Monthly Archives: April 2013

Women and Crime

Kris 6b 2013 c

This is an article I drafted to be used for the introductory chapter of a Volume of Women Criminals edited by sociologist Vickie Jensen. Dr. Jensen then took this draft, expanded upon it, and put it into her own words. Because I provided Dr. Jensen with a base form in which to work from, I am cited as the second author in the published version. The revamped published version can be found in Women Criminals: An encyclopedia of People and Issues Volume 1. Vickie Jensen Editor ABC-CLIO. Here’s the version I drafted for her.

Women and Crime

By Kristyan M. Kouri

Sociologists are interested in the social conditions that give rise to human behavior, and the ways in which individuals attempt to navigate their unique social situations. Researchers who study crime have indeed found that the types of crimes that people commit are highly correlated with their life-circumstances. Factors such as a socioeconomic status and the cultural norms individuals are expected to abide by clearly impact the ways in which they break the law. In present day American society, women and men are not only expected to follow a distinctive array of cultural rules, but they are also faced with a different set of  social constraints. As a result, the types of crimes that women and men commit as well as their motivations for breaking the law can be quite different. This chapter is, therefore, designed to explain the ways in which social entities such as cultural beliefs and  economic status influence women’s crime patterns.

We will begin by defining culture which can be thought of as a group of peoples’ belief system or a society’s map or guide for making sense of the world. This map provides us with a set of guidelines for how to interpret the world and a collection of rules for how to interact with the people around us. The notion of gender is rooted in a society’s culture. Gender refers to the assumptions a culture/society makes about the innate character of females and males and the rules they are expected to follow and the roles they are induced to play as a result of those assumptions. Sociologists assert that cultural beliefs about the inherent nature of women and men are socially constructed rather than a fixed entity that is rooted in human biology. How can this claim be made? It can be made by examining the wealth of historical and anthropological evidence which demonstrates that gender varies widely over time and across different societies (Kimmel & Messner, 1989).

Although beliefs about the essential nature of women and men continue to be challenged, a host of general notions remain. Females are thought to be caring and compassionate — traits that make them especially suited to rearing children and nurturing male partners. They are also seen as irrational and overly emotional and thus incapable of holding positions of power.

Though there are a number of different masculine prototypes found within the context of the American culture, the dominant model is referred to as the hegemonic male (Connell, 2000). For the past 100 years, the American hegemonic male has been the quintessential rough and tough manly man who scorns all frailty. Traits associated with this dominant for of masculinity are ambition, competition, heterosexuality and a sex drive that is almost impossible to control. The hegemonic male achieves status by exhibiting his physical and sexual prowess and displaying his ability to earn money and attain power. Men who fail to sufficiently emulate this cultural edict are likely to be scorned — especially as children and adolescents.

The types of crimes perpetrated by American men are closely correlated to the hegemonic ideal type. When men steal they take items that can be readily turned into cash and they are far more likely than women to commit crimes that that involve sexual misconduct and violence.

Like men,  women also pursue the American goal of attaining wealth, but they often learn that achieving this goal is predicated upon their connection with men. Women are therefore compelled to pay close attention to their looks and are induced to purchase a wide array of products that will aid them in their quest for physical perfection. And if they maintain the right look and behave in the culturally prescribed feminine manner, so the reasoning goes, they will be able to attract the right male. All told, finding and keeping a male is of the utmost importance. This social rule has a huge impact on the types of crimes that women commit. When women steal, for example, they often take products that will enhance their appearance.

Most feminists assert that the cultural assumptions made about the natural character of women and the corresponding rules they are expected to follow and the roles they are induced to play are created and sustained by men as a means of maintaining patriarchy — a system of masculine privilege in which men hold economic and political advantage over women.  Patriarchy is justified by powerful cultural ideologies that asserts that men are superior to women and therefore are deserving of power and control over them.

