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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018

Gender remains the best predictor of criminal behaviour

Recently, criminology has been gradually begun understanding how fundamental forms of social issues, influence crime, for example, race, ethnicity, class and gender. Earlier efforts to tackle this limitation included dividing offenders into sets to see whether main theories of criminality explained their offences. A common fear amid feminist criminologists is that main criminological philosophies arose without focussing on gender differences and that most research used for such theories, is conducted without taking account of female offenders (Chesney-Lind, 1989).

One explanation for the absence of revolutionary work into female crime is that previous investigations in criminology either disregarded possible differences between males and females or, held misconstrued beliefs that females were not involved in crime. Previous attempts to define and clarify who was a criminal and what is defined as a crime, did little to study gender differences. Upon scrutiny of previous research, it is apparent that researchers on the whole used biological deficiencies or other abnormalities to explain why females committed crimes. Cesare Lombroso (1895) deemed females on the whole to be undeveloped, and he described female crime by the fact that female criminals were lacking the usual characteristics innate to them and therefore displayed more masculine characteristics. Lombroso (1920) offered a biological explanation for female criminality. He believed individuals who possessed genes which cause females to commit crimes should be prevented from breeding. This was his solution to eliminate female criminality. This view is supported by researchers such as Cowie, Cowie and Slater (1968) who asserted that physical characteristics such as having a large body, meant the individual will be more likely to be aggressive and therefore delinquent.

Lombroso’s (1920) views influenced and inspired later theories. For example; Lombroso’s primary view of females was that they are amoral. Thomas (1923) elaborates on this view in his theory that females manipulate males for ulterior purposes. Freud (1933) was also influenced by this view and believed females punish men due to a lack of penis. Pollack (1950) concludes that females are intrinsically untrustworthy. Freud (1933) believes that females are born without a penis due to being punished. As a result, girls grow up to become bitter women. Men also realise that females are lacking a penis and are awaiting a punishment. Therefore, Freud explains that women are constantly trying to be like men by committing crimes. Freud believes that women need to be cared for to learn to act as women should be acting. Vedder and Somerville (1970) believe that it is important to study offending women to try and change them as women become wives and mothers, and raise families. Klein (1973) believes that researchers attempting to introduce new theories into understanding gender differences in offending, should look at traditional theories and avoid introducing similar ideas which are no longer accepted nowadays.

Lombroso’s beliefs about females adopting male characteristic due to not being evolved are not supported by modern researchers, however some researchers do hold biology responsible for female criminal behaviour. For example, Pollack (1950) suggests that the beginning of menstruation and pregnancy is related to criminality and that women use their sexuality to receive positive treatment. This has influenced psychological theories to use gender differences in explaining personality changes and evolution. Commonly studies on predictors of crimes have studied males because it is a shared belief in criminology that males are more likely to offend than females and male offending is thought to be more persistent and violent (Lanctot and LeBlane, 2002).

There are arguments that the differences in the gender gap in offending has changed. Steffensmeier (1993) believes that this gap is estimated by looking at the stability over time whereas scholars such as O’Brien (1999) stress that the differences between males and females can be small, depending on the offence. The media also reports this difference in gender gap by labelling offending women as ‘wild’ (Scelfo, 2006). However, there is little information in the media informing researchers whether the gender gap in violence has lessened and whether women have began to offend more over time. Crime statistics report that females began offending slightly more in the late 1980s, and the figure rose until the late 1990s when both male and female offending rates decreased. It is unanimously agreed by criminologists that females are not more violent than before nor are they wild (Steffensmeier et al., 2005).

Early research on female offending lacked clarity as arrest and conviction data of females was only primarily used to assess female offending (Box and Hale, 1983; Steffensmeier, 1980). Researchers recognised the methodological problems and began to adopt a comparative approach in studies by involving both males and females in their studies to assess the changes in gender gap. Researchers also acknowledged that gender gap changes were sensitive to time periods. For example; Steffensmeier (1980) noted that offending in the United States was noticeable in 1960s and increased slightly more in 1970s. The type of offending was mainly property crimes. This study is compared to Simon (1975) who also found an increase in property crimes during 1960s-1970s but noted that there were little increases in female arrests. This finding was echoed by Steffensmeier and Cobb (1981) and Steffensmeier (1993). However during the same timeframe a study found reductions in the gender gap in a range of offenses, which included violent offenses in a study of arrests in the state of Ohio from 1890 to 1976 (Giordano, Kerbel and Dudley, 1981).

