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Study Notes

Statistics on Gender and Crime

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 18 Jul 2018

What is the link between gender and crime?

Men are much more likely to commit crimes than women (although female crime has been rising faster than male crime since the late 20th century). Men and women also appear to commit different types of crimes (men are much more likely to commit violent crimes, for instance, accounting for 90% of murderers). Therefore, sociologists are interested in investigating why these differences in offending occur. As with all such differences, sociologists also ask whether they are real or whether the statistics are misleading due to the way they are produced.

Gender and Crime: If the Statistics Reflect Reality

One explanation for gender differences in levels of criminality is that men and women are simply different. This is sometimes known as sex role theory. Whether one takes a sociobiological approach and considers physical/genetic differences between the sexes, or prefer to emphasise gender socialisation, the suggestion is that "normal" masculinity is far more open to criminality than "normal" femininity.

Socialisation to be tough, dominant, etc. is more prone to criminality than socialisation to be nurturing and compliant. Of course, this could be a very outdated view, but it has some support from both functionalist and feminist perspectives (although functionalists would be more likely to suggest it was masculinity in the context of a particular subculture rather than masculinity in general that was likely to be deviant – e.g.Walter Miller's focal concerns).

Marginalisation: some feminist sociologists suggest that the marginal position of women in a patriarchal society means that they commit fewer crimes than men. They have fewer opportunities to commit crimes because of marginalisation, as opposed to men who can commit occupational crime as well as their having a greater opportunity to form criminal subcultures because they are not confined to a domestic role.

Control Theory: Another explanation for gender differences in criminality is the idea that women and girls are controlled more than boys and men are. Part of the canalisation of gender roles during primary and secondary socialisation has historically been the comparative freedom that boys enjoy: being able to stay out later and generally being under less informal surveillance than girls. According to Frances Heidensohn, girls are controlled by fathers and other relatives until they are married when they are controlled by their husbands. The fact that boys and young men spend more time away from older or otherwise authoritative figures could account for their higher levels of criminality, especially anti‐social behaviour.

Some would suggest that this is an outdated theory and that young women are much more independent today than in the past. However, this change could account for the significant increase in female criminality in recent decades.

Gender and Crime - If the Statistics are Misleading

When trying to explain crime statistics showing that men commit many more criminal acts than women, some sociologists suggest that these statistics do not reflect reality. Rather mostly male law enforcement officers tend to attempt to protect women from the criminal justice system out of gentlemanliness. This is known as the chivalry thesis.

While this seems a rather fanciful theory on the individual level (it's hard to imagine a police officer letting someone off a significant crime simply because they were a woman) there is a broader point about social expectations. Another consequence of men's "chivalric" values is that they might think women incapable of committing many crimes (temperamentally or physically) and therefore not seriously consider their guilt. In terms of punishment, judges and magistrates (again predominantly male) may take pleas for mitigation more seriously.

An outdated theory from the 1950s, related to chivalry thesis, comes from Otto Pollack who argued that women commit as many crimes as men but are better liars and therefore get away with their crimes. He argues that women have to learn deception in order to hide menstruation and fake orgasms. I imagine you can come up with your own evaluation for that argument.

Evaluating Sociological Explanations for The Social Distribution of Crime and Deviance by Gender

  • Many of these ideas seem very outdated. Liberal feminists would argue that women have achieved much more equality in society. Post‐modernists would dispute that society is patriarchal, instead arguing that society is much more complex. Is it still the case that men and women are socialised into very different roles? Are women more marginal in today's society? Are girls and women much more controlled by fathers and husbands than boys and men are by mothers and wives? Clearly many feminists argue that society is still patriarchal, but there is clearly a debate to be enjoined. Liberationist feminists point out that these changes in gender roles in society could explain why female crime is increasing.
  • However S. Jones (2008) suggested that women in prison were often "co‐defendants" with a controlling man and therefore were pressured into criminality by patriarchal control. This is an interesting contrast with Heidensohn's control theory, where male control is presented as an explanation for not committing crime.
  • The chivalry thesis also seems outdated. First, the number of female workers in the criminal justice system is increasing, although judges are still overwhelmingly male. Furthermore, the response to female deviance is often to see them as doubly deviant – i.e. deviating against society's norms and gender norms ‐ rather than to respond in a chivalrous manner.
  • Carol Smart is critical of what she terms as malestream criminology. She points out that feminists should take a transgressive approach to criminology, focusing on what causes harm to women (irrespective of whether it is illegal or not). She notes that most existing theories of crime and deviance come from men, and they focus on what interests them: often violent and gang crime; male academics leading boring lives, living vicariously through their violent, risk‐taking subjects. Therefore you cannot expect their work to hold the answers to the questions women have.

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