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New South Wales - Glossary Term

Moral Defective

'Moral defective' was a category of 'mental deficiency' that was applied to children and adults who were considered of normal intelligence, but who engaged in sexual or criminal behaviours that were disapproved of by authorities. The term tended to be applied to more females than males and although it was applied to prostitutes and habitual criminals, much of the behaviour experts 'diagnosed' as 'moral defective' was mild and would not be considered a problem today.


'Moral defectives' were considered to pose a risk to society, so were institutionalised for long periods, often in the harsher sections of industrial schools, reformatories and jails. Unmarried mothers were often described in this way, as were children and young people who had suffered sexual abuse.

Related Glossary Terms

  • Unmarried Mothers

    Unmarried mothers were often defined as 'moral defectives', particularly if they had more than one child.


Journal Articles

  • Evans, Caroline; Parry, Naomi, 'Vessels of progressivism? Tasmanian state girls and eugenics, 1900-1940', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 32, no. 117, 2001, pp. 322-333. Details

Prepared by: Naomi Parry