Farrington and Painter (2004) conducted a research investigating the risk factors associated with offending for males and females. This was a longitudinal study exploring the differences between males and females by using brothers and sisters as participants. By using siblings from the same families the researchers had advantages as they were able to control factors such as neighbourhoods and communities influencing the offending rate. A limitation of this study is that the siblings are from a different time frame (1960s) and another limitation is that offending is measured according to convictions. Therefore the researchers ignored cases where the participants were caught by the police for offending but given a warning instead. As hypothesised by the researchers, the males in this study were most likely to commit crimes (44%) than females (12%) and initial results showed that there were differences in the offences committed. For example, males were most likely to commit burglary (20%) whereas females were most likely to commit shoplifting (28%). Overall females were imprisoned for a short amount of time compared to males; 4.4 years for females and 6.6 years for males. The common predictor for offending between the males and females in the present study was low household income, attending a school where criminal behaviour is high and poor discipline by parents. However, after further scrutiny researchers found gender differences. Females were more likely to offend when they were praised less by their parents and when their parents showed little interests in their schooling. For males, the most striking factor predicting their offending was whether the parents were law-abiding and whether they had a normal mental health.

The implications of this study suggests the importance of bringing matters to the attention of parents such as discipline and praise as this may aid in reducing female offending. The examination of data covering the crime prosperity and decline during the 1980s-1990s is central to measure changes in the gender gap. The narrowing of the gender gap reported in various studies may be due to changes in female behaviour in recent years. A common explanation for this is the liberation hypothesis which stresses that women have more opportunities to commit crimes as they gain more freedom and power (Adler, 1975). A second explanation given is the economic marginalization hypothesis.

The economic marginalization hypothesis refers to the difficulty faced by women economically compared to men (Heimer, 2000). This theory uses joblessness with females and poverty intensity as a guide to women’s disadvantaged position. Economic marginalization is believed to be a factor in understanding why females commit crimes. Steffensmeier and Streifel (1992) argued that there is a link between female-headed households and arrests of females due to burglary and property offences. Further support comes from Adler (1975) who argued that when a woman is given more equality she will act more like men and will as a result commit more crimes commonly linked with males. Women may also use violence via offending in deprived environments as coping strategies for dealing with abusive situations or for confronting partners, neighbours or authority figures (Anderson, 1999). Linking to the previous viewpoint, gender role strains can also explain female offending. When a woman is faced with the pressure of maintaining herself and at the same time following norms of society, her strains are intensified. This eventually leads to opportunities to commit offences. However, currently there are few studies which specifically analysed the economic marginalization hypothesis, and of those studies, there has been a small amount of support for the hypothesis (Box & Hale, 1983). Both the liberation hypothesis and the economic marginalization hypothesis concentrate on understanding changing gender gaps of female and male behaviour.

Another explanation is that the behaviour of females and males has in reality changed little, and the narrowing gender gap in arrests is as a result of different definitions of violence used by society over time (Steffensmeier et al., 2005). This explanation asserts that changes in understanding of violence lead to a decrease in the gap between male and females in violence but produce little change in the gender gap in actual violent behaviour. According to this stance, attempts towards reducing inequality between males and females, and declines in the public’s lenience towards violent behaviour, may have influenced the way that police view female violence, and they may have become even more likely to deem female offending as challenging. Steffensmeier et al (2006) argued that this could lead to rising detention for women whose behaviours previously would not have resulted in arrest, or to an upgrade of offenses that in the past would have resulted in charges for a less serious crime. Females committing simple assaults would therefore be increasingly charged as committing more severe assaults which would lead to an unsteady rise of rates.

Furthermore, domestic violence, which was previously not viewed as “violence” or as essential of being notified to the police, is increasingly being bought to the attention of the criminal justice system in recent years and is more likely to end in arrests. For example, standard arrest procedures in domestic violence has led to more arrests of women over time as allegations of women being involved in domestic violence cases has increased (Chesney-Lind, 2002). This procedure would lead to a reduction of the gender gap in arrests because women’s offending would seemingly grow higher than men. Therefore in this situation, any reduction of the gender gap in arrests is due to the transformation of the criminal justice practices (Steffensmeier et al., 2005). An important question which rises from this explanation is whether the gender gap has changed due to a transformation of criminal justice system and public perception or whether there are differences in male and female behaviours.

