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Carnal Crimes

Carnal Crimes

Sexual assault law in Canada, 1900-1975

By Constance Backhouse


Winner of the 2009 Canadian Law and Society Association Book Prize

Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, 1900-1975 is an engaging and powerful book about sexual assault crimes in Canadian history written by one of Canada’s foremost legal historians. Using a case-study approach, Constance Backhouse explores nine sexual assault trials from across the country throughout the twentieth century. We move from small towns to large cities, from the Maritimes to the Northwest Territories, from the suffrage era to the period of the women’s liberation movement. Each of these richly-textured vignettes offers insight into the failure of the criminal justice system to protect women from sexual assault, and each is highly readable and provocative. The most moving chapters document the law’s refusal to accommodate a woman who could only give evidence in sign language, and the heartbreak of a child rape trial. Backhouse deals sensitively and deftly with these difficult stories.

This book is the best kind of legal history — a vivid exploration of the past which also gives us the tools to assess the efficacy (or in this case lack of efficacy) of the legal system.



"Don't You Bully Me... Justice I Want if There is Justice to be Had": The Rape of Mary Ann Burton, London, Ontario, 1907

"On pensait que la fille était bonne á rien": Fiola, 1917

The Prosecution of Henry Kissel in the Roaring Twenties in Halifax

Sexual Battery: Gynecological Treatment in the Mercer Reformatory, 1939-40

Sexual Assault and Disability: Saskatchewan, 1942

Child Witnesses - "By Psychological Definition ... A Disservice to the True End of Justice": Soulière, 1951-52

Canada's First Capital "L" Lesbian Sexual Assault: Yellowknife, 1955

"Sordid" but "Understandable under the Circumstances": Kohnke, Croft, and Wilson, 1967

"Imprisonment Would Be of No Assistance to the Accused": Angione, 1974


Notes/ Index


Superbly written and riveting, this legal history of sexual assaults opens a window, long closed, into the myths and stereotypes which, for so long, have inhabited our laws while also revealing the incredible pain andinjustices suffered by victims. A great book!

Honourable Madam Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, Supreme Court of Canada (retired)

This engaging and powerful book demonstrates the ubiquitous nature of sexual assault in 20th century Canada and, as the author puts it, “the appalling failures” of the Canadian justice system. Constance Backhouse is a pioneer in the field of feminist legal history and continues to make a substantial and provocative contribution with this highly readable volume on sexual assault crimes in 20th century Canada . . . . While the book provides many reasons to be depressed about law’s inability to eradicate sexual assault, Backhouse’s words and analysis are inspiring and refreshing.

Tamara Myers, Department of History, University of British Columbia

A brilliant anatomy of sexual assault — both law and legal history. There is no book quite like this: the legal analysis leaps from each person’s individual story and trial transcript with awesome dexterity. Constance Backhouse is a spectacular writer. This is the way to learn law!

Clayton Ruby

Carnal Crimes [provides] a brilliantly informed 75-year panorama of sexual assault law in Canada — every last bit of it scrupulously researched and delivered . . . . Backhouse has pulled off the amazing feat of producing a book that should satisfy the keenest law student or most rigourous legal scholar, while at the same time engaging everday lay people

The Ottawa Citizen


Published July 2009
Publisher Irwin Law (Canada)
ISBN 9781552211786
Australian RRP $45.00
International Price $40.00
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Criminology & Policing - Justice Studies
Law - Canadian Law
Law - Legal History
Women's Studies

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