Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 4. Feminism

A short overview of Feminist perspectives on crime and deviance combining a bit of text with quite a lot of video.

Feminist approaches are many and varied, but all, to varying extents, focus on women as both offenders and victims — partly as a response to what Sharp (2006) suggests has been the male bias of traditional criminological research and partly because ‘the study of crime became equated with the study of male criminality’.

Feminist criminology attempts to redress this ‘malestream bias’ in two ways:

  • by confronting the conventional wisdom of greater male involvement in crime — what Maguire (2002) argues is a ‘universal feature…of all modern countries’
  • by exploring the reasons for female criminality. In this respect, knowledge of female offending is largely based around two main sources, official crime statistics and offender surveys, and we can use these as a way of exploring feminist criminology and explanations for female offending.

Statistical accuracy

Official crime statistics consistently show that men, in terms of raw numbers, have greater involvement in crime than women. Self and Zealey (2007), however, make the important point that males and females commit similar typesof crime. Theft, drug offences and personal violence are the main offences for both sexes.

From a feminist standpoint these observations are interesting, mainly because most explanations for crime have focused on explaining male criminality by using women as a form of control group. Where women are considered more likely to conform to social norms, the criminological focus is switched to the search for the attributes – biological, psychological and sociological – not shared by women and which supposedly explain male criminality.

An example here is the notion of males and females having different attitudes to risk-taking, which, in turn, explains greater or lesser involvement in crime. In basic terms, risk-taking is bound up with cultural ideas about masculinity, while conformity is held to be a cultural feature of femininity.

McIvor (1998), for example, argues that greater male involvement in youth crime is ‘linked to a range of other risk-taking behaviours which in turn are associated with the search for [masculine] identity in the transition from adolescence to adulthood’. Lyng’s (1990, 2004) concept of edgework also argues that many young males are attracted to crime precisely because of the risks involved; risk-taking affirms their masculinity.

There are two objections to this argument:

  • women are defined negatively in such theories, ‘by the absence’ of something men have (a need to take risks) rather than as individuals in their own right
  • there is an ecological fallacy: while many women are not involved in crime the same is true for men – yet significant numbers of each do offend.

Differing opportunities for crime

Some feminists have argued that female involvement in all forms of crime, coupled with contemporary increases in female criminality, point towards the need to develop alternative explanations based around the different ways male and female lives are structured.

Different opportunity structures, for example, reflect different forms of participation in the public and private domains. Davies (1997) argues that the general structure of female lives, involving greater participation in the private sphere of the home, gives women fewer opportunities for crime. Where men and women have similar opportunity structures, their respective crime patterns are very similar. Shoplifting, for example, is one area where, according to McMillan (2004), ‘women almost equal men in the official statistics’. Fraud, on the other hand, is a predominantly male crime – something that reflects men’s higher positions in the workplace.

Statistical inaccuracy?

A second strand to feminist criminology questions the validity of official crime statistics in relation to female criminality and calls into question the validity of theories of criminality based on an interpretation of such statistics. Evidence from self-report studies showing far higher levels of female offending suggests that official crime statistics both overestimate male criminality and underestimate female offending – something that has significant consequences for any explanation of gendered criminality.

One possible explanation for the underestimation of female offending is that the police and judiciary have institutionally stereotyped views about male and female criminality. Where men are seen as ‘real criminals’, the police are less likely to suspect or arrest female offenders and the courts show greater leniency towards women – a chivalry effect suggested by Pollack (1950).

Klein (1996), however, argues any such effect has been overstated and Carlen et al. (1985) argue for a different interpretation. Where strong gender stereotypes pervade the criminal justice system, those who do not fit gendered assumptions about male and female roles and responsibilities receive harsher treatment than those who do.

Medicalisation of female offending

A different form of stereotyping involves the medicalisation of female deviance, something that reflects, Busfield (1996) argues, the increasing perception that while ‘men are bad, women are mad’. In this respect, female offending is redefined as illness, both physical and as a ‘psychological cry for help’.

Easteal (1991), for example, documents instances in Britain and America where premenstrual tension has been used to explain different types of female criminality, something that for Klein (1996) represents an extension of how ‘femaleness’ has a long cultural association with ‘nature’ and ‘biology’. Easteal notes, however, that many feminists have objected to this medicalisation process because it ‘reinforces the view of women as slaves to their hormones’.


The underestimation of female offending can be criticised in two ways:

  • Maguire (2002), for example, argues the statistical evidence suggests no great reservoir of ‘undiscovered female crime’. There is ‘little or no evidence of a vast shadowy underworld of female deviance hidden in our midst like the sewers below the city streets’.
  • A second criticism argues that self-report studies of female offending arepotentially unreliable. Where such surveys are largely based on the behaviour of young women (those statistically most likely to be offenders) and extrapolated to all women the result is an overestimation of female offending. If true, this criticism supports the claim that theories of female offending and conformity that flow from official crime statistics do give us a broadly valid picture of female behaviour.

Gender Segregation?

One of the interesting things about discussions of male and female criminality is that, by-and-large, they treat offending as something that is highly gender segregated, both horizontally and vertically: this reflects the idea men and women commit different types of crime (horizontal segregation) largely with people of their own gender (vertical segregation).

These discussions also, with some justification, tend to treat crime and criminality as an individual pursuit. As Becker and McCorkel (2011) note, around 80% of American crime is committed by individual offenders. Of the remaining 20% committed by co-offenders a proportion of these crimes are carried-out by same-sex offenders: usually, but not exclusively, groups of young men.

But as Becker and McCorkel point-out, a not insignificant proportion of co-offending involves males and females working together. And the numbers involved are not-insignificant. They estimate, for example, that around one-third of male offenders and a similar proportion of female offenders engage in some form of co-offending.

In addition they discovered significant differences in female criminality when women co-offended with men.

When working alone, “female offenders cluster in a relatively narrow range of gender typical offenses including petty theft, fraud, shoplifting and embezzlement”.

But working with men, however, “broadens women’s criminal involvement” to the extent that working with “one or more male co-offenders increases their chances of involvement in most crime categories”. More specifically, “women are several times more likely to be involved in gender atypical offenses like robbery, drug trafficking, burglary, homicide, gambling, kidnapping, and weapons offenses”.

These findings shed a quite different light on the relationship between masculinity, femininity and criminal behaviours.

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Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 5. Marxism

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