GENDER, CRIME, AND VICTIMIZATION: THE INTERPLAY OF SOCIAL LEARNING AND THE LEGAL SYSTEM
Updated: Jan 4, 2022
SOCIAL PROGRAMMING OF MEN AND WOMEN
In 1990, two American psychologists came up with a new insight into the cause of crime. Gottfredson and Hirschi wrote a book called the General Theory of Crime. The approach tried to explain crime as a combination of propensity and opportunity. In other words, crime happens when an individual with a lack of self-control faces a situation that lets him perpetrate a crime. The book further says that as such opportunities are inevitable, the absence of self-control is the primary cause of crime. According to the theory, self-control gets inculcated at the early stages of an individual's life. Qualities like self-discipline and the ability to resist impulses develop till an individual reaches the age of eight. Therefore, upbringing plays a crucial role in determining whether the individual will have a higher propensity for deviant behaviour.
A theory like this can explain a lot about the difference in crime rates between men and women. Despite growing calls for equality, the upbringing of girls is far different from that of boys. Girls, from a young age, are encouraged to be nurturers and homemakers. Carol Gilligan scrutinizes this idea in his book, “In a Different Voice”. Gilligan argues that females are taught to adopt a sense of care over that of reason. Resultantly, justice becomes the driving factor for men, while care becomes a women's ultimate responsibility. She further comments on the kind of fairy tales the two genders go through. The stories for boys glorify bravery and strength. On the other hand, girls are expected to fantasize about love and relationships. While boys learn to be instrumental like their fathers, girls get encouraged to be soft and gentle. In this manner, social learning varies at the early stages of a child's development, depending on gender. These factors shape how a woman looks at the world.
Social programming teaches men to be independent and face problems by employing strength. Men get exposed to greater levels of violence and aggression from a young age. Stoicism and toughness dominate the social leaning that men receive. For example, a boy may get physically bullied by his fellows at school. He may not report the incident to a superior authority out of the fear of being considered weak. Such negative ideals of masculinity are present all around us, from cinema to advertisements. These ideals create a picture of masculinity that is at best unnecessary, and at worse, dangerous. Bottling up emotions and dominating others becomes the parameter for being a man.
THE IMPACT ON CRIME RATES AND VICTIMISATION
Such gendered social interactions may be responsible for the crime rate difference between men and women. The share of men in crimes is even more inflated for particularly violent crimes. The following table represents the FBI data regarding the percentage share of men in crimes perpetrated in America (2011):
Percentage share of men
The implications of social learning are not limited to who commits the crime. It also plays a role in the victimization of women. More importantly, it creates a fear in the minds of women. Elizabeth Stanko has done extensive research on this fear. In his publication titled- Women, Crime, and Fear, she talks about public surveys that establish that women's fear of criminal violence in public places is three times higher than that of men. Interestingly, the actual risk of facing assault is higher in men than women. In fact, around 80 percent of homicide victims are males. The amount of fear women face in public space cannot be explained exclusively by statistics. It should be kept in mind that fear is not an abstract concept. It affects the quality of life of half of the human population daily. When a woman walks alone at night, she maintains constant vigilance. Her eyes tirelessly scan the environment for any threat. She knows that she is not safe. Fear of sexual crimes is especially high among women. In many countries, it has become a norm for women to carry pepper sprays. Despite the widespread fear, crimes like rape remain massively underreported. Elizabeth has gone on to theorize that the fear of sexual crimes among women stems from the sexual harassment that women face growing up. Women’s fear of rape does not originate from experience. Many feminists have argued that the cause is systematic domestic discrimination that women face at home.
There are other facets of this pattern. Men are encouraged to be independent, whereas women, traditionally, have controlled fewer resources and are made to depend on their husbands. An extra layer of vulnerability gets added to a women's perception of the world.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of crimes committed by females. These offences are also called pink collar crimes. Some criminologists have called this rise a consequence of feminist movements and the emancipation of women from patriarchy. One such writer is Freda Adler. She has related the increase in female crimes to the feminist demand for social and economic equality. She argues that crime amongst juvenile females is rising faster than that among men. In her work titled- Sisters In Crime, she examines different factors affecting a female's propensity to commit a crime. She draws a conclusion that women commit crimes mostly for financial advantage. The share of women in violent crimes is extremely low. When we look at crimes such as fraud and larceny, the gender gap is considerably low. The following table illustrates 2011 FBI data about such crimes:
Percentage share of females
Forgery and counterfeiting
These data points support the theory that women mostly indulge in monetary crimes or offenses against property.
