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Legal Subjectivity Among Youth Victims of Sexual Abuse


  • Heather R. Hlavka

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    • Heather R. Hlavka is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Please address all correspondence to She extends her thanks to Christopher Uggen, Darren Wheelock, and Sameena Mulla for helpful comments on prior drafts of this article, and to Melissa Fousek for research assistance. She is also thankful for the comments of three anonymous reviewers. She gratefully acknowledges the financial support of a University of Minnesota Doctoral Fellowship and a Marquette University Regular Research Grant (IRB protocol number HR-1818). Finally, she thanks the Children's Advocacy Center for data access and research support throughout this project.


How do youth experience and understand the law? How is law regarded and communicated? Youth's legal subjectivity has received limited attention in the sociological and legal literatures, especially as it relates to crime-reporting behaviors. Drawing on legal socialization theory and procedural justice, I show how youth, as legal subjects, described the law and how those descriptions differed by social location. Using a diverse sample, I examined narratives produced during forensic interviews following reports of sexual victimization. Rather than passive victims, youth act on, and within, institutions. In their own words, youth describe experiences with state systems that animated their understandings of law and criminal justice processes. They reveal how shared frameworks of understanding affected legal subjectivity, shaped their evaluations of the law, and influenced participation in state systems so that perhaps those most in need of legal remedy are those most unlikely to seek it.