Previous to the feminist movement of the nineteen sixties and seventies criminology was predominantly the domain of men as was the Criminal Justice System (CJS), (Newburn 2007). Therefore it is no surprise that women were mostly over looked within these fields. Moreover the few earlier explanations of female criminality have now largely been discredited due to their oversimplified, biological and sexually natured explanations (Lombrosso 1895, Thomas 1923 and Pollak 1950). Nevertheless it is due to these arguably ‘sexist, and male dominated perspectives, and also an otherwise lack of interest in female criminality that inspired many modern and feminist writings; these writings bought about a shift in attitudes towards women and their place within these traditionally male professions. Consequently the reliability of police statistics has been challenged and new ways of gathering data has been developed, such as self report studies and victim surveys; all of which have brought about new debates and theories and has contributed to our understanding of women and crime. This essay will give a brief overview of the characteristics of both female offending and victimization and then discuss the contribution that criminology has made to our understanding of them.
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As a result of the aforementioned collective research there is a general agreement within criminology that women commit considerably less crime than men (although according to police statistics female crime rates are rising) (Newborn 2007). Women are less likely to commit certain crimes, such as sexual offences, and they are less likely to re-offend (Newborn 2007 and National Statistics Online 2006). The majority of offences that women commit involve theft and handling stolen goods, violence against the person and drug offences (National Statistics Online 2006 and Caddle and Crisp 1997).
Criminology has contributed to our understanding of the characteristics of female offending in many ways. Firstly, since the feminist movement, Criminology has focused attention onto female offending and has helped to deconstruct the traditional sexist stereotypes of the female offender previously portrayed by traditional criminologists (Lombrosso, 1895, cited in Newburn, 2007). Modern Criminology has further developed existing theories in order to make them applicable to women – such as control theory – and has highlighted how women’s experience of society is different to that of men; suggesting that women’s place in society, i.e. their job, social background and being a mother can all effect their inhibitions towards crime and their opportunities to offend (Heidensohn 1996 and Carlen 1988). Thus, Criminology has helped us to understand how a women’s individual circumstances can impact on whether she will offend and what types of offences she is likely to commit.
Criminology has also highlighted the impact that prior victimization and the breakdown of social bonds has on female offending; in her research into how women become involved in illicit drugs, Cheseney-lind (1997) found that all of the women in her study came from unstable social environments, i.e. deprivation, parental alcohol abuse, sexual abuse and violence. Other studies have highlighted institutional sexism; Carlen’s 1998 study in which she interviewed fifteen Scottish sheriffs about their feelings towards prosecuting women offenders, found that they all disliked having to send women to prison. Carlen suggests that they resolve this uneasiness by discriminating between who they perceived to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers and disregard the impact of socio-economic factors on their behavior (cited in Heidensohn 1996). The sheriff’s attitudes in Carlen’s study highlights a long running debate within Criminology, which is, are women treated more chivalrously or more harshly than men by the CJS? (Newburn 2007) It could be argued that the uneasiness of the sheriffs to prosecute women points to a chivalrous attitude but the fact that they separate the women into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers suggests that the women are being doubly judged, as both women and mothers. Therefore Criminology has given us greater understanding of how female offending is affected by a lack of family support and social bonds and arguably how women are affected by the double standards present within the CJS.
By challenging police recorded statistics Criminology has highlighted other debates, such as why do female offending rates appear to be rising and to what extent do women commit less crime than men? (Newburn 2007). In regard to rising female crime rates there are several perspectives; some argue that it is because women’s roles are changing in society which gives them greater opportunity to offend (Adler, cited in Newburn 2007); some claim that it is due to economic marginalisation and women offend because of deprivation (Carlen 1998) and others suggest it is due to changes in the labelling of crimes which make for stricter sentencing (Heidensohn 1996). Criminology has incited many debates which have helped to develop a better understanding of the characteristics of female offending.
