Gender and Crime
GENDER AND CRIME
Gender is the single best predictor of criminal behavior: men commit more crime, and women commit less. This distinction holds throughout history, for all societies, for all groups, and for nearly every crime category. The universality of this fact is really quite remarkable, even though many tend to take it for granted.
Most efforts to understand crime have focused on male crime, since men have greater involvement in criminal behavior. Yet it is equally important to understand female crime. For example, learning why women commit less crime than men can help illuminate the underlying causes of crime and how it might better be controlled.
This discussion of gender and crime first reviews both current and historical information on the rates and patterns of female crime in relation to male crime. The discussion is followed by a consideration of theoretical explanations of female crime and gender differences in crime. Finally, the authors briefly outline a "gendered" approach to understanding female crime that takes into account the influence of gender differences in norms, in socialization, in social control, and in criminal opportunities, as well as psychological and physiological differences between men and women.
Comparisons of criminal behavior between different groups—such as men and women—use data from a variety of sources. One of the most widely used sources is arrest data from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), collected from the nation's law enforcement agencies and tabulated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.). Other sources include surveys of victimization experiences, such as the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Vicitimization Survey (NCVS); surveys of self-reported offending behavior, such as the National Youth Survey (Elliot and Ageton); and case studies based on autobiographical accounts or interviews with and observation of individual offenders and gangs. The discussion starts with a consideration of what can be learned from arrest data, and then briefly touches on the insights to be gained from other sources. Any comparison of male and female criminality must acknowledge important similarities as well as differences.
Similarities in male and female offending rates and patterns
Both males and females have low rates of arrest for serious crimes like homicide or robbery; and high rates of arrest for petty property crimes like larceny-theft, or public order offenses such as alcohol and drug offenses or disorderly conduct. In general, women tend to have relatively high arrest rates in most of the same crime categories for which men have high arrest rates. For example, rates of homicide are small for both sexes (about 17 offenders for every 100,000 males, about 2 offenders per 100,000 females), as compared to larceny rates, which measure about 800 offenders per 100,000 males and 380 offenders per 100,000 females.
Male and female arrest trends over time or across groups or geographic regions are similar. That is, decades or groups or regions that have high (or low) rates of male crime tend to also have high (or low) rates of female crime. For example, in the second half of the twentieth century, the rates of arrest for larceny-theft increased dramatically for both men and women; and declined even more dramatically for both men and women in the category of public drunkenness. Similarly, states or cities or countries that have higher than average arrest rates for men also have higher arrest rates for women (Steffensmeier, 1993; Steffensmeier, Allan, and Streifel).
Male and female offenders have similar age-crime distributions, although male levels of offending are always higher than female levels at every age and for virtually all offenses. The female-to-male ratio remains fairly constant across the life span (Steffensmeier and Streifel, 1991). The major exception to this age-by-gender pattern is for prostitution, where the age-curve for females displays a much greater concentration of arrests among the young, compared to an older age-curve for males. A variety of factors account for this difference. For example, males arrested under a solicitation of prostitution charge may be men old enough to have acquired the power to be pimps or the money to be customers—men who often put a premium upon obtaining young females. The younger and more peaked female age curve clearly reflects differing opportunity structures for crimes relating to prostitution. Older women become less able to market sexual services, whereas older men can continue to purchase sexual services from young females or from young males. The earlier physical maturity of adolescent females also contributes to their dating and associating with older male delinquent peers.
Female offenders, like male offenders, tend to come from backgrounds marked by poverty, discrimination, poor schooling, and other disadvantages. However, women who commit crime are somewhat more likely than men to have been abused physically, psychologically, or sexually, both in childhood and as adults.
Differences between male and female offending patterns
Females have lower arrest rates than males for virtually all crime categories except prostitution. This is true in all countries for which data are available. It is true for all racial and ethnic groups, and for every historical period. In the United States, women constitute less than 20 percent of arrests for most crime categories.
Females have even lower representation than males do in serious crime categories. Since the 1960s in the United States, the extent of female arrests has generally been less than 15 percent for homicide and aggravated assault, and less than 10 percent for the serious property crimes of burglary and robbery.
