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Gender and Crime

Recent Developments

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).

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Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawGender and Crime - Similarities In Male And Female Offending Rates And Patterns, Differences Between Male And Female Offending Patterns