Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, 1900-1975

by Constance Backhouse, Professor of Law, University of Ottawa. Published with Irwin Law, 2008.

An engaging and powerful book about sexual assault crimes in Canadian history, by Professor Constance Backhouse, whose previous books for the Osgoode Society have won major awards. Using a case-study approach, Professor 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 chapter 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. 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


Canadian Law and Society Association Book Prize 2008
Short-Listed - Harold Adams Innis Prize - best English language book supported by the Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences 2009

Reviews of Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, 1900-1975

Backhouse has done it again: produced a major work of legal history written and designed to appeal to a broad audience, from Supreme Court justices to readers simply interested in the Canadian criminal justice system's prior ways of dealing with sexual assault.... For anyone wishing to follow the trail of the 1,202 cases she unearthed through her meticulous law report searches and her intensive archival research, Backhouse's personal website provides a full listing. The result is a benchmark resource for further study and analysis.... [And] Backhouse's storytelling skill is the key to her crossover appeal. Carolyn Strange, Canadian Historical Review, vol 90, 2009
Carnal Crimes uses a case study approach to explore the history of sexual assault in Canada .... A key advantage of case studies is that they allow the author to delve deeply into the facts of specific cases, along with the individuals who were central to them....Backhouse's impassioned assessment of some of the women victimized by men and the laws that were meant to shield them from sexual abuse, not vilify them, is a welcome addition to the legal history of sexual assault. Michael Boudreau, Canadian Journal of Law and Society, vol 24, 2009.

Reviews have also appeared in the following publications:

  • Mary Hemmings, Canadian Law Library Review, Vol 34, 2009, p. 254.
  • Nancy Janovicek, Labour / Le Travail, Vol 64, 2009, pp. 219-221.
  • Louise Langevin, Les Cahiers de Droit, Vol 51, 2010, pp. 467-70.
  • Janice Kennedy, ‘Carnal Crimes,’ The Ottawa Citizen, December 14, 2008, Sec B1.
  • Christopher Moore, ‘Sexual assault history leads new Osgoode Society titles,’ Law Times, October 15, 2008.
  • Craig Paterson, ‘Carnal Crimes a real ‘page-turner’,’ Canadian Lawyer Magazine, May 17, 2010.
  • Gilles Renaud, Sherbrooke Record, December 2008.
  • Tracey Tyler, ‘Book on sex assault blasts justice system,’ Toronto Star, November 6, 2008, Sec A, p. 20.