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Elise Chenier, Strangers in our Midst: Sexual Deviancy in Postwar Ontario.

Elise Chenier, Strangers in our Midst: Sexual Deviancy in Postwar Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008)

STRANGERS IN OUR MIDST is an important book for it historicizes and evaluates the development of legal, psycho-medical, and public reactions to sexual deviancy. Arriving as it does on the heels of the sensationalistic 2007 trial of convicted sex offender Peter Whitmore, this is a timely academic study because historian Elise Chenier asks some trenchant, carefully framed questions about current sex offender legislation including the utility of the current laws; the difficulties and costs of obtaining treatment while incarcerated; and the efficacy of those treatment models. Furthermore, she historicizes the competing interests of the state, the psychiatric profession, prison administrators, and prisoners. Chenier has written a work that seeks to engage public debate about these matters, and in this way it expands the monograph's relevance beyond the traditional confines of the historical profession and the natural constituency of historians of sexuality, medicine, and criminology who will gravitate towards this work.

Unlike other historians of mid-20th century sexualities who have opted to utilize cultural approaches to the topic, and have tended to focus primarily on the constructions of homosexuality, Chenier has opted to shift and expand her focus. This work utilizes a primarily medico-legal methodology to assess the popular, medical, and criminal definitions of sexual deviancy. Part One provides background information about the post-war rise of psychiatric and sexology experts, their theories concerning sexual deviancy (a range of non-normative behaviour outside of the bounds of conventional adult heterosexuality, including male homosexuality, exhibitionism, and a range of criminal sexual offences), the public reaction to a series of public sex panics and sensationalistic crimes, and the governmental response published in the 1958 Report of the Royal Commission on the Criminal Law Relating to Criminal Sexual Psychopaths.

In the theories section, Chenier makes it abundantly evident that the notion of sexual deviancy was a socially constructed phenomenon and she references the oft-cited factors of the post-war political and cultural climate (the Cold War, middle-class family values, and the desire for 'normalcy') as important contributing factors. Yet, she claims that medical and scientific developments (and accompanying legal changes) have not received sufficient credit or historical attention, and her research goal is to address that absence within the literature. For example, modern concepts of sexology studies (such as the best-selling Kinsey Reports) offered scientific rationales for varied sexual behaviour and firmly sought to remove such discussions from the moral and legal realm, viewing them as scientific and psychiatric matters. The relative liberalism of many of the international and Canadian experts faced a battle from two constituencies: mothers and the state. Here Chenier illustrates how Canadian mothers mobilized in groups such as the Parent's Action League (PAL), to defend children's rights and safety from the so-called "predators." Equally, the Canadian state, influenced more by the mothers' groups and by the courts than by the scientific developments, opted for a narrower, conservative interpretation of sexual danger and sexual offenders. For example, unlike Britain, where the Wolfenden Report urged the decriminalization of homosexuality, Canada's 1958 Royal Commission Report refused to heed the expert's advice that homosexual acts amongst consenting adults should be removed from the criminal code. Chenier's gendered analysis of the Royal Commission findings, and of the government's response to their recommendations, vividly illustrates how the government document and successive laws reinforced the construction of sexual offenders as dangerous strangers, men whose failure to adopt so-called mature, heterosexual relations resulted in their labeling as psychiatric and, at their most extreme, criminally psychopathic. This development had two tragic sets of victims: those who were mislabeled as deviant and, equally importantly, those women and children who continued to be at risk from sexual offenders and assaults that occurred (most frequently) from within families or by individuals known to the victims not from the more isolated, yet sensationalistic situations that VAL literature sought to demonize for these crimes.

While Part One is compelling, it is in Part Two, "Practices," where Chenier really hits her stride, evaluating the treatment options provided by psychiatric programs in southern Ontario, the classifications of sexual deviants into medical and criminalized categories, the pathology of prisons and prison sexual culture, and, again, the role played by the public, the press, and the state in constructing a particularly narrow notion of criminal sexual offenders. Carefully researched, and exceedingly well written, these final chapters will stimulate debate about the system and what, if any, reforms are feasible medically, financially, and socially. In all of this, Chenier is consistent in her class and gendered analysis, correctly pointing to the ways that compulsory heterosexuality, and indeed misogynistic views of male sexual privilege, structured the language, the programs offered, and the hierarchical system of sexual practice in prisons. She adroitly points to a consistent flaw in modern sexology in its "inability to connect gender, sexuality, and violence." (168) For example, government and prison officials were exceedingly concerned about the same-sex activity within prisons, and of the inability of offenders to make progress in adhering to normative modes of sexual behaviour while imprisoned. What ensued were seemingly serious but misguided deliberations at all levels of the prison and justice bureaucracy about the merits of providing access to women--wives, prostitutes, or willing members of the community--who might assist in resocializing the men. Archly representative of gendered and sexual social norms of the mid-century, this example from 1965 offers insight into the heterosexual, middle-class, male notions that prevailed as Chenier recounts that "the federal commissioner of penitentiaries, A.J. MacLeod, reported that he was allowing seventy-two hour passes for men to return home to visit their wives and families, and to mow the lawn." (186)

As the proceeding summary and analysis indicates, Chenier's contribution to mid-century sexualities' history is substantial. This book successfully combines the medical, legal, and social history approaches that regretfully so often run on parallel historiographical tracks. Similarly, with its exhaustive primary source base, theoretical sophistication, and careful parsing of the politics and history of sexual deviancy, this is a work that will command attention. It is a timely evaluation of how the Canadian legal system got itself into the corner of dangerous sexual offender laws, and an indictment of the failures of the collective will to adequately fund treatment options for the incarcerated and of a prison administration system that often operates contrary to legislated goals for offenders. Finally, it raises some long-standing feminist concerns about the social and historical construction of sexual offenders as deviant, dangerous strangers as opposed to the realities of inter-familial sexual violence. One hopes that other historians will follow Chenier's lead, and enlarge the frame of analysis offered here, to assess treatment options, laws, and public opinion in other provinces.

While one applauds the attention to gender and class matters, this work is largely silent about race and there is little discussion of race-based notions of appropriate sexual norms and deviancy. An expansion of provincial and federal focus might very well enlarge such a discussion, one that is of increasing interest to social, sexual, and cultural historians.

Ultimately, one hopes that both policy makers and historians pick up this book and engage with Chenier's concluding chapter where she calls for renewed public debate and policy discussions about offenders, their treatment (or lack thereof), and the legal and social constructions of such offences. This book vividly illustrates how policy and social perspectives concerning sexual offenders continue to employ mid-century models of deviance that have not served us well. Finally, the failure to find scientific, medical, or penal solutions to such matters, despite all the political bluster about getting tough on crime, continues, ironically, to put Canadian women and children at risk.


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Author:Korinek, Valerie J.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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