Smart (1976) argued that criminology has not treated women the same as men and has often dismissed women as deviant. Anderson et al. (2008) reports that there is a disparity in criminological theories, explaining male and female offending patterns. It is assumed that some theories explaining men and boys pattern better than women and girls or in reverse.

Cohen & Harvey (2006) suggest that perhaps there is a masculine or a feminine issue which operates as a risk or a protective factor of crime. Masculinity and femininity is created by the social processes and the social framework within which they exist. Social researchers have certainly shown that gender is generally formed over time making it distinctive to and fluctuating between different social contexts and circumstances (Copes & Hochstetler, 2003). One example of an act specific to a gender which has always been linked to crime is hypermasculinity. Men who are hypermasculine act in an exaggerated version of how men traditionally act (Kreiger & Dumka, 2006). Kreiger & Dumbka (2006) conclude that hypermasculinity is the reason why there is a high rate of antisocial behaviour and the excessive use of drugs and alcohol amongst some but not all men. Hypermasculine men also believe that violence is manly and they consider that danger is exhilarating.

Further attributions applied to hypermasculine men are those that these men have insensitive sexual views about women, the importance of suppressing emotions regarded as as vulnerable, such as sorrow and worries and the acceptance of sexual violence (Kreiger & Dumka, 2006). Acts exclusive to a specific gender can be personal to the social situation, the type of and extent of those carrying out the gender act (Messerschmidt, 2004). According to Messerschmidt, masculinity produces more crimes as certain circumstances require hypermasculinity. Copes & Hochstetler (2003) argue that this makes it difficult to identify potential offenders as criminal actions are relative to social situations and the timeframe.

The situational approach to crime states that men follow gender norms such as, being ambitious and taking risks, demonstrating these traits in settings where they are valued. It is believed that when individuals (in this case, men) lack social gender norms, they may turn to criminal activities for a chance to emphasise their masculinity. The need to affirm their masculinity, due to little or no gender norms, has been related to robbery, harassment, murder and violent behaviour (Tomsen, 1997). Anderson et al. (2009) found that middle-class males in their study offended in nightclubs motivated by masculinity issues as a result of the social situation. It was also found in the same study that participants who increased their masculinity by becoming more hypermasculine in nightclubs committed more offences than those men whose masculinity identity became less hypermasculine in the same settings.

Past research has found that men and women have significantly different levels of recklessness (Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter, & Silva, 2001). Moffitt et al.’s (2001) research on sex differences in antisocial behaviour clearly finds that whereas few of the predictors of antisocial behaviour differed by sex, one key predictor was low constraint and a negative personality. Boys were found to have considerably lower levels of emotional control and significantly higher levels of negative emotions for instance distress.

Furthermore, research on the theory of crime has constantly found gender differences in discipline with females showing higher levels of self-control than males, regardless of age differences. Moffitt et al’s research (2001) did not offer a reason for the cause of the impulsivity but other studies have proposed that insufficiencies in cognitive and motor skills are responsible. Sagvolden, Johansen, Aase, & Russell (2005) suggest that children who are delayed developmentally may acquire less patience and therefore lack tolerance. Alternatively, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) suggest that low willpower is the result of an effective parenting. Impulsivity is believed to be normal; children learn to control this and then develop restraint as young adults. Further support comes from Hagan, Simpson and Gillis (1987) who proposed the power control theory. Power control theory suggests that males are expected and allowed to take risks and are subjected to less parental monitoring than girls and that this eventually leads to the gender gap in criminal behaviour by means of fondness of risk (a concept which is hypothetically related to impulsivity).

As mentioned, feminists argue that female offenders are not accounted for when creating theories. Beck (2000) report that this is regardless of the fact that on average women account for 22% of all arrests, as well as 17% of the arrests for violent offenses and 29% of the arrests for property offenses. The sentencings to prison rates are growing at a faster rate than those of men. Regardless, there is an inadequate amount of research on female offending. The majority of studies on female offending are qualitative and put forward limited explanations (Koons-Witt & Schram, 2003). Many studies on female offending also observe the crime rates between men and women but not at the reasons why women are offending (Steffensmeier & Haynie, 2000).

A major idea in feminism is patriarchy, as this is believed to be part of the cause of gender inequality (Walby, 1986). Within feminist theory, patriarchy refers to a society when men are seen as authoritative and women are at a disadvantaged position (Belknap, 2007). When a woman is dependent on her husband/father or another male member, due to limited or no access to a paid employment, it is also known as private patriarchy. There are arguments that women are highly dependent as their productivity is limited due to child-raising duties (Belknap, 2007). As a result, women are confined to their homes and are unable to socialise and participate in experiences which would otherwise boost their lives economically. On the other hand, men hold the power over economic possessions, which the women are lacking and therefore men are argued to have control over women. In this case, due to being confined, women are less likely to offend as they feel powerless and have limited opportunities to commit crimes (Messerschmidt, 1986).

