5 minute read

Feminism: Criminological Aspects

The Critique

Feminist critics of the late 1960s and early 1970s found criminology lacking in five major respects; many of them would repeat these same criticisms today.

(1) Mainstream criminology has focused almost exclusively on male offenders. It was perhaps natural for mainstream criminologists to focus primarily on male subjects, given that males have comprised the great majority of offenders across time and place. Nonetheless, feminist critics argued, much might be learned about the causes of crime from studying low-rate as well as high-rate offenders. Why should criminologists not also investigate why females are less likely than males to break the law?

Feminists further argued that the use of allmale samples had led to theories of offending that in fact applied only to males, even though most advertised themselves as general explanations of crime. For example, Travis Hirschi, in formulating his well-known control theory of delinquency, deliberately excluded the female subjects on whom data were available in his original sample (p. 35, n. 3). "Since girls have been neglected for too long by students of delinquency, the exclusion of them is difficult to justify," Hirschi admitted, expressing a "hope to return to them soon" (pp. 35–36, n. 3). However, he has not. Titled Causes of Delinquency, Hirschi's book is in fact a study of the causes of male delinquency. Most other criminologists, too, assumed a male norm, placing boys and men at the center of their discussions and making women "invisible" (Belknap).

(2) Mainstream criminology is androcentric in its understandings and interpretations of crime. Feminists found little to admire even in the work of those few criminologists who had focused on female crime; this work, the critics maintained, analyzed female lawbreaking from a patriarchal point of view. Relying on cultural stereotypes, Cesare Lombroso, W. I. Thomas, Otto Pollak, and others who in the past had discussed female crime tended to sort women into two opposing categories, good woman or bad woman, madonna or whore (Feinman), leaving little room for ordinary mortals in between. Criminologists defined the law-abiding woman as passive, obedient, chaste, and childlike while describing the criminal woman as aggressive, defiant, sexually impure, and unbecomingly adult, even masculine in nature. These stereotypes had little to do with actual women, feminists objected; they sexualized and condemned women criminals instead of treating them objectively; they reinforced the paternalistic view that good women are those who are submissive and docile; and they bolstered the double standard of sexual morality that accords men but not women sexual autonomy.

Feminists used prostitution to exemplify how criminologists sexualized female crime while remaining silent about the economic pressures that force some women into crime. Some criminologists had attributed prostitution to nymphomania, others to a hatred of men stemming from underlying lesbian tendencies, but few had recognized that disadvantaged women often lack economic alternatives. The Gluecks and other criminologists went so far as to condemn prostitutes as carriers of sexually transmitted diseases. Before the late 1960s, one could search the criminological literature in vain for recognition that prostitution usually involves two parties, a man as well as a woman, and that diseases are more likely to be transmitted by the clients than the service providers, who routinely take measures against infection. In the case of prostitution as in that of other crimes, the effect of criminological commentaries was to make women offenders seem sexually abnormal and even evil while exonerating whatever males were involved.

One of the most egregious failures of traditional criminology in the feminist view was its insistence on interpreting crimes against women from a male perspective. To exemplify this point, critics pointed to Menachem Amir's 1971 study, Patterns in Forcible Rape. Nineteen percent of the victims in his sample had arrest records, Amir reported, assuming that negative information on victims was relevant; many had been arrested for sexual misconduct, and 20 percent had a "'bad' reputation." Some rapists had used "temptation" to overcome their victims while others used "verbal coercion"; in only 13 percent of the cases had the offender used "physical aggression"—a finding that implied most victims had actually been "asking for it." Moreover, in 19 percent of the cases, the victim had "precipitated" her own rape, a conclusion Amir based on rapists' own accounts. In studies of incest and domestic violence, too, mainstream criminologists interpreted crimes against women from the vantage point of the male offender, suggesting that men are more credible than women and likely to be falsely accused.

(3) Mainstream criminology has paid little attention to crime victims. One of the chief feminist complaints against traditional criminology was its relative disinterest in victimization and its tendency, when discussing crimes in which women were the primary victims, to blame the victim. Domestic homicide was said to be victim-precipitated in many cases, as was wife battering. Incest was a problem of seductive teenage step-daughters, not of power imbalances within the family or male views of women as sexual property, while stranger violence might be provoked by women who wore tight sweaters and drank alone in bars. Home was the safest place for women to be, mainstream criminologists concluded, ignoring the huge volume of domestic violence against women.

(4) Mainstream criminology has ignored sex differences in criminal justice processing. Feminists also faulted mainstream criminologists with either ignoring or underestimating the impact of gender on criminal justice processing. Taking a male norm for granted, conventional criminologists assumed that justice officials treated women the same as men or more leniently. They did not investigate whether the system reacts differently to male and female defendants or to different types of female defendants. They did no research on whether women are punished more harshly than men for sex offenses and public order crimes. Even though criminologists had no empirical evidence for assuming that women fared the same as men or better in the criminal justice system, they were not interested in testing the assumption.

(5) Mainstream criminologists have disregarded the dynamics of gender and power. Feminists further charged that traditional criminologists had failed to investigate the interplay of male power, female economic dependency, and abusive male-female dynamics. While mainstream criminology presented itself as an objective social science concerned with all crime, it was in fact masculinist, deeply biased against women, and riddled with hidden agendas for perpetuating male power. Thus criminology itself served to reinforce the status quo and ensure continuance of female subordination.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawFeminism: Criminological Aspects - The Critique, Development Of Feminist Perspectives, Bibliography