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Theories of Crime and Gender: Research Study

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5399 words Published: 10th Jul 2018

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Crime & Gender


Contents (Jump to)

  1. Introduction

–  Why Gender? Why Crime?

  1. Ground Rules

Laying the Foundation for a Thorough Discussion: Feminism & Sociological Motivation

  1. Offenders

Women who Violate the “Norm”

  1. Victims

–  In their “natural” place…

  1. In the System

The Influence of Dominant Social Structures & Paradigms

  1. Field Perspective

A Short Experimental Inquiry into Current Perceptions about Women & Violent Crime

  1. The Verdict

Moving Forward with Facts… and assumptions



Appendix AResearch Surveys

Appendix BAnnotated SPPS Output

Appendix C Raw Data


Why Gender? Why Crime?

The answer to the question posed above could be any one of the following:

  1. In the tradition of Sir Edmund Hillary in referring to why he climbed Mt. Everst, simply, “Because it is there”.
  2. In the modern tradition of rhetoric, “Why not?”
  3. In ‘typical’ answer one might expect, because both are compelling, engaging topics in which virtually everyone has a vested interest in and both are issues fundamental to the social and political fabric of modern life.

The truth is simply “all of the above” with a heavy emphasis on #3. These topics have the fortune of being both broad and “loaded”. It is broad in the sense that both subjects, in and of themselves, is the subject of the life’s work of numerous notable academians as well as that of many law enforcement, social service and legal professionals. Without question, the subjects, especially gender, is loaded with emotion. While many might believe that feminism is a wasted effort to redirect attention and funds, others pursue the topic with all the righteous vigor of that associated with the abolition of slavery. The topics of gender and crime would be much easier to cover if, like a traditional Venn diagram, there were but a small area of overlap. In contrast, the two subjects seem to only grow when combined.

With this in mind, a logical treatise on the subject is yet possible by presentation with a logical stepwise progression through fundamental theoretical perspectives followed by the systematic treatment of each key stakeholder. Following this, original research will be reviewed and discussed in light of the foundations laid. Based on these findings, additional lines of inquiry to tease out further salient differences and issues will be proposed.

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Ground Rules

Laying the Foundation for a Thorough Discussion: Feminism & Sociological Motivation


It becomes quite apparent with on a cursory review of literature that crime is a man’s arena. Unanimously, researchers agree that the overwhelming majority of crime is committed by men and that gender is the strongest predictor of criminality (Messerschmidt 1997, p. 1; Belknap 2001, pp. xii, 5-6; Heidensohn 1997, p. 491). In itself, this begs the question of why this is the case. Though any answer to this question falls short of the answer to the ‘whole’ question, it is enough to pique interest and to begin a line of inquiry into the simple matter, given the roughly 50/50 gender distribution, why must is be the case that men commit more than ten times the crimes that women do (or are they just not caught?).

The simple fact that most crimes are committed by men and not by women creates questions as to the reasoning behind this. Though seemingly far from what might be considered a typical feminist agenda, the issue of crime and gender is indeed a fundamental issue of gender and, therefore central to the thoughts of feminism.

In assigning a feminism interest to the issue of gender and crime, additional complications arise due to the multiple perspectives of feminism within its own ranks. While the uninitiated might label all feminists alike, this is not the case as there are five major division within the overall perspective of “a woman-centered description and explanation of human experience and the social world” (Belknap 2001, p. 16). Below is a table listing each major faction and the outlook regarding key issues:



Liberal feminism

Believe that women’s access to equality in education, employment and “public” things in general are blocked by generally accepted (but wrong) principles, policies and laws.

Marxist feminism

Disciples of this division are most concerned with class and economic inequalities.

Socialist feminists

Take issue with Marxist’s in that they insist that it is not class alone but also instilled systems and that perpetuate inequalities.

Radical feminists

Another reaction against Marxist feminism that again goes beyond it in that they emphasize patriarchal systems as sources of inequality and, of all the factions, this one is the most likely to “hold individual men, rather than society, responsible”.

