deviation as a completely indispensable element of society and even a necessary one that allows it to evolve, one may find the specified perspective in conflict with the statement made by Donovan (2012). Namely, Donovan (2012) frames the perspective that the court held at the time when handling sex crime as atrocious and points out that the victims, namely, women, were largely dehumanized. Applying Durkheim’s theory will imply that the specified power imbalance is inevitable and, therefore, impossible to address, which is wrong on multiple ethical levels.

Theory of Differential Association

However, Donovan’s (2012) book can also be considered from a slightly different perspective. Belonging to the domain of Symbolic Interactionism, the Differential Association Theory suggests that deviant behaviors are learned by association from perceived role models, most often family members. When viewing Donovan’s argument through the specified lens, one is likely to find most sense in the author’s book, specifically due to Donovan’s appeal to the misplaced social values and justice system of the specified era. Indeed, the author implies that, encouraged by society and the social roles shown by parents of deviants, stereotypes associated with gender, the concept of masculinity, and the means of affirming it leads to the development of deviant behaviors that, in turn, culminate in sex offense and other sex-related crimes.

Labeling Theory

However, Donovan’s interpretation of the events that transpired on the described time slot in court also suggests that rigid gender stereotypes, sex segregation, and denial of rights and protections to women could have been reinforced by the authority of the existing power structures. From the standpoint of the Labeling Theory, the ddescribedapproach toward understanding Donovan’s (2012) argument seems rather legitimate. Indeed, given the drastic situation in which women found themselves at the beginning of the 20th century due to the absence of basic rights and protections, the presence of labels that may have made victims’ testimonies seem untrustworthy and prevented from implementing justice is highly probable. Applying the Labeling Theory to Donovan’s (2012) thesis statement concerning the presence of social constraints serving as obstacles to justice, one will recognize the factors underpinning the infamous New York cases of sex offense trials in 1900-the 1910s.

Social Disorganization Theory

Also belonging to the set of Functionalism theories, the social Disorganization Theory allows lookat sat the argument that Donovan (2012) offers from a new perspective. Specifically, instead of pointing to the shortcomings of the economic system and the way it fails communities, thus encouraging the development of crime, the Social Disorganization Theory posits that the lack of social control entails a rise in crime. Applying the described standpoint to the statement that Donovan makes concerning the lack of justice in the way in which the New York trials of sex crimes were handled will help to see the trials described by Donovan from a different perspective. Namely, one will infer that the sex offenses described in the book could be seen as the product of the absence of rigid supervision over the environments that could be described as areas with high crime rates. However, exerting control consistently as a means of preventing crime does not seem a possibility in the areas with high population rates, which suggests that the problem outlined by Donovan (2012) needed to be solved with the help of tools that would bring social change.

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Cultural Deviance Theory, Control Theory, and Conflict Theory (Mills)

One could also argue that the problems outlined by Donovan (2012) could be approached as the product of low morality rates among specific population groups. However, the application of the Cultural deviance Theory would imply that the perception of morality depends mostly on the levels of economic well-being, which is entirely not true. The Control Theory, which implies that supervision should be exerted by reinforcing social bonds, might be seen as a healthier alternative, yet it is unlikely to work in large cities such as New York, where social ties can be easily disrupted. Likewise, Mills’ Theory of Conflict as the opposite of the Cultural Deviance Theory, namely, the statement that the abundance of power leads to its abuse, in turn, could be seen as a viable framework for explaining the scenario described by Donovan (2012). Namely, the inequality between the two sexes can be seen as the source of the problems within the justice system of the 1900s and 1910s, which were partially carried into the 2010s as well.



The presence of verified evidence and reliance only on trustworthy, credible sources is one of the main strengths that Donovan’s book features. The author has performed an exhaustive search for the documents that allow tracking down the events transpiring in the New York courtroom in 1900-1910s when the notorious sex offenses were considered. For instance, Donovan (2012) refers directly to one of the court records when proving his statement: “Eight of the fifteen seduction trials in New York City demonstrate a range of alleged sexual violence addressed by prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and juries” (p. 42). Therefore, the amount of research performed to demonstrate the problematic aspects of the American justice system of the 1900-the 1910s is quite ample, which indicates a high level of veracity and overall credibility of the assumptions and conclusions provided by the author.


Despite its multiple advantages, the book has several limitations, mainly due to the amount of information that the author could have included and the time frame that he had the opportunity to consider. Namely, retrospect into the history of the court proceedings with few to no participants who could provide an alternative opinion on the subject matter will inevitably lead to biases associated with the threat of subjectivity in interpretation. Since the book by Donovan (2012) is not a collaborative effort but, instead, a study performed by a single researcher, it is likely to suffer to some degree from the presence of subjective readings of the court materials and records. One could argue that the specified characteristic of the study cannot technically count as a weakness since court proceedings are typically recorded as accurately as possible and with as few opportunities for misreading the records as one can. However, given the controversy in judgment that Donovan (2012) discovers in his search, there is a high probability of the court records already representing a certain amount of bias, at the very least toward victims. Therefore, the chance of the researcher seeking the information that confirms his statement becomes slightly more probable.

Nevertheless, the account of the events that transpired in 1900-the 1910s in New York during the infamous court proceedings serves a crucial purpose in understanding how the concept of gender and the associated prejudices have affected the task of securing women’s sex-based rights. Therefore, the book becomes not only a grim reminder of the past mistakes and failure to protect vulnerable groups but also an important statement in addressing the needs of women in the 21st century. While Donovan (2012) may not have deployed every possible perspective to consider the infamous New York trials of sex abuse from, both the intention and the execution of the idea are quite solid, with a profound social commentary provided. Importantly, Donovan does not simply provide an account of the court session and the instances of injustice but also analyzes why the specified occurrences took place and offer the analysis that serves as the means of ensuring that the rights of vulnerable groups, primarily, women and minorities, remain secure in the future.


Drawing upon the flaws in the justice system and the social prejudices that led to the specified deficiencies to have emerged in the legal framework, Donovan considers the trials of sexual crimes committed against women in New York in the 1900-1910s. By pointing to the problems in the justice system used at the time to prosecute sex offenses and the related crimes, Donovan creates the basis for discussing the contemporary issues faced by vulnerable groups, particularly, women and children, regarding the possible threat of sexual abuse. Thus, the book by Donovan provides not only the thorough assessment of the problems in the justice system adopted by the New York legal authorities in the 1900-1the 910s but also demonstrates the legacy o the current framework for managing the cases of sex crimes.


Donovan, B. (2012). Respectability on trial: Sex crimes in New York City, 1900-1918. New York City, NY: SUNY Press.

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