Aside from prostitution, female representation has been greatest for minor property crimes such as larceny-theft, fraud, forgery, and embezzlement. Female arrests for these crime categories has been as high as 30 to 40 percent, especially since the mid-1970s. The thefts and frauds committed by women typically involve shoplifting (larceny-theft), "bad checks" (forgery or fraud), and welfare and credit fraud—all compatible with traditional female consumer/domestic roles.
Trends in female crime relative to male crime are more complex. Some writers claim that female crime has been increasing faster than male crime, as measured by the percentage of female arrests. This has clearly been true in the case of minor property crimes, where the percentage of female arrests had about doubled between 1960 and 1975 (from around 15 to 30 percent or more), with slight additional increases since then. Smaller but fairly consistent increases are also found for substance abuse categories, but they remain less than 20 percent for all categories. The same can be said of major property crimes (which remain less than 10 to 15%). However, the percentage of female arrests has declined for other categories like homicide and prostitution; and it has fluctuated for still other categories such as aggravated assault and druglaw violations (see Steffensmeier, 1993, for a review of trends and explanations).
The patterns just described are corroborated by other sources of data. The National Crime Victimization Survey asks victims about the gender of offenders in crimes where the offender is seen. The percentage of female offenders reported by victims is very similar to (or lower than) the female percentage of arrests for comparable categories. Self-report studies also confirm the UCR patterns of relatively low female involvement in serious offenses and greater involvement in the less serious categories.
From a variety of sources, it is clear that females are less involved in serious offense categories, and they commit less harm. Women's acts of violence, compared to those of men, result in fewer injuries and less serious injuries. Their property crimes usually involve less monetary loss or less property damage.
Females are less likely than males to become repeat offenders. Long-term careers in crime are very rare among women. Some pursue relatively brief careers (in relation to male criminal careers) in prostitution, drug offenses, or minor property crimes like shoplifting or check forging.
Female offenders, more often than males, operate solo. When women do become involved with others in offenses, the group is likely to be small and relatively nonpermanent. Furthermore, women in group operations are generally accomplices to males (see Steffensmeier, 1983, for a review). And males are overwhelmingly dominant in the more organized and highly lucrative crimes, whether based in the underworld or the "upperworld."
Females are far less likely than males to become involved in delinquent gangs. This distinction is consistent with the tendency for females to operate alone and for males to dominate gangs and criminal subcultures. At the onset of the twenty-first century, female gang involvement was described as a sort of "auxiliary" to a male gang. By the 1980s and 1990s, gang studies found somewhat increased involvement on the part of girls (perhaps 15%), including some allfemale gangs. Regardless, female gang violence has remained far less common than male gang violence.
The criminal justice system's greater "leniency" and "chivalry" toward females may explain a portion of the lower official offending rates of women in comparison to men. Likewise, the justice system's tendency to be relatively less lenient and chivalrous toward females today may help explain recent increases in levels of female arrests. Although there appear to be relatively small differences between adult women and men in likelihood of arrest or conviction, women defendants do appear to have a lower probability of being jailed or imprisoned. This difference appears to be related to a variety of factors: pregnancy, responsibilities for small children, the greater likelihood to demonstrate remorse, as well as perceptions that women are less dangerous and more amenable to rehabilitation (Daly; Steffensmeier, Ulmer, and Kramer).
Explaining female offending
Social, biological, economic, and psychological explanations have been used to develop theories to explain why women commit crime, as well as why they commit less crime than men. The number and complexity of these theories has expanded greatly in recent years as part of the growing body of work on gender both in criminology and in the social sciences more generally.
Early social science views. Early explanations of female crime reflected prevailing views regarding crime and human behavior more generally. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, theories of human behavior tended to be deterministic. In criminology this perspective was apparent in theories attributing crime to either biological or social factors beyond the control of individuals. Psychological explanations of crime emerged as psychological theories gained prominence. At the same time, major sociological explanations of crime (differential association, anomie, social disorganization) were emphasizing social and cultural factors that could account for female as well as male criminality.