Post-modern feminists

Advocates of a multiple perspective view in that the issues that any woman faces are different based upon class, race, age, etc.

(Belknap 2001, pp. 16-17)

Though feminism is a diverse and sometimes, even divisive, arena, each ‘faction’ has a belief that men and women should receive equal treatment under the law and in society in general. Criminology, with its overwhelming use of masculine models, theories and subjects has largely attempted to impose these models upon female crime, crime victims and system-issues in an effort to explain how and why female crime occurs. Though these models are insightful and useful, they do not fully explain male or female criminology. Consequently, the utilization of the feminist perspective may be quite useful in not only generating models for female offenders but able to shed light on what went wrong with male criminals. This feminist viewpoint is different from other perspectives in the following ways:

  1. Gender is not a natural fact but a complex social, historical and cultural product related to but limited to any biological basis for sex.
  2. Gender and gender relation create and sustain fundamental order in social life and institutions.
  3. Gender relations are based upon masculine and feminine constructs in which men are viewed are socially, politically, and economically dominant over women.
  4. The production of knowledge is gendered in that men produce it from their point of view.
  5. Women and women’s issues should be at the center of attention and inquiry.

(Belknap 2001, p. 13)

With the realization that half of the planet’s population is female, the duration of the dominance ‘typical’ perspectives becomes even more curious. Thus, in consideration of crime and gender, the feminist perspective can be enlightening both for the perspective on the majority as well as to provide novel insight into female-committed crime as well as how it is possible that approximately 93% of the [female] populate are ‘crime-free’. Were we able to find this mystery female ‘ingredient’ (is it butterflies?) and, were it able to be instilled, socialized, taught, administered or cultivated in any way in the other half of the population, the world would be virtually crime-free.

An example of how the feminist perspective has already fundamentally changed the view of society at large is in regards to rape. Clearly a violent crime, [male] researchers had, prior to the emergence of the feminist perspective, simply gathered data on this crime in the same way that did not fully capture the reality of situation. Specifically, the number of rapes committed each year was reported based upon statistics gathered from police records, a source that is contingent upon a crime being reported and how a crime is defined. As it would turn out, many “rapes” are not reported and further, the legal definition of “rape” may not exactly fit the reality of a victim who may have been forced to have sex (Belknap 2001, p. 20).

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Sociological Motication: Why People Commit Crime

There are a number theories as to why crimes are committed. Clearly, there are crimes of passion and as many other reasons as there are unfulfilled desires of the heart. Despite the overwhelming possibilities, there emerge a few predictable bases as well as other “systematic” rationale for deviant behavior. Without engaging in the broadest of philosophical arguments as to what constitutes “right” and what separates this from “wrong”, a key tenet to lawbreaking that we should accepts is that of “mens rea” or, “guilty mind”. This Latin phrase is central in that we excerpt from our discussion those who commit a crime “by mistake, under duress or while insane” (Hampton 1990, pp.1). Consequently, of the millions of crimes committed, it becomes imperative to study the matter to determine to cause and ultimately to prevent their commission in the first place as those who commit such acts do so willfully, with at least some idea of the potential penalties and with the knowledge that harm is likely or, depending on the crime, is certain to occur to persons or property though this will be presented not from a individual psychological perspective but rather that of a large scale sociological perspective.