Although the strength of patriarchy in the US has become weaker, and the gender roles for women have shifted as a result of feminist movements, a large strand of cultural thought still encourages contemporary American women to find economic and emotional dependence through their husbands and boyfriends. This way of thinking can make it exceedingly difficult for women in abusive situations to leave their male partners.  And the fact that large numbers of women continue to be depend on men, both economically and emotionally, helps to explain why many female offenders break the law at the insistence of their husbands or boyfriends.

And the fact that women continue to be the primary victims of physical and sexual abuse is also a remnant of our patriarchal culture. In effect, patriarchy — exacerbated by the American hegemonic male model — leads some men to assert their authority over women through the use of violence.

Aside from male dominance in intimate relationships, there are many social indicators that point to the fact that America continues to be a patriarchal/male dominated society in the economic and political spheres of American life. In spite of broad structural changes and legal reforms, most of our nation’s government officials are made up of men. In 2013, only 20 of the 100 members of the senate were female, and only 78 of the 435 House of Representatives seats were occupied by women ( Men still hold most of our nation’s wealth and they continue to earn more money the females even when they work in similar occupations. On average, women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, and in 2013 only 21 women headed fortune 500 companies ( These pay differentials largely result from the fact that women tend to be segregated into low status pink collar occupations such as secretary, receptionist, and bank teller. So when they do commit such as fraud and embezzlement in the workplace, the amount stolen is small when compared to occupational crimes committed by men who, as a result of their higher positions of power, have access to larger amounts of money.

A woman’s tendency to sit at the lower rungs of the economic ladder also affects her motivations for breaking the law. Although it takes both a man and a woman to produce a child, women are the parent who is expected to care for their offspring, and women who rear their youngsters without the help of a father often suffer from severe economic hardship – a phenomenon known as the feminization of poverty. The US Census Bureau reports that in 2007, 53% of the nation’s poor where made up of single mothers and their children. Though most poor women abide by the law, some mothers may engage in criminal activities in an attempt to feed and house their children. Hence a woman’s reasoning for breaking the law often reflects what Carol Gilligan refers to as an ethic of care (1982).

The penchant for single mothers and their children to live below the poverty line is further complicated by race. In spite of the progress that has been made over the past forty years, and despite the fact that our current president happens to be black, social indicators show that America is still indeed a racist society. The poverty rate for Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians tends to hover around 25% while only 9.3% of whites live below the poverty line (Aguirre & Turner 2009). Because people of color are often deemed inferior by the majority group, they are denied a plethora of opportunities enjoyed by whites. And given the fact that poor women of color have three strikes against them as they make their way in the world – that is they are women, they are of color, and they are poor – they are said to experience triple jeopardy (Hill Collins 2000). Taken together, race, class, and gender relegate large proportions of women and children of color to a life below the poverty line, and a majority of sociologists who study women’s crimes believe that the reason why half of our nation’s prisons are made up of people of color is the result of these compounded dimensions of inequality (Chensey-Lind & Pasko 2004). Gender, then, intersects with class and race to produce distinctive situations and challenges as women attempt to make their way in the world. As such, a woman’s social structural position will have a large impact on the type of crime she will commit, her reasons for breaking the law, and her chances of being sent to prison for her offenses (Ferraro & Roe 2008).

Government research shows that “while women do commit a wide range of offenses they commit less crime than men and are less dangerous and violent than their male counterparts” (Silvestri & Crowther-Dowey 2008: 26). What’ striking is that the offenses commonly perpetrated by women tend to be concentrated in a few categories in the same way that women’s legitimate work tends to be limited to a small number of pink collar occupations (Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2004).  The crimes women commit can also be seen as the ways in which they accommodate themselves to their social situations – circumstances which may induce them to use their prescribed gender roles as an illegal way of earning money to obtaining the items needed for everyday subsistence.

Prostitution and Commercialized Vice

The Uniform Crime Reports, compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that in 2008 women made up 69% of all prostitution arrests. Since the American culture places such a high premium on a woman’s appearance and sex appeal, a woman can exchange her sexual services for money with relative ease. According to James Messerschmidt (1984) prostitution is indeed a product of our patriarchal society where men not only define what is sexy, but control what people are paid in the labor market.