As a result of criminological research, such as the British Crime Survey (BCS), we understand that overall women are at less risk of criminal victimisation than men. The only crimes that women are at a higher risk from is domestic violence and stalking/harassment (although it could be argued that the latter is due to men being less easily intimidated and less likely to report those types of crimes). We also know that the vast amount of the domestic violence suffered by women goes unreported. Finally, although we know that women are at less risk of crime overall, the BCS tells us that they have a greater fear of crime than men, and this impacts negatively on their daily lives (Newburn 2007).
Criminology has contributed to our understanding of the characteristics of female victimisation in many ways. Firstly, By challenging police statistics it has highlighted ‘the dark figure of crime’, showing the vast amount of crimes that go either unknown, unreported, or unrecorded; therefore highlighting the vast amount of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape crimes women suffer, mainly at the hands of their husbands, partners or other family members (Heidensohn 1996). The issue of domestic violence is shockingly illustrated in a study carried out by Painter and Farrington (1998), in which one in seven wives reported being raped by their husbands (cited in Rafter, 2003). Traditionally crimes of domestic violence were trivialized by the police because of a general acceptance of violence against women by their partners (Newburn 2007). Criminology has also highlighted the issue of repeat victimization in regards to women; due to the nature of the offence repeat victimization rates are high in cases of domestic violence but research also shows that women who were abused in childhood are at a higher risk of being victimized in adulthood (Rafter 2003). Therefore, because of Criminology we understand that many more women suffer domestic violence than the police statistics suggest and also women who were abused as children are at a higher risk of getting involved in an abusive relationship in adulthood.
Women’s fear of victimization is a debated issue within Criminology, some explain that it is because women are ‘the smaller sex’ and so are more easily intimidated and others suggest it is related to a fear of rape caused by socialization and ‘moral panic’, suggesting that it is irrational (Rafter 2003). Criminology has highlighted women’s experience of crime and the CJS and society’s attitudes towards female victimization (Newburn 2007). Criminology has found that women are often accused of precipitating or facilitating crimes against them, such as rape and assault; according to lifestyle theories, how women dress, whether they go out alone and where they go, all participates to their victimization (Rafter 2003). This theory is contradicted by victim survey data which suggests that women are at more risk of domestic violence than stranger violence (Newburn 2007).
In regards to women’s treatment within the CJS, criminology has highlighted the unfair and un-sympathetic treatment women arguably receive in regards to being victim of such crimes as rape and domestic violence, suggesting that women were often subject to ‘secondary victimisation’ because of unsympathetic treatment given by the CJS (Rafter 2003). Consequently Criminology has helped to improve attitudes and treatment within the CJS by helping to establish the use of rape suites and aftercare services (Newburn 2007). In conclusion we have a greater understanding of why women fear crime and how society and the CJS have blamed them in some part for their own victimization.
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In conclusion, Criminology has been crucial in contributing to our understanding of the characteristics of female offending and victimization. By carrying out studies and surveys, gathering statistics and developing and debating theories Criminology has developed a greater understanding of why and what causes women to commit crime; why they commit less crime in comparison to men, and why they are more likely to commit certain types of crimes over others. Criminology has highlighted the vast amount of female victimization that goes unreported and has helped to counteract this by improving women’s treatment within the CJS and by helping to change attitudes and policies. Overall, Criminology has given us a greater understanding of female offending and victimization and has been fundamental to our understanding of women and crime.
Chesney-Lind, M. (1997) The Female Offender, Girls, Women and Crime, London: Sage publications Inc.
Carlen, P.(1988) Women, Crime and Poverty Milton Keynes: Open University Press Educational Enterprises Ltd.
Heidensohn, F. (1996) Women and Crime. (2nd Ed.) Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Newburn, T. (2007) Criminology. U.S.A. and Canada: Willan Publishing.
Rafter, N. H. (2003) Encyclopedia of Women and Crime. Newyork: Checkmark Books.
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