Early criminologists believed primarily believed that crime was a ‘class’ problem, an issue that was confined for the most part to lower socio-economic strata (Lynch 1996, pp. 4, 8-9). This view point is still widely held and, as regression goes, still has significant explanatory power though there are other variables in the equation. As criminologist evolved in their thinking, questions of gender and race began to be considered. Messerschmidt, in Crimes as Structured Action (1997), indicates that each of these variables is more than a simple binary-type factor that someone either has or does not. In the same way that feminists recognize different feminist experiences, Messerschmidt puts for a theory of structured action. Similarly, in this model, each factor is contextual and has a relational aspect with regards to the other factors. For example, in some circumstances, one may be a “male”, in others, and “African-American” while yet in others “working class”. These identities are constructed through social interaction and existing social structures such as church, home, work, etc. Defined in broader terms, social structures are those “regular and patterned forms of interaction over time that constrain and channel behavior in specific ways” (Messerschmidt 1997, p. 5). These social structures are created by culpable people and perpetuated by the same. In essence the perspectives that one accepts and endorses, even if implicitly, one also perpetuates, even in cases in which one ‘just goes along with it’ as ultimately, there is an accountability that people take on themselves when they choose to construe themselves as a certain way in a specific situation (Messerschmidt 1997, pp. 4-6).

Though it is something of the ‘American way’ and reminiscent of some versions of Arthurian legend that a person who is ‘good’ or works ‘hard enough’ is not limited in their ability to achieve success as the world sees its, there seems to be a great correlation between one’s race, class, neighborhood, gender and other key factors as to how one’s life choices play out. This view is specifically termed the “structured life course” and indicates that ones choices about any given matter are often not so much a function of a true individual choice but are frequently arise of a function of nearly inevitable consequences caused by political, social or economic forces that serve to either increase of decrease the likelihood of any particular act (Lynch 1996, pp. 6-7,15; Messerschmidt 1997, p. 7). In support of this, consider the following facts:

  1. 34% of all families living under the poverty line are headed by single female workers.
  2. 65% of all females in the work force are either single, widowed, divorced, separated or married to men earning less that $15,000/year.
  3. African Americans earn, on average, 64% of what whites earn.
  4. ½ Of African American children grow up in poverty.
  5. The wealthiest 1% possess 42% of the wealth in America.
  6. Most millionaires are born, not made.
  7. Class affects where you grow up, how you grow up, the quality of schools you attend (from elementary through college), occupational choices, career path, whom you marry and the cycle begins again with your children.

(Lynch 1997, p.11, 12, 16)

An additional explanation for the problem of crime that has the potentiality to build upon the precept of the structured action theory is the theory proposed by Hirschi and Gottfredson in A General Theory of Crime (1990) in which they posit that the critical variable in an individual choosing to commit a crime is that of “self control”. With the exception of a very few acts, the overwhelming majority of crimes are “trivial and mundane affairs that result in little loss and less gain” (Brannigan 1997, p. 405). Further, the authors suggest that crimes, though usually unplanned, are the result of deliberate (though poor) choices and incur a degree of recklessness or offensiveness that is variable to the extent of the “underlying criminality” of the individual.

The degree of “criminality” is closely related to this extent to which they are impulsive and, according, have low self-control. In terms of their character or behavior, this has a number of outcomes which contribute to the ‘downward spiral’:

  1. a need for immediate gratification,
  2. the “utilization of simple means”, i.e., pay without performance, sex without marriage or commitment, justice or revenge without court costs or delays, etc.,
  3. biases towards risky and exciting activities,
  4. little interest in “skilful or sophisticated criminal planning” and,
  5. insensitivity to the pain of others (Brannigan 1997, p. 406).

From these behaviors, additional consequences follow such as tendencies to:

  1. smoke, drink, use drugs,
  2. gamble,
  3. have children out of marriage and engage in risky, illicit sex,
  4. be impulsive and insensitive, physical (i.e., not ‘intellectual’), short-sighted, and nonverbal (Brannigan 1997, p. 406; Storvall, E., L. Wichstrom, & H. Pape Nova. 2003, p. 194)

The character trait that produces this string of products is produced (or not) in the first six to eight years of childhood (Brannigan 1997, p. 410). During this period, the institution of the family is particularly important as a person is socialized and receives the psychological grounding that produces good impulse- and self-control.