Social scientific research on prostitution shows that it is a highly varied occupation where one’s age and social class position determines the type of job a woman will hold (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2006). Call girls, for example, are often young attractive well-poised women who come from middle and even upper class family backgrounds. For some, the lure of relatively large amounts of money will lead a woman to not only risk legal sanction for breaking the law, but to also take on the stigmatized role of a whore. It is important to remember that although all humans need to find strategies for supporting themselves, some women find that they can make a much better living through sex work than by undertaking the traditional pink-collar occupations that are open to them. What’s more, the culture in which we live teaches us to believe that a multitude of goods and services will lead us to a life of happiness and many women may find that they are better able to meet these goals through the financial rewards they receive through their work as a prostitute.

Women coming from upper middle class backgrounds such as Heidi Fleiss, Xaverira, Hollander, and Sydney Biddle Barrows women discovered that they could make a great deal of money by working in this illegal economic niche. This is consistent with James Messerschmidt’s (1984) assertion that the field of prostitution often provides women with greater financial rewards than the types of legitimate work usually open to them. And in the same way that scores of American women tend to find work in pink collar occupations, these madams fell into occupations that were open to women.

A second group of prostitutes, drawn from the working class, often use massage parlors as their base of operation. These women, who cater to a clientele of working class men, are engage in this work out of a need to meet their basic needs and purchase the items needed to exist comfortably within the context of their specific cultural milieus.

But the working conditions that the majority of street-walkers endure serve to complicate this picture. Like call girls and prostitutes who work out of massage parlors they work under the direction of a superior who in this instance is referred to as a pimp. As is the case with a madam, a pimp with take a portion a prostitute’s pay in return for finding her clients and paying her legal fees should she be arrested. The women who work at the lower rungs of this occupation are usually paid quite poorly and in are in far more danger of being beaten or murdered by their johns or pimps than their higher class counterparts. So even in the illegal field of prostitution, poor women are at a disadvantage (Messerschmidt, 1984).


            In 2008, the Uniform Crime Report concluded that slightly more women than men, 52% as compared to 48%, were charged with the crime of embezzlement. This slight edge, however, is probably a reflection of chance error and does not suggest that women engage in this crime at a greater rate than that of men.

But like most other offenses associated with women, the crime of embezzlement has a gender component. Because women tend to be segregated into pink-collar occupations such as bank teller or cashier, their transgressions usually involve taking relatively small amounts of money from the cash drawer. Men, who are more likely to hold managerial positions, tend to steal much larger amounts of money by altering the books have greater access to larger amounts of money (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004).


            Larceny theft is stealing does not involve breaking into someone’s home or office or taking items from another person through the use of physical force. The 2008 Uniform Crime Report concludes that 41% of all larceny theft crimes were perpetrated by females.  For women, the most common form of larceny-theft is shop lifting and the items they steal are highly reflective of their gender roles (Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2004).  While men tend to pilfer items that can be readily converted into cash, women steal goods needed to support children, household goods or products designed to enhance their appearance.


            In 2008, large numbers of women engaged in Fraud a crime that includes check forgery, identity theft, and income tax evasion. The Uniform Crime reports calculated that 46% of all people charged with fraud were made up of women. Like embezzlement, the amounts of money stolen through fraud are reflective of a person’s socioeconomic position and since women tend to control smaller amounts of money, they tend to take smaller amounts of money through the use of fraud. But women who sit at the higher rungs of the socioeconomic ladder may attempt to defraud both people and institutions of large amounts of cash. Billionaire Leona Helmsley, who was convicted of federal income tax evasion in 1989, clearly demonstrates the link between social class position and crime.


Though burglary is a male dominated crime with men making up 85% of all arrests in 2008, the Uniform Crime Report concluded that that the 15% of women who were arrested for this offense reflected a 26% increase over a ten-year period. Here again the gender roles that women and men are induced to follow shape the way the crime is played out. While men tend to become involved the crime of burglary through their interactions with male friends, a woman tends to be introduced to this crime through a romantic partner. Working alongside a husband or boyfriend, she often serves as an accomplice to a man who plans and executes this explicit act of thievery. Like men, women will often use the stolen proceeds to acquire drugs, clothes, and jewelry. But unlike men, they are far more likely than men to use the “earnings” from the pilfered funds to feed, house, and clothe their children (Mullins & Wright, 2003).

