Outline and assess feminist explanations for the relationship between gender and victimisation
Official crime statistics show that males are four times more likely to commit crimes than females. Victim surveys show women to be more likely to be victims of sexual and violent assaults than males. It has also been suggested there are gender differences in punishments.
Radical feminists such as Heidensohn claim that women’s lower crime rates can be explained in terms of patriarchy. She claims that both in the private sphere (family) and public sphere (work and leisure) men exert power and social control over women. Heidensohn describes domesticity as ‘a form of detention’; the endless hours spent on housework and the constant monitoring of young children in the family leave little time for illegal activities. Women who challenge the traditional roles of women within the family run the risk of having them imposed by force.
In public, women are controlled by the male use of force and violence, by the idea of holding on to a ‘good’ reputation, and by the ‘ideology of separate spheres’. Women often choose not to go out into public places because of the fear of being attacked or raped. Heidensohn argues that the consequence of this control is that women have fewer opportunities to commit crime and acts of deviance whereas men have more opportunity.
However, many of Heidensohn’s arguments are based upon generalisations, some of which don’t apply to all women. She doesn’t always support her claims with strong empirical evidence. Furthermore, she admits that many of the empirical tests of control theory have been carried out on juvenile offenders rather than adults, and that control theory does sometimes portray women as being passive victims. Yet, Heidensohn does present a plausible explanation of why such a gap remains between men’s and women’s crime rates. In doing so she highlights some of the inequalities that remain between men and women.
Also, Dobash and Dobash support the view that domestic violence is a product of patriarchal control, as they found that domestic violence was often triggered off by husbands’ perception that his wife was not always carrying out her ‘duties’ thus suggesting women are victims of this violence because of patriarchy thereby giving validity to radical feminist ideas. However, Panorama’s research into violent women would suggest that violent crime is in fact a significant and growing problem amongst females (e.g. girl gangs and female domestic abusers) thus suggesting the validity of radical feminist theories must be questioned.
Furthermore, Postmodern feminists would suggest the ideas are dated and don’t take into account the significant changes which have occurred in women’s lives – for example women’s greater access to paid employment – thus suggesting that radical feminist ideas only offer a partial view of gender differences in patterns of offending, victimisation and punishment in contemporary society.
Furthermore, Interactionist feminists reject official crime statistics, seeing them as little more than a social construction. They point out that females are under represented in the statistics and therefore the statistics don’t present an accurate picture of the social distribution of criminality. These feminists share Becker’s idea that the social distribution of crime and deviance is dependant on processes of social interaction between the deviant and powerful agencies of social control. They suggest that females are less likely to be policed and labelled as deviant than males, which is perhaps because of sexism and chivalry within the police. This also has the effect that women are given less severe punishments than males. Chivalry asserts that women are stereotyped as fickle and childlike, and therefore not fully responsible for their criminal behaviour.
Undeniably, interactionist feminist theories have gained support. Campbell found that females were more likely to receive cautions from police than males (who would receive more severe punishments) and Hedderman and Hough claim that female offenders are far less likely than male offenders to receive a custodial sentence for nearly all serious offences. A study by Allen, based upon an examination of crime statistics, found evidence that women sometimes escape prison in very serious cases, where a male may have been expected to receive a prison term. These studies thus give validity to interactionist feminist ideas.
On the other hand, however, Box reviewed the data from self-report studies in Britain and the USA and found that, although a few of these studies indicated some leniency towards females, the majority did not thus casting doubt on the chivalry thesis. Also, Marxist feminists would criticise interactionist feminists for ignoring social class. They would point out that selective law is not only tied to gender but also to social class thus suggesting that interactionist feminist theory only offers a partial view of gender differences in patterns of offending, victimisation and punishments.
Otto Pollak agrees that statistics underestimate the extent of female criminality. From an examination of official figures in a number of different countries, he claimed to have identified many findings. First, he assumed that nearly all offences of shoplifting and all criminal abortions were carried out by women, and then asserted that such crimes were likely to come to the attention of the authorities. He also argued that many unreported crimes were committed by female domestic servants.
He then went on to say that women’s domestic roles gave them the opportunity to hide crimes such as poisoning relatives and sexually abusing their children. An important factor for why there is an under-recording of female crime, according to Pollack, is that women are particularly adept at hiding their crimes; he attributed this to female biology. Women have become accustomed to deceiving men because traditional taboos prevent women from revealing pain and discomfort resulting from menstruation. Furthermore, women also learn to mislead men during sex; men can’t disguise sexual arousal when they get an erection, whereas women cab take part in sexual intercourse while faking interest and pleasure.
However, Stephen Jones points out that Pollack gave no real evidence that female domestic servants commit many crimes against their employers or that women are better at concealing crimes than men. Jones says: ‘Pollack’s methodology nowadays appears hardly satisfactory: for example, he failed to take account of changes in the law against abortion in several of the countries he studied’. Heidensohn also criticises Pollack, noting that later research indicates that much shoplifting is committed by men.
She also comments that ‘concealment of menstruation is by no means universal and changed sexual mores have long since made nonsense of his view as passive, receptive females brooding vengeance’. Heidensohn regards Pollack’s work as being based upon an unsubstantiated stereotypical image of women, and notes his unwillingness to attribute male crime to a biological predisposition to aggression and violence.
In conclusion, it seems that there are many different views of gender differences in patterns of offending, punishment and victimisation. At one end theories accept the crime statistics and offer explanations as to why males are more criminally inclined; however, theorists reject the statistics and give explanations as to why female criminality is under-represented. Yet, it may be all of theories are becoming out-dated, as the equality between men and women has been rising rapidly in recent years and so it may be that the gender differences in rates of offending, punishment and victimisation are becoming diminished.