During the first half of the twentieth century, most explanations of female crime were ancillary to explanations of male criminality. Lombroso, for example, linked both male and female crime to biological predisposition. Early sociological explanations generally rejected biological determinism and offered sociocultural interpretations of both male and female crime as well as of gender differences in crime. Sociocultural views were manifest in criminology textbooks published between 1920 and 1960 (see the review in Steffensmeier and Clark). Whatever the orientation, biological or sociocultural, most criminologists focused primarily on male criminality. Female offending was largely ignored.
Theorists emphasizing the causal role of biological and psychological factors in female crime typically postulated that criminal women exhibited masculine biological or psychological orientations. Lombroso viewed female criminals as having an excess of male characteristics. He argued that, biologically, criminal females more closely resembled males (both criminal and normal) than females.
Similarly, Freud argued that female crime results from a "masculinity complex," stemming from penis envy. According to Freud, all females suffer from penis envy, but most are able to make a healthy adjustment to the realization that they do not have a penis. Those who cannot successfully resolve their penis envy overidentify with maleness and are likely to act out in criminal ways. Both Lombroso and Freud, then, viewed the female criminal as biologically or psychologically male in orientation.
While some theorists linked female crime to "masculinity," others saw it as distinctly feminine. Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck's studies of adult and juvenile delinquents suggested that female crime reflected the inability of certain women—especially those from disadvantaged neighborhood and family contexts—to control their sexual impulses. The Gluecks also subscribed to the theme of the woman offender as a pathetic creature, a view that characterized much of criminological writings in the 1930s.
Otto Pollak's The Criminality of Women is the most important work on female crime prior to the modern period. The book summarized previous work on women and crime, and it challenged basic assumptions concerning the extent and quality of women's involvement in criminal behavior. Pollak himself explained female crime and the gender gap with reference to a mix of biological, psychological, and sociological factors.
Pollak is the first writer to insist that women's participation in crime approaches that of men and is commensurate with their representation in the population. He argues that the types of crimes women commit—shoplifting, domestic thefts, thefts by prostitutes, abortions, perjury—are underrepresented in crime statistics for a variety of reasons: easy concealment, underreporting, embarrassment on the part of male victims, and male chivalry in the justice system.
Pollak consistently emphasizes the importance of social and environmental factors, including poverty, crowded living conditions, broken homes, delinquent companions, and the adverse effects of serving time in reform schools or penitentiaries. Pollak also noted that there is considerable overlap in causative factors for delinquency among girls and boys, and women and men.
Yet another fundamental theme of Pollak's work is the attribution of a biological and physiological basis to female criminality. Pollak stresses the inherently deceitful nature of females, rooted particularly in the passive role assumed by women during sexual intercourse. Also significant are the influences of hormonal and generative phases (e.g., menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause) on female criminality.
In sum, in comparison to explanations for male offending, some early explanations of female crime placed greater emphasis on biological and psychological factors. Nevertheless, early sociological explanations of female crime, stressing sociocultural factors, were also commonplace. Criminology textbooks, in particular, offered an interpretation of female offending and the gender gap that took into account gender differences in role expectations, socialization patterns and application of social control, opportunities to commit particular offenses, and access to criminally oriented subcultures—all themes that have been further developed in more recent accounts (see reviews in Steffensmeier and Clark 1980; Chesney-Lind 1986).
A rich and complex literature on female criminality has emerged over the past few decades. One view received an extraordinary amount of media attention during the late 1960s and the 1970s. This was the argument that "women's liberation" could help explain the apparent narrowing of the disparity between female and male arrest rates. This was a revival of a view long current in criminology, that gender differences in crime could be explained by differences in male and female social positions. This plausible notion gave rise to the "gender equality hypothesis": as social differences between men and women disappear under the influence of the women's movement, so should the differences in crime disappear.
This interpretation of the "dark side" of female liberation was welcomed enthusiastically by the media. However, other criminologists have pointed to the peculiarity of the view that improving girls' and women's economic conditions would lead to disproportionate increases in female crime when almost all the existing criminological literature stresses the role played by poverty, joblessness, and discrimination in the creation of crime (Chesney-Lind, 1997; Miller; Steffensmeier, 1980, 1993). This and other weaknesses in the gender equality hypothesis have been discussed at length elsewhere, as have more plausible explanations for the narrowing of differences for specific categories of crime. (Recall that gender differences in arrest rates have by no means narrowed for all categories, actually increasing for some and remaining the same for others.)
