Missing from traditional and most contemporary discussions of deviance and crime is the notion of gender. A rather accessible definition of gender can be found in most introductory sociology textbooks. For the purposes of this entry, gender is defined as the social positions, attitudes, traits, and behaviors that a society assigns to females and males (Macionis 2004). A close examination of theories of deviance reveals an androcentric or male oriented perspective. Early theorists and researchers in particular extrapolated from studies of boys and men when attempting to explain female deviant behavior. So, barring examinations of a few deviant behaviors, most notably shoplifting, violations of sexual norms (e.g., promiscuity, teen pregnancy, prostitution), status offenses (e.g., runaways), and infanticide, there were, and still are, few serious considerations of female deviant behavior.
Feminists, or members of society advocating equality between the sexes, have made a few strides with respect to introducing notions of gender into theories of deviance and crime. While a single comprehensive theory addressing gender and deviance is still missing from the literature, there appear to be four main schools of thought: (1) the chivalry perspective, (2) patriarchal considerations, (3) the women’s liberation hypothesis, and (4) the theory of victimization.
The chivalry perspective attempts to explain why girls and women are not seen as deviants. Why do most people think of boys and men when considering deviant and criminal behavior, specifically violent deviant and criminal behavior? This theory proposes that members of society are socialized not to see girls and women as deviants. Chesney Lind and Sheldon (1998) suggest that almost all members of society talk about delinquency, by which they generally mean male delinquency. More specifically, this argument theorizes that powerful male members of society (e.g., police officers, judges, the male dominated media) ‘‘protect’’ or ‘‘save’’ girls/women from the label of deviance (Felson 2002). Humphries (1999) specifically postulates a chivalry approach with respect to women and cocaine use in the 1980s and 1990s. She determined that in the early media coverage of cocaine use, white middle class women who used cocaine were presented as promiscuous and as ‘‘bad’’ mothers. Still, television networks showed a remarkable degree of tolerance toward these women. And with respect to domestic violence, Girschick (2002) notes that current understandings of rape and battering suggest that women are not perpetrators. More specifically, according to present day social norms and values, women do not rape and women do not batter.
This perspective posits that members of the male dominated criminal justice system will ignore, dismiss, and/or explain away female deviance and crime. For example, some theorists have attempted to explain away girls’ accountability for their deviance by stating girls’ deviant behavior commonly relates to an abusive home life, whereas boys’ deviant behavior reflects their involvement in a delinquent lifestyle (Dembo et al. 1995). Girls and women, therefore, are not seen as deviant because male members of society protect them from the label. Male police officers, prosecutors, and judges have a traditionally chivalrous attitude toward women and treat them with more leniency than men. Regrettably, this theory, regardless of its potential accuracy, perpetuates the cycle of male centered perspectives, attempting to explain female behavior by examining male attitudes and behaviors.
Patriarchal explanations posit that male dominated social institutions, especially the family, are designed to prevent girls and women from engaging in deviance and crime. Socialization processes within the family control girls more than boys, teaching boys to be risk takers while teaching girls to avoid risk (Hagan 1989). According to Akers (2000), in patriarchal families the father’s occupation places him in the ‘‘command’’ position (e.g., manager, super visor, CEO) and the mother either stays at home or works in a job where she occupies the ‘‘obey’’ position (i.e., taking orders from super visors). In these families, according to the theory, the behaviors of girls and women are more closely monitored and controlled (Thorne 1994). Girls are expected to adhere to stricter moral standards and face a stronger sense of guilt and disapproval when they break the rules (Chesney Lind & Sheldon 1998).
Unfortunately, much like the previous theory, this is a male oriented perspective. This line of reasoning argues that males control girls and women and, therefore, control female deviance and crime. These androcentric theories do not attempt to understand female deviance in and of itself, explaining female behavior by way of male behavior (Chesney Lind & Pasko 2004). They are flawed and have been, for the most part, discredited.
The remaining two perspectives, the women’s liberation hypothesis and the theory of victimization, attempt to explain the deviant behavior of girls and women apart from the attitudes/behavior of males. The women’s liberation hypothesis proposes that as the gap between women’s and men’s social equality decreases, the gap between women’s and men’s deviant behavior decreases as well. This theoretical explanation suggests that the women’s movement has brought about changes in traditional gender roles, greater equality for women, and an increase in the female labor force. An unintended consequence of this ‘‘liberation’’ for women is a greater involvement in deviance and crime. According to Adler (1975), the movement for gender equality has a darker side. Some women are insisting on equal opportunity in fields of legitimate endeavor while other women are demanding access to the world of crime.