Daly & Chesney-Lind (2004) assert that patriarchy raises the exposure of young and old females, especially those females who are on a low income, to physical and sexual cruelty by both associates and strangers. As a result, it is believed that females are more likely than men to have been the sufferers of violence from a young age and as adults. This violence has been found in the experiences of imprisoned women. Women who were convicted were more likely to be sexually or physically abused in a study by Girshick (1999). Mental health problems have been found amongst incarcerated women who recalled histories of abuse.

Description of female offender’s past has led to the theory that sexual violence initiates a woman’s criminal career by causing her to run away as a way of avoiding the abuse she is living through at home (Belknap, Holsinger, and Dunn 1997). Women who run away are more likely to be imprisoned as they are vulnerable to turning to prostitution, stealing and burglary as a means to survive. Silbert and Pines (1981) studied the life histories of prostitutes and a common theme of sexual abuse in early childhood was discovered. As well as prostitution, drug offences are also widespread amongst women who run away from home as a result of sexual abuse (Marcenko, Kemp, and Larson 2000). Research has also found that children who are sexually abused are significantly more physically aggressive than children who are not (Cosentino et al. 1993).

This essay has attempted to outline the historical reporting of the topic of gender in the available criminological researches. It has also presented existing evidence about the resemblance, or the lack of, between males and females in regards to criminality and the handling of crime by the criminal justice system. Female participation in crime is in general low. The explanation for this is unclear but the fact is well-known. The basic conclusion that has been made with respect to the gender and crime bond is that for the effects of gender to be better appreciated, criminology must face the fact that it has not entirely recognised the full range of issues regarding male and female participation in criminal behaviour. The delinquency amongst females cannot be rejected as just an uncommon or an insignificant version of act committed by males. Lack of acknowledgements like these has two important results. Firstly, it stops the growth of common theories, where they are suitable (for example Lombrosso, 1895); but more importantly it precludes the testing of hypothesise which are gender-specific. Therefore, criminology researchers must carry on studying gender differences to better understand the connection between males and females.

In spite of low crime statistics, women are more and more in the attention of the criminal justice system for sexual crimes. Evidence suggests that females have particular weaknesses which are related to their sexually offending behaviour. Vulnerabilities commonly found amongst female offenders include victimisation and psychological neglect (Comack & Brickey, 2007). Factors that stimulate conviction rates amongst women are male unemployment, divorce, decreased number of dependents, females in employment and increases in governmental taxes. This suggests that women’s economic marginality may be linked to the finances and employment status of men because women’s conviction rates rise when men are made redundant and reduces when men are working. This also supports the economic marginalization hypothesis (Heimer, 2002). However, current theories do not predict that socio-economic and parental involvement factors are more significant for females compared to parental characteristics being more significant for males. Existing theories also do not predict that criminal parents are equally important for both males and females. Arguments that gender is the best predictor of crimes may use biological explanations of female offending to support this view (for example Lombroso, 1920; Thomas, 1923) or alternatively psychological explanations (Freud, 1933). Nowadays there are more systematic explanations for female offending such as physical or sexual abuse in childhood (Belknap, Holsinger and Dunn 1997).

Further studies into the area of gender and crime could include a longitudinal approach. By studying the effects overtime, researchers can gain a richer data open to further analysis of results. Researchers could also include the use of siblings as this controls other risk factors. By using brothers and sisters, researchers can look at the effects of females receiving justice or sentences and the consequences of such handling on later criminal behaviours. When an individual views a close relative involved in crime or police investigations, it could be that this individual may be more likely to commit crime. The development of particular type of offending over the lifetime must also be studied amongst males and females, therefore researchers could use young subjects. For example, by studying how the criminal justice system treats offenders and victims, it is possible to reduce criminal careers which are the consequences of persecution (Chesney-Lind, 1997). It is not possibly to use gender as a best predictor for crime as statistically men are more associated with crime; females have also been linked with criminality in recent years. Crime figures are lower than they were in previous years, therefore alternative predictors of crimes could be upbringing, influence of peers and the area an individual is residing in. Further research is required into the many predictors of crime in order to highlight gender as the best predictor.

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