Another issue receiving much attention is whether traditional theories of crime, developed by male criminologists to explain male crime, are equally useful in explaining female crime, or whether female crime can only be explained by gender-specific theories. Causal factors identified by traditional theories of crime such as anomie, social control, and differential association-social learning appear equally applicable to female and male offending (Steffensmeier and Allan, 1996).
For both males and females, the likelihood of criminal behavior is increased by weak social bonds and parental controls, low perceptions of risk, delinquent associations, chances to learn criminal motives and techniques, and other access to criminal opportunities. In this sense, traditional criminological theories are as useful in understanding overall female crime as they are in understanding overall male crime. They can also help explain why female crime rates are so much lower than male rates: for example, females develop stronger bonds and are subject to stricter parental control, but have less access to criminal opportunity.
On the other hand, many of the subtle and profound differences between female and male offending patterns may be better understood by a gendered approach. Recent theoretical efforts, often drawing from the expanding literature on gender roles and feminism, typically involve "middle-range" approaches aimed at explaining this or that dimension of female criminality by linking it to specific aspects of the "organization of gender" (a term used here to denote identities, arrangements, and other areas of social life that differ markedly by gender). These approaches are reviewed briefly next, after which we discuss a broader gendered paradigm that offers a general theoretical framework for understanding female criminality and sex differences in offending.
Cloward and Piven, for example, argue that the persistence of gender segregation in the society at large differentially shapes the form and frequency of male and female deviance. Limits on women's opportunities in the paid workforce, in conjunction with their more extensive domestic responsibilities, constrain the deviant adaptations available to women. As a result, "the only models of female deviance which our society encourages or permits women to imagine, emulate and act out are essentially privatized modes of self destruction" (p. 660).
Harris makes a comparable point when he argues that societies are structured such that all behaviors are "type-scripted." These "typescripts" specify acceptable and unacceptable forms of deviance for various categories of social actors including men and women. As a result of these type scripts, "it is unlikely or impossible for women to attempt assassination, robbery, or rape" (p. 12). Instead, consistent with gendered type scripts and roles (e.g., consumer, domestic), women are much more heavily involved in minor thefts and hustles such as shoplifting, theft of services, falsification of identification, passing bad checks, credit card forgery, welfare fraud, and employee pilferage.
Steffensmeier argues that underworld sex segregation adds further structural constraints on female levels of offending, particularly in the more lucrative venues. "Compared to their male counterparts, potential female offenders are at a disadvantage in selection and recruitment into criminal groups, in the range of career paths, and access to them, opened by way of participation in these groups, and in opportunities for tutelage, increased skills, and rewards" (1983, p. 1025). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that female involvement in professional and organized crime continues to lag far behind male involvement. Women are hugely underrepresented in traditionally male-dominated networks that engage in large-scale burglary, fencing operations, gambling enterprises, and racketeering (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Steffensmeier, 1986).
Broidy and Agnew have speculated that the dynamics of gender shape both the types of strains males and females are exposed to and the emotional and behavioral responses available to them, thus leading to distinctly different outcomes. Aggressive, externalizing behavioral responses are acceptable for males in various environments, whereas such responses are less commonly available to females. Thus, female responses to strain are more likely to be nonaggressive and/or self-destructive.
Chesney-Lind (1997) further clarifies the different strains faced by females in her depiction of the differential impact of gender dynamics on the lives and experiences of boys and girls growing up in similar neighborhood and school environments. Specifically, gender-based socialization patterns set the stage for the sexual victimization and harassment of girls. It is this victimization that often triggers girls' entry into delinquency as they try to escape abusive environments. Girls attempting to run away from abuse often end up in the streets with few legitimate survival options, so they gravitate toward crime, drug-use and -dealing, and sexual exchange transactions. Thus, the role of interpersonal victimization in female paths to crime often involves a circular dynamic in which victimization places some females at high risk for offending, which in turn puts them at risk for further victimization (Daly; Gilfus). This dynamic is especially problematic for minority and low income women whose risks for both crime and victimization are already heightened by limited access to resources (Arnold; Richie).