THE DISCOURSE AROUND RISING CRIME RATES AMONG WOMEN
As we have examined above, the gender gap in violent crimes is far more significant. Other authors like Rita James Simons have linked this growing crime rate to increased participation in the labour force. The theory appears to hold some merit. In the last century, the female crime rate and labour participation have both climbed up. The chart below represents the female crime rate and labour participation rate over the decades in the United States.
However, a better comment can be made on the rising crime rate among females. Penal reform international reports that women make up 6.9% of the global incarcerated population. When we look at the absolute figures, the numbers appear small. However, the same report reveals that the percentage of women in jails is rising everywhere in the world. In the United States, the female incarcerated population has gone up by 850% since the 1980s. While this is indicative of an egalitarian society, some revelations are worrying. In the US, 85% of incarcerated females are mothers. The implications of this trend are rather far-reaching. If the mothers are in jail, the child usually gets raised by a single parent. Multiple studies show that children who grow up under a single parent are more likely to get arrested. This makes generations of children more likely to offend and get targeted by the criminal justice system.
Taking cognizance of these patterns, scholars like Emily Salisbury from the University of Nevada advocate the need for gender-responsive reforms in the penal system. Emily identifies four primary reasons females commit crimes in western societies (the "female-four"). These are unhealthy relationships, chemical dependency, socio-economic marginality, and mental health (anxious depressive symptoms). She goes on to say that women are not the vermin the society needs to be afraid of, but they are the victims that we need to be “in care of”. Other sociologists have highlighted the need to include women in the process of reform itself. Irrespective of the academic stance one subscribes to, there is a hard-wearing link between gender, sexuality, crime, incarceration, and victimization.
WHO GETS TO DEFINE CRIME?
Who gets to choose what constitutes a crime? The question is of immense importance in a sociological discourse about crime and gender. In a patriarchal society, it is normal for one sex to dictate social morality. Certain acts go against societal norms but are not necessarily immoral. One such act is prostitution. It is the only "crime" where females outnumber men in all societies. According to the 2011 FBI data, females constituted 59.8% of individuals arrested for prostitution. The number of transgender individuals arrested for such crimes is also high.
The morality of prostitution and commercial sex has been a hotly debated issue. It is illegal to some degree in most of the world. Some people consider it to be against the public good. The other group advances arguments about the bodily autonomy of women. However, most people lie somewhere in between this spectrum. Despite being one of the oldest professions, the moral status of prostitution remains ambiguous.
Aziza Ahmed has written an insightful article on the issue. She highlights the awful conditions of sex workers around the world. Also, sex work often involves human trafficking. Aziza divides the people into two groups, the abolitionists and the libertarians. While the abolitionists call for legislative action against selling sex, the libertarians demand absolute individual autonomy. She points towards the lack of evidence to substantiate the notion that criminalization can stop prostitution. She argues that criminalization does little more than marginalize the already poor women. Most sex workers are not libertarians who choose the profession out of empowerment. Instead, they are individuals from minority and marginalized social groups who have little choice. A 2012 report by Open Society Foundation throws light on how sex workers are harassed and discriminated against by law enforcement agencies. The report studied police action in the United States, Russia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, and Namibia. The study concluded that law enforcement agencies are frequently involved in intimidation and invasive questioning. Not surprisingly, the targets of such state-sponsored violence are usually women and transgender individuals.
India is an interesting case study when it comes to prostitution. Even though the profession is technically legal in the country, there are many loopholes. For instance, managing a brothel is illegal. Such ambiguities provide a lot of power in the hands of the executive. Resultantly, women and marginalized sexual groups suffer at the whim of the police. The situation exacerbates in the absence of a penal law against sexual violence inflicted on transgender.
Another act that has incited a passionate debate on its legitimacy is abortion. There are pro-life groups that denounce abortion as comparable to murder. On the other hand, there are pro-choice groups that advocate for a women's right to choose.
These examples show that morality is not absolute. Most real-life problems are complex. On the other hand, the law is definite. It either forbids an act or allows it. The gap between morality and law gets bridged by the choices of people in power. For centuries, men have been in power and controlled most resources. These factors undermine the objectivity that the law should provide.
