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April 20, 2011 / C H Thompson

Feminist perspectives of crime

The two clips on this page help provide a context for the rise of feminism.

Feminist perspectives moved the emphasis of criminology towards issues of gender. Their approach examines the relationship between gender and offending which is explained first-hand by Vicky Pryce’s experience in HMP Holloway.

What are the basics of the feminist theory of crime?

The feminist theory of crime argues that society is patriarchal and the control of women by men discourages female deviance. Sociologists in the past have paid little attention to female deviance, instead tending to focus on male deviance. Feminists also point out that female victimization was ignored due to the invisibility of women, identified by Newborn. The feminist view is that male dominance in society was reflected in mainstream theories of crime, known as ‘malestream’ sociology.

The exam question you are given can either be asking why males are offending more than females (in which case you would wrote about male offending), or it can be asking why females offend less than males (in which case you would write about female offending). 

The statistics of gender and crime

  • In 2012/13, the arrests were 15% female, and 85% male.
  • The prison population in June 2014 was 5% female and 95% male, and in the last 10 years, the male prison population has increased while the female population has decreased.
  • 1 in 3 males and fewer than 1 in 10 females are likely to have a conviction of some kind by their 40th birthday.

Sex role theory – (this is an early, androcentric, sociological theory which attempts to explain gender differences in crime – it’s not a feminist theory) argues that because boys and girls are socialised differently boys are more likely to become criminal than girls. Sutherland (1949) identifies how girls are socialised in a manner which is far more supervisory and controlled, this limits the number of ‘opportunities’ to be deviant.

In contrast boys are socialised to be rougher, tougher and aggressive which makes deviancy more likely. Albert Cohen (the subcultural theorist) identified socialisation as a difficult time for boys, especially if there wasn’t a male role model in their lives-in 2013 this perspective was resurrected -which can lead to boys joining gangs in order to establish their masculinity.

The above reasons were used to explain the low incidence of women in official crime statistics and subsequently in criminological studies. In contrast Feminists such as Smart (1977) gave the following reasons for the low incidence of women in criminology (the study of crime).

  • Official figures show women simply do commit fewer crimes
  • Most crimes committed by women are trivial
  • Sociology is dominated by men (malestream effect)

Other feminists writers developed Smart’s point with the ‘chivalry’ factor: Campbell’s (1981) self-report study (self-report studies use questionnaires & interviews) found that

  • Female suspects were more likely to receive a caution than men who’d be prosecuted
  • The rate of male to female juvenile offending  was higher (girls committed more offences) than official figures indicated

Hood (1989) also found evidence of the chivalry factor when comparing the sentencing of men and women – found men were more likely to be given custodial sentences (prison) than women. BUT – as with all things there’s opposing evidence to the ‘chivalry’ factor:

  • Box (1981) reviewed self-report data and said the findings were the same as official figures
  • Farrington and Morris (1983) research found that though men do receive harsher sentences than women, this distinctions shrinks in relation to the severity of the offence committed
  • Walklate (1995) research found female rape victims are face a tough rather than chivalrous court system as there’s an inevitability in the system which forces women to prove their respectability before they are believed
  • Heidensohn (1985) sees the legal system as seeing convicted women as being doubly deviant and therefore get tougher sentences than men
  • Smart (1997) argues the criminal justice system first views women through the lens of their track record of being a mother, wife and daughter

Causes of female crime and deviance are varied:

  • Lombrso (1895) – (he wasn’t a feminist) viewed women as having less physiological characteristics of the usual male criminal
  • Adler (1975) – said women’s liberation had created more criminals as women were adopting more male characteristics as a means of fulfilling male social roles – just thinking of the rise of ‘ladette’
  • Box and Hale questioned Adler arguing the increase of female criminality is more likely do to inadequate welfare, unemployment and part-time work as most female criminals are from a working-class background

The above points are developed further by social conformity. Hiedensohn (1985) said: patriarchal societies control women far more than men by controlling women:

  • women at home – do all the caring, cooking and cleaning
  • women in public – can’t go out socially like men as labelled as ‘slags’
  • women at work – controlled by male superiors

Masculinity and crime – Messerschmidt argues:

  • middle-class boys behaviour in school is so good they repress their true selves and so commit deviant acts outside school such as drinking, speeding etc as a form of emasculation
  • working-class boys having less chance of achieving at school and so act tough in school with teachers etc

Revision podcasts Feminist Perspectives

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