A gendered paradigm of female offending and the gender gap
Steffensmeier and Allan (1996, 2000) provide another attempt to build a unified theoretical framework for explaining female criminality and gender differences in crime. This perspective incorporates factors suggested by other theorists. Depicted in Figure 1, their framework recognizes that (1) causal patterns for female crime often overlap those for male crime, but also (2) that continued profound differences between the lives of women and men produce varying patterns of female and male offending.
At least five areas of life tend not only to inhibit female crime and encourage male crime, but also to shape the patterns of female offending that do occur: gender norms, moral development and affiliative concerns, social control, physical strength and aggression, and sexuality. These five areas overlap and mutually reinforce one another and, in turn, condition gender differences in criminal opportunities, motives, and contexts of offending. Key points are summarized here.
Gender norms. Female criminality is both inhibited and molded by two powerful focal concerns ascribed to women: (1) role obligations (daughter, wife, mother) and the presumption of female nurturance; (2) expectations of female beauty and sexual virtue. Such focal concerns pose constraints on female opportunities for illicit endeavors. The constraints posed by child-rearing responsibilities and other nurturant obligations are obvious. Moreover, the frequency of derivative identities restrains deviance on the part of women affiliated with conventional males; however, wives or girlfriends of criminals may be pushed into the roles of accomplices.
Femininity stereotypes are the antitheses of those qualities valued in the criminal subculture (Steffensmeier, 1986); therefore, crime is almost always more destructive of life chances for females than for males. In contrast, the dividing line between what is considered masculine and what is criminal is often thin.
Finally, expectations of female sexuality may restrict the deviant roles available to women to those of sexual media or service roles. Female fear of sexual victimization reduces female exposure to criminal opportunity through the avoidance of bars, nighttime streets, and other crime-likely locations.
Moral development and affiliative concerns. Compared to men, women are more likely to refrain from crime due to concern for others. This may result from gender differences in moral development and from socialization toward greater empathy, sensitivity to the needs of others, and fear of separation from loved ones (Gilligan). This predisposition toward an "ethic of care" restrains women from violence and other behavior that may injure others or cause emotional hurt to those they love. Men, on the other hand, are more socialized toward status-seeking behavior and may therefore develop an amoral ethic when they feel those efforts are blocked.
Social control. The ability and willingness of women to commit crime is powerfully constrained by social control. Particularly during their formative years, females are more closely supervised and discouraged from misbehavior. Risk-taking behavior is rewarded among boys but censured among girls. Careful monitoring of girls' associates reduces the potential for influence by delinquent peers (Giordano et al.). Even as adults, women find their freedom to explore worldly temptations constricted.
Physical strength and aggression. The weakness of women relative to men—whether real or perceived—puts them at a disadvantage in a criminal underworld that puts a premium on physical power and violence. Muscle and physical prowess are functional not only for committing crimes, but also for protection, contract enforcement, and recruitment and management of reliable associates.
Sexuality. Reproductive-sexual differences, coupled with the traditional "double standard," contribute to higher male rates of sexual deviance and infidelity. On the other hand, the demand for illicit sex creates opportunities for women for criminal gain through prostitution. This in turn may reduce the need for women to seek financial returns through serious property crimes. Nevertheless, although prostitution is a money-making opportunity that women may exploit, it is a criminal enterprise still largely controlled by men: pimps, clients, police, businessmen.
Collectively, the above aspects of the organization of gender serve to condition and shape additional features of female offending, including criminal opportunity, criminal motives, and contexts of crime.
Access to criminal opportunity. Limits on female access to legitimate opportunities put further constraints on their criminal opportunities, since women are less likely to hold jobs such as truck driver, dockworker, or carpenter, that would provide opportunities for theft, drug dealing, fencing, and other illegal activities. In contrast, abundant opportunities exist for women to commit and/or to be caught and arrested for petty forms of theft and fraud, for low-level drug dealing, and for sex-for-sale offenses.
