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Gender and Crime

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.

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