IS THE LEGAL SYSTEM EGALITARIAN?
Another interesting angle is the role of the criminal justice system. Does the law provide equal protection to women and other marginalized sexual groups? The Supreme Court of India has acknowledged that Indian laws fail to offer adequate protection to transgender individuals. The court has noted that transgender individuals get deprived of rights in the absence of proper statutory provisions. These observations were made by the apex court while hearing a petition on the need for statutory reforms to safeguard transgender rights. The petition mentioned that statistics show that marginalized gender groups face systematic violence.
The attitude of the police and the criminal courts also play a role in determining which sex gets arrested and ultimately punished. Ilene H. Nagel and John Hagan have published a research essay on this very subject. The article concludes that perceptions around gender and sexuality are pivotal in determining the outcome of the proceedings once an individual is arrested. Again, these perceptions are formed by gendered social learning and interaction.
Gender and sexuality are intimately linked with crime. The fact that men offend more is universal. Multiple explanations are possible for the gender gap in the crime rate. While it is convenient to say that the cause behind this is biological, an unbiased investigation is necessary. While hormones and brain structure may play a role, the evidence is not concrete. A sociological approach to crime offers valuable insights. The effect of gender and sexuality is not limited to bodily distinctions. It impacts the kind of social interaction an individual undergoes.
While men get encouraged to be independent and strong, women face different expectations and social learning. As a result, one gender gets exposed to a lot of violence from a young age, while the other learns to become gentle nurturers. Social learning has wide-ranging implications. It makes one sex more violent while creating fear in the minds of the other. The fear of victimization is higher in women, especially the fear of sexual crimes. These notions are detrimental to the goal of equality. Fear is merely an abstract concept as it causes actual harm, both physical and psychological. The media further propagates toxic notions of masculinity. Violence and war get glorified in movies and video games. Such implicit messaging through media is harmful to the male sex too. It creates a false perception that bottling up emotions is a prerequisite for being a man.
The power play between different sexual groups affects how a society defines a crime. Morals are not absolute. Therefore, in case of ambiguity, the notions of the stronger sex are upheld. There is a lot of scope for biased laws to creep in and corrupt the system. Prostitution is one of the oldest professions, yet it is illegal in most parts of the world to some extent. The criminalization of such acts does not necessarily lead to its prohibition. It only further marginalizes the already vulnerable groups. While deciding on the legitimacy of acts like abortion and prostitution, giving unfettered power in the hands of the executive rarely helps.
Another pertinent issue is respecting the bodily autonomy of marginalized social groups. The criminalization of prostitution and abortion disproportionately harms the very people it aims to help. The need is to regulate these practices reasonably. It will ensure that women do not get trafficked into sex work against their will. The regulation imposed should be statutory, and the executive should not have the power to harass sex workers at their whims. The aim of such legislation should be to protect sex workers, and not to stigmatize them under the garb of the public good.
[The author is a first year law student at Hidayatullah National Law University]
 Michael R. Gottfredson, General Theory of Crime 25-44 (1990)
 Judy Auerbach, Linda Blum, Vicki Smith and Christine Williams, On Gilligan’s “In a different Voice”, 11 Fem. Stud. 149, 149-151
 American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/pi/about/newsletter/2018/09/harmful-masculinity (last visited Oct. 4, 2021)
 FBI: UCR, https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/tables/table_66_arrests_suburban_areas_by_sex_2011.xls (last visited Oct. 4, 2021)
 Elizabeth Stanko, Women, Fear, and Crime, 539 Ann Am Acad Pol SocSci 46, 47-48
 Meda Chesney-Lind, "Women and Crime": The Female Offender, 12 Signs 78, 79-82
 FBI, Supra note 4
 Rita James Simon, Review: Sisters in Crime, 67 J. Crim. Law. Criminol. 127, 127
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 Penal Reform International, https://www.penalreform.org/issues/women/issue/ (last visited Nov. 22, 2021)
 FBI, supra note 4
 Aziza Ahmed, Thinking Again: Prostitution, 204 Foreign Policy 74, 75-77
 Open Society Foundations, https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/laws-and-policies-affecting-sex-work (last visited Oct. 5, 2021)
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 Ilene H. Nagel and John Hagan, Gender and Crime: Offense Patterns and Criminal Court Sanctions, 4 Crime and Justice 91, 112