Sociology: Gender, Crime and Justice


Gender pattern in crime

Most crime appears to be committed by males. ⅘ convicted offenders are male. Among offenders, higher proportion of females are convicted of property offences (except burglary), While a higher proportion of males are convicted of violent or sexual offences. Males are more likely to commit serious crimes 


Such statistics of recorded crime raise three important questions: 

  1. Do women really commit fewer crimes?

  2. How can we explain those women who do offend?

  3. Why do males commit crime?

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Do women commit less crime

Some sociologists argue that the official statistics underestimate the amount of female offending. Two arguments have been put forward to support this view 

  • Female crimes are less likely to be reported; e.g. Women’s shoplifting is less likely to be reported than men’s violence 

  • Even when women’s crimes are reported, they are less likely to be prosecuted

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The chivalry thesis

The idea that women are less likely to be prosecuted for their offences is known as the chivalry thesis. This argues that the criminal justice system (CJS) is more lenient to women, because its agents- police officers, judges, juries etc- are men, who are socialised to act ‘chivalrously’ towards women.

  • Pollak argues that men have a protective attitude towards women, so they are unwilling to arrest, change, prosecute or convict them. Their crimes are less likely to end up in the official statistics, giving an invalid picture that under-represents female crime

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Evidence for the chivalry thesis

Self-report studies suggest that female offenders are treated more leniently 

  • Graham and Bowling found young males were 2.33 times more likely than females to admit to having committed an offence in the previous year- whereas the official statistics show males as 4 times more likely to offend 

  • Compared with men, women are also more likely to be cautioned rather than prosecuted 

  • Hood’s study of over 3,000 defendants found that women were about one third less likely to be jailed in similar cases 

Official statistics show females are more likely to receive a fine and less likely to be sent to prison

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Evidence against the chivalry thesis

  • Farrington and Morris found women were not sentenced more leniently for comparable offences. Box’s review of self-report studies concludes that women who commit serious offences are not treated more favourably than men 

  • Buckle and Farrington witnessed twice as many males shoplifting- despite the fact that the numbers of male and female offenders in the official statistics are roughly equal. This suggests women shoplifters are more likely to be prosecuted

  • Self-report studies show that males commit more offences. The more serious the offence, the greater the gender gap

  • Many male crimes do not get reported, e.g. ****. Crimes of the powerful (mainly committed by men) are also under-reported

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Its not enough just to give an account of Pollak’s argument. You also need to evaluate it, using some of the evidence for and against it

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Bias against women

Feminists argue that the CJS is not based in favour of women, as the chivalry thesis claims, but biased against them. They argue that the CJS treats women more harshly, especially when they deviate from gender norms of monogamous hetersexuality and motherhood 

  • Heidensohn notes the double standards of courts punishing girls, but not boys, for promiscuous sexual activity

  • Carlen found Scottish courts were much more likely to jail women whose children were in care than women whom they saw as good mothers 

  • Walklate argues that in **** cases it is the victim who is on trial since she has to prove her respectability in order to have her evidence accepted

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Explaining female crime

Overall, women in general do seem to have a lower rate of offending than men. How then can we explain the behaviour of those women who do not offend? Sociologists have put forward three explanations: sex role theory, control theory and the liberation thesis

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Functionalist sex role theory

Parsons’ functionalist explanation focuses on gender socialisation and role models in the nuclear family to explain gender differences in crime 

  • Women perform the expressive role at home, including responsibility for socialisation. This gives girls an adult role model, but boys reject feminine models of behaviour that express tenderness, gentleness and emotion 

  • Instead, boys distance themselves by engaging in ‘compensatory compulsory masculinity’- risk-taking, aggression and anti-social behaviour 

  • Men take the instrumental role, performed largely outside the home. This also makes socialisation more difficult for boys 

  • According to A.K. Cohen, the absence of an adult male role model in the home means boys are more likely to turn to all-male street gangs as a source of masculine identity. Here they earn status by acts of delinquency 

  • Similarly, right realists argue that the absence of a male role model in matrifocal lone-parent families lead to boys’ delinquency


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Walklate criticises Parsons for assuming that because women are biologically capable of bearing children, they are best suited to the expressive role. Thus, although Parsons claims to explain gender differences in crime in terms of socialisation, his explanation is based on biological assumptions about sex differences 

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Functionalist sex role theory: Feminist theories

Feminist theories By contrast with functionalism, feminists explain gender differences in offending in terms of patriarchy. There are two main feminist approaches: control theory (Heidensohn and Carlen) and the liberation thesis (adler)

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Heidensohn: Patriarchal control

Heidensohn argues that women commit fewer crimes than men because patriarchal society imposes greater control over women, thus reducing their opportunities to offend. Patriarchal control operates at home, in public and at work

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Control at home

  • Women’s domestic role, with its constant housework and childcare, imposes severe restrictions on their time and movement and confines them to the house for long periods, reducing their opportunities to offend

  • Men are able to impose this role on women, e.g. by the threat of domestic violence and through their financial power 

  • Daughters are also subject to patriarchal control, e.g. with restrictions on going out or staying out late. Instead, they develop a ‘bedroom culture’, socialising at home with friends rather than in public spaces. Girls are also required to do more housework, which also restricts their opportunities to engage in deviant behaviour on the streets 

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Control in Public

  • Women are controlled in public places by the fear of male sexual violence. Media reporting or rapes helps to frighten women into staying indoors 

  • Females are also controlled in public by their fear of being defined as not respectable. Dress, make-up, ways of acting etc, defined as inappropriate can gain a woman a ‘reputation’. Women on their own may avoid going into pubs- which are sites of criminal behaviour- for fear of being regarded as sexually ‘loose’