Without discounting either the structured action theory, life course theory or the general theory of crime (low self-control), a discussion of criminal behavior would not be complete without a discussion of life cycle theory of Sampson & Laub. In the life cycle theory, the idea of internal and external factors in the commission of crime is viewed within the perspective that criminality is a function of age. In this theory, it is noted that, “the patterns of offending over [an individual’s] life cycle commonly follow an age curve – a peak… which rises throughout the late adolescence and which declines into early adulthood”. Interestingly, the level of the crest of criminality varies with the race and gender of the offender as well as, accordingly, with those that can be labeled “high- or low-frequency” offenders (Brannigan 1997, p. 409). With this in mind, Brannigan points out, many programs that are aimed at curbing crime or rehabilitating offenders will commit grievous errors if the assumption is made that a certain regimen is effective that fails to account for this “invariant” feature (Brannigan 1997, p. 410).

Another model, social capital or social bond theory, names the additional external factor of positive or negative social pressures in the form of relationships and so-called “social capital” that exists in the form of a steady job, a good marriage and other stabilizing (or not) relational bonds that influence criminality (Brannigan 1997, p. 411; Belknap 2001, p. 47, Batton 2004, p. 430; Giordano, Cernkovich & Rudolph 2002, p. 990). The fundamental approach of this theory is on what induces most people and nearly all females to obey the law. Because of this, it is a distinctly feminist approach in light of the overwhelming data indicating that crime is, in nearly all cases a male issue.

In all, there are a number of approaches that one can justifiably take to explain why people commit crimes. Though each one can be viewed as a separate proposition, it does not seem to be a crime to simply use each for what it is, that is, a partial representation of a broad and complex topic. In light of this, it seems to be a reasonable approach to posit a de facto theory by which race, class and gender, in combination with internal self-control and external relational factors work together to create real and virtually real structures and courses that interact over the course of a person’s life span to create a seemingly complete, reasonable and accurate explanation for most criminal acts. Viewed contextually, combinations of such risk factors as being male, having a corrupted network of friends could be overcome by being raised in a caring family environment with other ‘insulating’ factors. Similarly, a moment of poor impulse control could begin a process that quickly spirals out of control.


Women who Violate the “Norm”

In summary of women as principal agents in the commission of a crime, a few general trends become obvious:

  1. women commit a very small portion of all crimes, about 4-7% in the US and UK,
  2. the crimes they do commit are, on average, fewer, less severe and less likely to be “professional” or repeat offenders,
  3. women form a very small portion of prison populations.

(Heidensohn 1997, pp. 491-492)

Further, in all crimes except rape, the factor of gender becomes even more disparate as men are not only far more likely to commit a crime, they are even more likely to be a victim (Batton 2004, p. 423). According to 2000 statistics, men accounted for 89.6% of murder arrests and commit suicide at approximately 4x the rate of females (Batton 2004, p. 425).

Though women commit far fewer crimes, some authors note that the rate of growth of female offenders is growing at a faster rate than that of males (Heidensohn 1997, pp. 494-496). Despite this, it is important to keep in perspective comparatively diminutive population of female offenders and that a large increase in the relative rate may yet still be quite a small number in absolute value.

In regards to our ‘wholly unified’ theory as a composite of ‘all with predictive power’, a review of homicide data from 1960 – 2000 indicates that as female work for participation increased, the rate of murders committed by females has decreased. This suggests that as women gain greater power through increased penetration of established social structures, this has reduced the stress and frustration and subsequent ‘out-of-control’ feeling that can lead to lethal consequences. This finding is in contrast to male homicide rates that, during the same period, either stayed the same or increased, while workforce participation also remained constant (Batton 2004, p. 452).

One theme that seems to emerge across studies of deviant behavior in females and males is the tendency of females to reports higher internal sources of problems than males (Storvall, E., L. Wichstrom, & H. Pape Nova. 2003, p. 200; Batton 2004, pp. 428-429). Examples of this would be depression, stress from “success” in breaking through social structures or stress in being frustrated by them. This suggests the possibility that the specific motivations behind the commission behind criminal acts may be more internally driven for females and more external for males.