Like the upperworld, the underworld has its glass ceiling. The scarcity of women in the top ranks of business and politics limits their chance for involvement in price-fixing conspiracies, financial fraud, and corruption. If anything, women face even greater occupational segregation in underworld crime groups, at every stage from selection and recruitment to opportunities for mentoring, skill development, and, especially, rewards (Steffensmeier, 1983; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania).
Motivation. The subjective willingness of women to engage in crime is limited by factors of the organization of gender, but amplified by criminal opportunity. Being able tends to make one more willing. Female as well as male offenders tend to be drawn to criminal activities that are easy and within their skill repertoire, and that have a good payoff and low risk. Women's risk-taking preferences differ from those of men (Hagan; Steffensmeier, 1983; Steffensmeier and Allan, 1996). Men will take risks in order to build status or gain competitive advantage, while women may take greater risks to protect loved ones or to sustain relationships. Criminal motivation is suppressed in women by their greater ability to foresee threats to life chances and by the relative unavailability of female criminal type scripts that could channel their behavior.
Context of offending. The organization of gender also impacts on the often profound differences in the contexts of female and male offenses. Even when the same offense is charged, there may be dramatic differences in contexts, such as the setting, presence of other offenders, the relationship between offender and victim, the offender's role in initiating and committing the offense, weapon (if any), the level of injury or property loss/destruction, and purpose of the offense (Daly; Steffensmeier, 1983, 1993). Moreover, female/male contextual differences increase with the seriousness of the offense.
J. Miller's qualitative study of male and female robbery clarifies how gender shapes the context of robbery, even when motives are the same. Males typically target other males, and their robberies often involve direct confrontation, physical violence, and guns. Females most often target other females and seldom use guns. When women do rob men, they may carry a gun, but they are more likely to soften the target with sex than with actual violence. Miller concludes that male and female robbery may be triggered by similar social and cultural factors, but that gender shapes the actual manner in which those robberies are enacted.
Spousal murders also illustrate striking male-female differences in context (Dobash et al.). The proposition that wives have as great a potential for violence as husbands has had some currency among criminologists (Straus and Gelles). Although in recent years wives are the perpetrators in only about one-fourth of spousal murders, in earlier decades they were the perpetrators in nearly one-half of the spousal murders. But suggestions of similar aptitude conceal major differences. Wives are far more likely to have been victims, and they turn to murder only when in mortal fear, after exhausting alternatives. Husbands who murder wives, however, are more likely to be motivated by rage at suspected infidelity, and the murder often culminates a period of prolonged abuse of their wives. Some patterns of wife-killing are almost never found when wives kill husbands: murder-suicides, family massacres, and stalking.
The various aspects of the organization of gender discussed here—gender norms, moral and relational concerns, social control, lack of strength, and sexual identity—all contribute to gender differences in criminal opportunity, motivation, and context. These factors also help explain why women are far less likely than men to be involved in serious crime, regardless of data source, level of involvement, or measure of participation.
The majority of girls and women involved in the criminal justice system have committed ordinary crimes—mostly minor thefts and frauds, low-level drug dealing, prostitution, and misdemeanor assaults against their mates or children. Some of them commit crime over several years and serve multiple jail or prison terms in the process. But they are not career criminals, and women are far less likely than men to be involved in serious crime. These generalizations hold true regardless of data source, level of involvement, or measure of participation.
The gender gap for criminal offending is remarkably persistent across countries, population subgroups within a given country, and historical periods. This persistence can be explained in part by historical durability of the organization of gender and by underlying physical/sexual differences (whether actual or perceived). Human groups, for all their cultural variation, follow basic human forms.
Recent theory and research on female offending have added greatly to our understanding of how the lives of delinquent girls and women continue to be powerfully influenced by gender-related conditions of life. Profound sensitivity to these conditions is essential for understanding gender differences in type and frequency of crime, for explaining differences in the context or gestalt of offending, and for developing preventive and remedial programs aimed at female offenders.
See also Domestic Violence; Family Abuse and Crime; Feminism: Criminological Aspects; Feminism: Legal Aspects; Prisons: Prisons for Women; Prostitution.
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"Gender and Crime." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/legal-and-political-magazines/gender-and-crime
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