Criminology has historically been an androcentric, or male-focused and male-centered, field. Early criminologists basically ignored female crime. Those who did discuss this issue considered it to be part of females’ pathology or hysterical nature, as psychologist Sigmund Freud suggested. A theory is based on some type of data, which may be collected from actual subjects (in surveys, in interviews, or by other means) or through secondary sources (e.g., analysis of court records, historical documents). Historically, criminologists studied only men or analyzed data only from men in developing their theories.
Social disorganization theory posits that certain neighborhoods are more prone to delinquency and crime because they are disorganized or chaotic. Rapid change, as suggested by Emile Durkheim, can create this disorganization. The disorganization then leads to the breakdown of social controls that would otherwise serve to constrain crime. Although other criticism has been directed at this theory, scholars today note that all the data on which it is based came from studying male delinquency rates.
Similarly, Edwin Sutherland focused on male case studies to formulate his differential association theory. Sutherland’s theory, which generally posits that crime, like other behavior, is learned, is one of the most influential in criminology. The same gender bias applies to Travis Hirschi’s social bond theory, which is considered the most cited criminological theory. This theory describes which factors constrain or prevent crime, as opposed to which factors influence it. Hirschi posited that persons with strong social bonds would be less likely to offend. He articulated four qualities of social bonds: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.
In the 1970s, with the rise of the women’s movement, criminologists began to pay more attention to gender as a factor in crime. In 1975, Rita Simon offered what has been called the liberation hypothesis. Simon asserted that, as women earned greater participation in the workplace, they would become more involved in certain types of crime. They would commit largely white-collar offenses, according to Simon. That same year, Freda Adler cited tremendous increases in the number of female arrests for property crimes–proof, she said, that women’s liberation was indeed leading to more and different types of female crime. Critics contended, however, that her data might have been misconstrued. Given the relatively small number of female arrests, any increase looked dramatic. Further, crime rates increased in this time period for males as well. Additionally, critics argued that the increase might have been the result of increased police attention, not actual incidence.
The idea of female-oriented crime received new attention in the 1990s, as scholars, politicians, and pundits noted increases in female arrest rates. This time, female arrests for violent crime were up as well. Deborah Prothrow-Stith argued that because the United States is a culture that equates violence with power, women may resort to violence to obtain what they still lack.
Several theories were developed in the 1980s and 1990s that specifically addressed female crime. In particular, John Hagan’s power-control theory sought to explain why rates of crime and violence are higher for males than for females. Power-control theory maintains that criminal behavior is influenced by family structure, which mirrors the wider patriarchal social structure. Most families in the United States are still patriarchal, in that they are characterized by fairly strict gender role division. Patriarchal families exert less control over boys than over girls, allowing boys to have more freedom and take more risks. In egalitarian families, which have become more common, Hagan speculated that delinquency rates would be closer for male and female members.
Some sources have pointed to sex-based hormones as the primary reason why males perpetrate more violent crime than females. Most studies have focused on male testosterone as a causative factor. Animal studies have repeatedly found those animals with less testosterone are calmer than those animals with more testosterone. Testosterone may predispose someone to react aggressively when challenged or threatened. Thus it is not just the hormone, but also the environment that matters when it comes to violence.
Outside the field of criminology, some social critics have called for greater attention to be paid to the fact that virtually all school shooters have been males. For instance, Jackson Katz has been a leader in arguing that male gender socialization contributes to violence in all its forms, but in particular to violence against women. He points out that popular culture and sports encourage males to be tough, aggressive, and powerful to be considered “masculine.” In this milieu, violence against women and aggressive homophobia are regularly depicted as if they are laughing matters.
In many of the school rampages, the shooters’ masculinity had been threatened, sometimes publicly. In a study of 28 random school shooters, all were found to have “overconformed” to a hyperviolent definition of power and masculinity. Sociologist Michael Kimmel has authored a number of books that make the connection between gender roles, patriarchy, and violence. Canadian shooter Marc Lepine stated that his reason for killing 14 women and wounding 14 more at l’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989 was because he felt women had been given preferential treatment.
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- Garbarino, J. (1998). Lost boys. New York: Free Press.
- Katz, J. (2006, October 11). Coverage of the “school shootings” avoids the central issue. Common Dreams. Retrieved May 4, 2010, from http://www.commondreams.org/views06/1011-36.htm
- Katz, J. (2006). The macho paradox: Why some men hurt women and how all men can help. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
- Kellner, D. (2008). Guys and guns amok: Domestic terrorism and school shootings from the Oklahoma City bombing to the Virginia Tech massacre. New York: Paradigm.
- Kimmel, M., & Mahler, M. (2003). Adolescent masculinity, homophobia, and violence. American Behavioral Scientist, 46(10), 1439-1458.
- Klein, J., & Chancer, L. S. (2000). Masculinity matters: The omission of gender from high-profile school violence cases. In S. U. Spina (Ed.), Smoke and mirrors: The hidden content ofviolence in schools and society.Lanham,MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 129-162.
- Newman, K., Fox, C., Roth, W., & Mehta, J. (2005). Rampage: The social roots of school shootings. New York: Basic.
- School shootings the result of crisis of masculinity, gun culture, professor argues. (2008, February 18). Science Daily. Retrieved May 4, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080217133643.htm
- Tonso, K. (2009). Violent masculinities as tropes for school shooters. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(9), 1266-1285.