University of Tasmania
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Voices from the archive : the emergence of promiscuity as a mental disorder in Tasmania

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posted on 2023-09-21, 05:48 authored by Elga SkrastinsElga Skrastins

One hundred years ago, pregnant Tasmanian wards of the state were detained in asylums under a new mental disorder category, 'moral imbeciles', proclaimed by the 1920 Mental Deficiency Act. This inclusion was a culmination of legislation enacted to constrain the perceived promiscuity of young working-class girls in post-colonial Tasmania.

This thesis analyses the context in which the Tasmanian government adopted, implemented and maintained the gendered policies that constrained and marginalised young working-class girls. It also examines and presents the dire consequences of legislation on the lives and well-being of the girls concerned. Finally, the thesis notes the ways that past Tasmanian legislation may account for the ways that the sexuality of young women and girls is currently represented and countered.

The perceived promiscuity of working-class girls and young women was of international concern, and was being addressed in the USA and UK and Australia. Many of the policies and practices developed to address this social problem were adapted and implemented in the Australian state of Tasmania. These are depicted in a case study revealing the emergence of attempts to regulate the promiscuity of young working-class girls. The agendas and discourses of social institutions and disciplines were revealed by assembling verbatim statements linking welfare agencies, advances in medicine, legislative amendments, religious charities and the judiciary. The discourses among these stakeholders provided the archival data that evidenced processes of policy construction, actioning, and implementation, a progression that culminated in the 1920 Mental Deficiency Act. This Act claimed immorality to be moral imbecility, and pregnant wards of the state could be sent to asylums for this mental disorder.

The archival, historical, and social context was investigated and analysed using Bacchi's (2009) Foucauldian inspired problematization approach. An ongoing process of analysis resulted in a large collection of verbatim archival data selected as exemplars from welfare files, state correspondence and documents, conference proceedings, newspapers, parliamentary debates and scientific advances. These were appraised and assembled as a three-act, scripted and audio-recorded play. The listener could evaluate this material containing the perceived understandings, attitudes, and interventions made by the state, the stakeholders and the wards. The archival voices of the wards can be heard for the first time, and their agency, resilience, and persistence against the power of all the stakeholders makes compelling testimony. The voices of the stakeholders and the narrator enable an immersion in the content that provides graphic and disturbing revelations about the consequences of the legislation on the lives of the wards.

The data presented in the audio-recorded play supports the notion of a socially constructed view of sexuality and the management of women as sexual beings achieved via a range of policies, laws, and practices. It reveals that the sexual constraint of working-class girls was achieved by preferential legislation, patriarchal power structures and institutionalised discriminatory practices based on class and gender.

In Tasmania there is a widely held view about 'what happens to bad girls', but the actual legislative practices or policies underpinning this view are not widely known. The findings are important as they demonstrate the direct bearing of past legislation on current judicial decisions, despite social change and different historical contexts. The 1885 Offences against the Person Act was instrumental in averting any charges being laid, in 2011, on the 100 clients of a 12-year-old ward of the state prostituted by her parents. All the men who had accessed the ward could claim 'they had cause to believe' that she was above the age of consent (currently 18 in Tasmania). A 100-year-old law intended to protect the identity of young, abused girls had morphed into a legal 'gag order' that prevented the 2021 Australian of the Year, Tasmanian Grace Tame, from talking about her ordeal as a victim of child sexual assault until the law was eventually amended, after mass marches and public protests. There have been many calls from law associations, commissions and inquiries to change laws concerning sexual constraints and abuse of women and girls. This thesis provides powerful evidence that the changes in some of these laws over the past 200 years have been ineffective.



  • PhD Thesis


x, 164 pages.


School of Social Sciences


University of Tasmania

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