VII. Women as Victims
The connection between a girl’s or woman’s victimization and her offending is a complex yet important one for scholars of gender and crime to understand. Many women are neither simply victims nor simply offenders; they are often both. In fact, many women were victims long before they ever became offenders. Gender-focused research has highlighted female offenders’ roles as victims. It is not uncommon for women to have been victims of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, often at the hands of family members or loved ones.
Girls often exhibit the first signs of attempting to survive abuse at home by engaging in “survival crimes,” namely, running away and engaging in sex work. These two behaviors, the first of which is considered a status offense for juveniles, offer viable means of escape from abusive homes. Often, girls do not see any other options available to them. Life on the street for young girls can be dangerous and may in fact lead to other means of survival, especially those related to drugs and drug use.
Although males are most certainly abused in the same ways as females, they are not abused at the same levels, and their abuse tends to end as they enter their teens (because they can fight back). Furthermore, much of the victimization of females is a result of male violence. In adulthood, this victimization may also expand into the economic realm, creating situations that trap women in abusive relationships. The situation is compounded for women who have children, because they often are not in a position to adequately provide economic support for the children on their own. Unfortunately, this lack of economic power as an individual or within a household equates to less power and a lower likelihood of feeling safety in leaving an abusive relationship.
Regardless of the specific situation, women are often held in positions that are deemed secondary to men and that contain less power. This leaves girls and women vulnerable to violence in various forms. Men commit violence against women that serves to humiliate, dominate, and oppress as part of a patriarchal system that values men over women in most situations. When women do commit violence against men, it is often done in self-defense after a long period in a violent situation.
Feminist scholars have noted that it is more than a coincidence that much of the violence perpetrated against women has been done at the hands of males, often males known to the victim. This is true in all types of victimization. The majority of female rape and sexual assault victims know their assailants. Women who are already involved in physically abusive relationships are also more likely to become victims of sexual assault. Similar patterns are observed when we look at victims of physical abuse as well—most women know their assailants. Furthermore, it is statistically rare for mass-killing victims to be male; indeed, most serial killers are males, and most of their victims are females.
Why are women more likely than men to be victims of intimate violence? The best answer seems to be that male expression of violence is a way to exhibit control and power over women, either subconsciously or otherwise. It was, for a time, the nature of rape laws that only females were specified as victims and, even earlier, rape laws were in place mainly because women were considered property of men. Punishment was not for the benefit of the woman herself but to provide justice to the person who “owned” her. Society has continuously given off similar, albeit more subtle, messages. More contemporary messages center on women as in need of control by and protection from men. This is but one way women are placed in disadvantaged positions that make them more vulnerable to abuse at the hands of men.
It matters that women are often abused by men they know. First, women who are exposed to abuse from those who are supposed to care for them have greater difficulty forming healthy relationships. Second, when the victim of physical abuse or a sexual assault knows the assailant or is socially close to the assailant, the likelihood of prosecution decreases. In other words, the closer the social relationship, the less likely it is that the assailant will face any punishment. This perpetuates a societal structure and sends a message to men that women are “safe” targets for victimization.
Violence against women—sexual, physical, or otherwise— is not simply an individual problem. This is one of the most important messages of feminist scholarship. The patriarchal structure that allows so much victimization, often without any recourse for women, is a social as well as an individual problem. Until there is a significant change in the way that women are valued within society, it is likely that they will continue to experience higher rates of victimization, which increases the odds of their substance abuse, offending, and official criminal justice participation.