The ‘‘liberation’’ hypothesis, however, has not received much empirical support. Though increasingly represented in the labor force, women continue to be concentrated in traditional ‘‘pink collar’’ work – teaching, clerical and retail sales work, nursing, and other sub ordinate roles – that reflects a persistence of traditional gender roles (Zaplin 1998). In contrast, contemporary gender differences in quality and quantity of crime continue to parallel closely those of the thirteenth century. Additionally, Chesney Lind and Pasko (2004) state there is no evidence to suggest that as women’s labor force participation has increased, girls’ deviant behavior has also increased.
Therefore, it has not yet been compellingly demonstrated that female crime rates are significantly correlated with increasing gender equality. In fact, patterns of female deviance have remained relatively consistent over time.
One of the most persuasive theories regarding girls’ and women’s deviance is predicated on the reality girls and women face as victims. The theory of victimization proposes that women are deviants in part because of their status as victims of male abuse and/or violence. Chesney Lind and Pasko (2004) recognize that girls are much more likely to be the victims of child sexual abuse than are boys. Additionally, girls are much more likely than boys to be assaulted by a family member (often a step father) and women offenders frequently report abuse in their life histories. About half of the women in jail (48 percent) and 57 percent of women in state prisons report experiences of sexual and/or physical abuse in their lives. Chesney Lind and Pasko note that all of the girls in gangs interviewed hail from a more troubled background than boys in gangs. And with respect to spousal homicide, Zaplin (1998) revealed that wives are far more likely to have been victims of domestic violence and turn to murder only when in mortal fear. Husbands who murder wives, however, have rarely been in fear for their lives.
Empirical research does suggest that exposure to abuse and violence, too often a reality girls and women face, could compel girls/women to engage in various types of deviance (e.g., running away, truancy) and ultimately crime (e.g., theft, drug abuse, prostitution) (Flowers 2001). In fact, some theorists have highlighted the fact that a potential survival mechanism, running away from home, continues to be the most prevalent offense for female juvenile delinquents (Chesney Lind & Pasko 2004). This theory, although it addresses girls’ and women’s relationships with boys and men, serves as a building block for theories that consider the unique status of girls and women in society and its contribution to deviant behavior.
In conclusion, contemporary research continually reflects a need to take female deviance and crime much more seriously. While there are currently four major schools of thought, two have been discredited and one has little empirical support. It is evident that studies of women and deviance are lacking, even now. There is an increasing body of research examining girls and women engaged in deviance and crime (e.g., female gang members), but most of the contemporary research continues to examine girls and women engaged in traditional deviant and criminal behaviors (e.g., status offenses, prostitution) and/or limits discussions of women and deviance to women’s status as victims.
A partial explanation for this continuing trend hails from Akers (2000), who has suggested that there is little empirically to sustain the criticism that current theories are falsified or inadequate when applied to the criminal behavior of women, or to uphold the conclusion that girl/women specific theories are needed to account for gender ratios in crime and deviance. And yet there are clear indications of differences in female and male deviant and criminal behaviors, arrest rates, and incarceration rates. What can explain these differences if no additional theoretical considerations are needed? Sociologists need to spend more time considering the unique aspects of the lives of girls and women with respect to deviance. Addition ally, demographic considerations must be taken into account more systematically. Race, class, age, and many other social characteristics that are commonplace in male oriented research on deviance and crime must be folded into theories examining girls and women. ‘‘We’ve come a long way baby,’’ but we still have a long way to go.
- Adler, (1975) Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal. McGraw-Hill, New York.
- Akers, (2000) Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation and Application. Roxbury Press, Los Angeles.
- Chesney-Lind, & Pasko, L. (2004) The Female Offender: Girls, Women and Crime. Sage, Walnut Creek, CA.
- Chesney-Lind, & Sheldon, R. (1998) Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice. Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
- Dembo, S., Sue, C. C., Borden, P., & Manning, D. (1995) Gender Differences in Service Needs Among Youths Entering a Juvenile Assessment Center: A Replication Study. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Social Problems, Washington, DC.
- Felson, (2002) Violence and Gender Reexamined. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.
- Flowers, B. (2001) Runaway Kids and Teenage Prostitution. Greenwood Press, London.
- Girschick, (2002) Woman to Woman Sexual Violence: Does She Call It Rape? Northeastern University Press, Boston.
- Hagan, (1989) Micro- and Macro-Structures of Delinquency Causation and a Power-Control Theory of Gender and Delinquency. In: Messner, S., Krohn, M., & Liska, A. (Eds.), Theoretical Integration in the Study of Deviance and Crime. State University of New York Press, Albany.
- Humphries, D. (1999) Crack Mothers: Pregnancy, Drugs and the Ohio State University Press, Columbus.
- Macionis, (2004) Society: The Basics. Prentice- Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Thorne, B. (1994) Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway,
- Zaplin, (1998) Female Offenders: Critical Perspectives and Effective Interventions. Apsen Publishers, Gaithersburg, MD.
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