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Control at work

  • Women’s subordinate position at work reduces criminal opportunities. The ‘glass ceiling’ prevents women rising to senior positions where there are more opportunities for white-collar crime 

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Carlen: class and gender deals

Carlen studied 39 working-class women who had been convicted of a range of crimes. 20 were in prison or youth custody. Carlen argues that most convicted serious female criminals are working-class

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Carlen’s sample was small and possibly unrepresentative, consisting largely of serious offenders, over half of whom were in custody 

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Hirschi's control theory

Carlen uses Hirschi’s control theory to explain female crime

  • Hirschi argues that humans act rationally and are controlled by being offered a ‘deal’: rewards in return for conforming to norms

  • People commit crime if they don’t believe they will get the rewards, ot if the rewards of crime appear greater than the risks 

Carlen argues that working-class women are generally led to conform through the promise of two ‘deals’

The class deal Women who work will get a decent standard of living 

The gender deal Women who conforms to the conventional domestic gender role will gain the material and emotional rewards of family life 

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Hirschi's control theory 2

  • In terms of the class deal, the woman in Carlen’s study had failed to find a legitimate way of earning a decent living. Most had always been in poverty; many could not get a job and had experienced problems claiming benefits 

  • In terms of the gender deal, some had been abused by their fathers or partners. Over half had spent time in care, which broke family bonds

  • As they had gained nothing from either deal, they felt they had nothing to lose by using crime to escape from poverty 

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Both control theory and feminism tend to see women’s behaviour as determined by external forces such as patriarchal controls or class and gender deals. This ignores the importance of free will and choice in offending

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The liberation thesis

Adler’s ‘liberation thesis’ argues that as women become liberated from patriarchy, their offending will become similar to men’s. Women’s liberation is leading to a new type of female criminal and a rise in the female crime rates

  • Adler argues that patriarchal controls and discrimination have lessened and opportunities have become more equal 

  • As a result, women have begun to adopt traditional male roles in both legitimate (work) and illegitimate spheres (crime), and their rate of offending has risen 

  • Women no longer just commit traditional female crimes (e.g. shoplifting, prostitution). There are more women in senior positions at work and this gives them the opportunity to commit serious white-collar crimes

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Criticisms of Adler include that the female crime rate started rising before the women’s liberation movement began and that most female criminals are working-class and unlikely to be influenced by women’s liberation

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Females and Violent crimes

Recent increases in female convictions for violence suggest women are now committing more ‘male’ crimes. This seems to support the liberation thesis

However, other evidence suggests there has been no change in women’s involvement in violent crime

  • In the USA, Steffensmeier and Schwartz found the increase in the official statistics was not matched by findings of victim surveys or self-report studies

  • Net widening They argue that the increase is due to the justice system ‘widening the net’- prosecuted females for less serious violence than previously. Sharpe and Gelsthorpe note a trend in the UK towards prosecuting females for minor offences 

  • This trend is an example of what Jock Young calls ‘defining deviance up’ to catch trivial offences in the net 

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Females and violent crimes 2

  • Worrell argues that in the past, girls’ misbehaviour was more likely to be seen as a ‘welfare’ issue, whereas now it has been re-labelled as criminality

  • The increase in female convictions may be due to a media-inspired moral panic about young women being ‘out of control’. Sharpe found the CJS professionals were influenced by media stereotypes of violent ‘ladettes’

  • This creates an amplification spiral: reports of girls’ misbehaviour sensitive police and courts, who take a tougher stance, resulting in more convictions, thus producing further negative media coverage 

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Gender and victimisation

Victimisation surveys such as the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) show gender differences in victimisation and in the relationship between victim and offender: 


  • More men than women are victims of violence or homicide, but more women than men are victims of intimate violence 

  • Ten times more women reported having been sexually assaulted. But only 8% of females, who had experienced serious sexual assault reported it to the police 

  • Women have a greater fear of crime but the CSEW shows they are at less risk. However, some local surveys have found women are in fact at greater risk  

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Victim surveys may not show severity of victimisation. Ansara and Hinchin found women victims experienced greater violence and control

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Why do men commit crime?

Evidence strongly suggests that most offenders are men. What is it about being male that increases the likelihood of offending? Attention has focused on the concept of masculinity to explain this pattern

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Messerschmidt: accomplishing masculinity

Messerschmidt argues that masculinity is an ‘accomplishment’- something that men have to constantly work at constructing and presenting to others. In doing so, some men have more resources than others to draw upon 

  • Hegemonic masculinity: the dominant form of masculinity and the one that most men wish to accomplish. It is defined through paid work, the ability to subordinate women (both at home and work) and heterosexuality

  • Subordinated masculinities: some men, including many lower-class and ethnic minority men, lack the resources to accomplish hegemonic masculinity and so turn to crime. However, Messerschmidt notes that some middle-class men also use crime to achieve hegemonic masculinity, but that in their case it is white-collar or corporate crime

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He seems to advance rather stereotypical and negative views of men in general, and of working-class men and non-white men inparticular

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Winlow: Postmodernity, masculinity and crime

Winlow notes that the industrial economy of Sunderland and other working-class communities has undergone radical change in the past 30 years. There has been a huge decline in manual work and a parallel increase in the number of low level, white-collar jobs. Unfortunately, these new service sector jobs are mainly aimed at women and men often experience long-term unemployment. Winlow argues that these profound economic and social changes - which have led to a post-industrial economic age - have had a major effect upon working-class masculinity and criminality in North East England.


Winlow notes that in the post-industrial age, men cannot express their masculinity through being in work because of industrial decline (e.g. the factories and mines have closed down), globalisation (e.g. other countries can produce manufactured goods more cheaply) and long-term unemployment.

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