In support of social bond theory are findings from research on female juveniles who socialize in three predominantly different setting with regards to support structures in the form of relationships and friendship networks. In this research, the greater the extent of the female-dominated friendship bonds, the less the extent of property crimes. This effect was greatest in “school females” and progressively weaker with “school males” and “street females” and virtually nonexistent for “homeless males” (McCarthy, Felmlee, & Hagan 2004, p. 805).

In regards to women who do commit crimes, particularly violent crimes such as domestic abuse or murder, they do so very much as men seem to do. For example in the case of domestic violence, both women and men were “equally likely to have used severe violence and inflicted severe injuries…, to have previously committed violence against nonintimates, and to have been using drugs or alcohol at the time of their arrest” (Busch & Rosenberg 2004, p. 49).


In their “natural” place…

Despite males being victims of crimes more than females, no discussion of gender and crime would be complete with out a discussion of women as victims of crimes. Indeed, this fact may even be surprising to many that would think that ‘female’ is synonymous with being weaker and more vulnerable. Though women may not be, on average, physically as strong as men, the image is clearly more powerful than reality and this may propogate the well-documented fact that women, despite being a victim less, fear being a victim more (Belknap 2001, p. 206). There are however, certain crimes that are notably perpetrated almost exclusively against women. The most heinous of these is rape and no legitimate discussion of gender and crime would be complete with its omission.

Rape is a crime typically committed against women and, in all likelihood, is committed far more than it is reported. While it is the case that it does disproportionately affect women with figures of 34% of Native American women, 18 % of white women, and 19% for African American indicating that they have been victimized (Belknap 2001, p. 218). An additional study surveyed 930 women randomly who gave responses indicating that 44% had been “victims of a completed or attempted rape” with 24% indicating a rape did definitively occur. Yet another study indicates that up to 53% of women experiencing some form of sexual assault (Belknap 2001, p. 231). TO put this into perspective, if you are a man, chances are 50/50 that your mother, your wife and your daughter has or will be sexually assaulted. If this was a female issue, it seems that the widespread dissemination of information such as this might affect matters.

Though the incidence of any rape is too high, reporting and data gathering on this is itself a confounding issue, due in largely to the twin factors of social pressures to not report a shameful experience and the often uncertain definition of what actually constitutes “rape” or “sexual assault”. Also, there is likely the disproportionate reporting of certain types of rape such as the stereotypical “stranger assault” in which it is more socially acceptable to be a ‘victim’ (Belknap 2001, p. 233).

The experience of being violated in the way of a rape is often difficult for women to admit, knowing that they may likely bring negative attention to themselves in the form of “victim blame” or potentially even with the threat of additional violence. Until comparatively recent times and not until the advent of the feminist influence was there much sympathy in the ‘system’ for rape victims (Belknap 2001, p. 215).

Additionally, many of rapes are not the stereotypical ‘man in the bushes’ crime but are committed in situations that are “fuzzy”. Circumstances involving former consensual partners such as ex-boyfriends or ex-husbands or in scenarios where consent might have been given to point or scenarios that escalate out-of-hand but involved consent for some degree of sexual activity cloud the judgment not only police, prosecutors, and juries but the minds of victims as well.

Regardless of the relationships of the victim to the offender who is convicted, Scully, indicates that none of them felt “guilt” regarding their proven actions. This finding corroborates the findings and predictions of the self-control theory as postulated by Hirschi and Gottfredson in which perpetrators are insensitive to others (Belknap 2001, p. 234).

An additional crime that is typically thought of as one in which females are victims is that of domestic violence in which up to 23% of women reporting an incident with this over their lifetimes (Heidensohn 1997, p. 495). This is yet another situation in which there are social structure pressure as well as the familiar problem of definition. In regards to the degree of activity needed to constitute a “crime”, one study indicates that none of the men that completed a survey on the matter defined a number of listed incidents as a “crime” while 39% of the surveyed women identified them as such (Heidensohn 1997, p. 495). Clearly, a difference of opinion exists.

This difference of opinion, though not justified, is nicely illustrated by research that indicated victims of domestic violence “justify” it and that the perpetrators “excuse” it. Specifically, regardless of the degree, women, who comprise 95% of the victims of this crime, either underreport the incidents or the severity of the incidents and men use excuses such as frustration, anger or intoxication to avoid or deny responsibility and justifications to deny “wrongness” (Belknap 2001, p. 268).

In the System

The Influence of Dominant Social Structures & Paradigms

The criminal justice system can be seen as part of the contextual framework that provides for the perpetuation of existing social structures. It can also and has been the cause of much positive change. In this irony of a duality of roles lie specific examples of how these can occur.

An example of this occurs in the recently discussed situation of domestic violence. Following an incident, any incident, the police are typically the ones called to address the situation which, according to some view domestic disturbance calls frustrating because they feel they are “fighting crime”. Additionally, these types of calls can be among the most dangerous due to the unknown risks and the possibility to the police becoming involved with a very emotional perpetrator who may have the perspective that the police are ‘invading the sanctity of his home’ (Belknap 2001, p. 292). On arrival, police may find a situation for which they are untrained to deal in the case that skills such as mediation may be required. Additionally, many calls for assistance are made to prevent or in anticipation of a ‘situation’. If the police defuse the situation by their presence, the situation still exists when they leave… it has only been deferred (Belknap 2001, p. 293).

If the police are potentially unprepared to deal with a situation, the courts represent an additional layer of structure that imposes constraints on behaviors. For example, there is a good chance that a matter may not even go to judgment due to either plea bargaining or the defendants refusal to prosecute, sometimes to fear of retribution, sometime with false hopes but always in denial of the sequence of events that has begun (Belknap 2001, p. 294).

Another component is the ‘system’ of the courts that merits identification is that of sentencing in cases in which women are offenders rather than being the victims. Though part of the reason the women’s prison population is far smaller than that of men is that far fewer women commit crimes. Despite this, with regards to sentencing for similar crimes, 20% of men convicted go to prison whereas only 5% of women do (Heidensohn 1997, p. 503). One reason for this is postulated to be that of “chivalry”. This phenomena is marked by the application of stereotypical, broadly-held and socially reinforced belief that one should ‘be nice’ to women (Heidensohn 1997, pp. 503-504).

Of final note with regards to the idea of factors within the system that affect the issue of crime and gender are the patterns of employment of women within the ‘system’. In terms of women who are employed either in law enforcement or in the prison system, there are firstly comparatively few with women occupying 9% of police positions, 11.5% of corrections facilities and 20% of attorneys (Belknap 2001, pp. 357-358). This is again reflective a social system that reflects male dominance and a continuing male perspective that is, slowly, adapting to the influence of feminism.

Field Perspective

A Short Experimental Inquiry into Current Perceptions about Women & Violent Crime

To test for statistically significant variances with regards to perception of crime, a short survey (Appendix A) was administered to a group of 44 students comprised on 22 males and 22 females. Respondents were asked to read two brief crime scenarios and then recommend a sentence for the perpetrator. The two scenarios were identical with the exception that one involved bodily harm.

The results of this survey indicated virtually indistinguishable responses with regards to gender with either case. Despite this, both male and female responders were significantly more likely to sentence more harshly the perpetrator who involved the use of bodily harm by an average of approximately 4.5 months. Utilizing a 2-tailed test, this was significant at the p<0.05 level though, to maintain true ‘statistical honesty’, one must admit that the hypothesis was one-tailed in nature in that one would expect more violent crimes to have a longer sentence (H0 = sentenceA < sentenceB) and not just simply a different sentence. With this in mind, the results were significant at the weaker p,0.10 level, a result that would likely change were the sample size larger.

The Verdict

Moving Forward with Facts… and assumptions

While the above experiment did not clearly showing gender differences that might have been expected, it is important to keep in mind that the crime involved property, a likely neutral proposition for which shared social


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