Driving Under the Influence

            According to the Uniform Crime Reports, women accounted for 22% of all driving under the influence arrests in 2008, an increase in of almost 5% from the previous year. Chesney-Lind and Pascow believe that changes in police practices have led to the “prominence of this offense in women’s official crime patterns” (2004, p. 103). Because accidents and deaths related to people driving under the influence of alcohol has garnered so much public notice, law enforcement officials are paying greater attention to these crimes and arresting women that in past decades they would have otherwise set free.

There has been a surge of women drivers between the ages of 21-24 involved in car crashes while driving under the influence that resulted in injury or death in the state of California. A study conducted by Steven A. Block (2008), a senior researcher for the automobile club of Southern California, discovered that while there were 419 women involved in such accidents in 1998, the figure had risen to 907 in 2007.  It is, however, important to remember that young men driving under the influence account for the vast majority of accidents resulting in injury or death. For example, in the state of California, 3269 young California men arrested for such violations in 2007.

Murder and Non-negligent Manslaughter

Though 89% of the people charged with homicide in 2008 were men, 11% of these murders were thought to be executed by women (Uniform Crime Reports, 2008). While it is clear that most people are killed at the hands of men, some females are indeed capable of taking another person’s life. But researchers have discovered that women and men have very different motivations for murder, and their reasons for killing are closely related to issues associated with gender.

In spite of the broad changes in gender rules that occurred as a result of the women’s liberation movement, women are still primarily responsible for caring for husbands and children. It is therefore unsurprising to learn that when women kill, they are likely to take the life of someone living in their domestic sphere (Jensen 2001).  In most cases a woman’s victim will be her husband or boyfriend with the precipitating event being an argument coupled with physical abuse, and Jensen (2001) reports that a large majority of women who kill their significant others do so in self-defense. Women have also been known to murder their children.

Men are far more likely than women to murder acquaintances or strangers, with the motivation being economic gain. Men are also apt to kill while in the midst of executing another type of crime.  Woman who murder while in the midst of performing a different offense are likely to be working under the direction of a male partner (Jensen, 2001).

But a few women deviate from this trend and the case of Melissa Huckaby, who was accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and killing eight-year-old Sandra Cantu, demonstrates that women can and do partake in crimes largely committed by men.

Women’s Incarceration Rates

            In 2006, there were 112,500 women in state or federal prison making up 7.2% of a total prison population of 1.57 million people. But while men’s incarceration rates are far higher than that of women, the number of women placed behind bars has increased dramatically with the number of women in prison growing by 64% between the years of 1995 and 2006. ( It is here that the combined effects of race, class and gender are arguably the most visibly pronounced. When comparing of Blacks, whites, and Latinas, the percentages of white women who sit behind bars are far lower than women of color. For example, Aizenmen (2008) learned that 1 in 100 black women between the ages of 35 and 39 resided in our nation’s prisons as compared to only 1 in 355 white women. What’s more, the vast majority of the women’s prison population tends to be poor.

Are Women’s Crime Rates Truly Rising?

            The fact that much of human behavior can be explained by examining one’s social situation is a central tenet of sociological thought, and over the past 40 years the social conditions under which women live have changed dramatically. A majority of females are now in the paid labor force, and the number of women earning college degrees has begun to outpace that of men. What’s more, women have far more sexual freedom than they did several generations ago.

If one follows this line of reasoning one would expect women’s crime rates to increase as the social conditions under which women live now more closely resemble that of men. In fact, a number of social commentators have attributed the rise in women’s arrest and incarceration rates to the social changes brought about by the feminist movement. But criminologists such as Chesney-Lind and Pasko (2004) adamantly refute this assertion arguing that the increase in women’s arrests is the result of the search for male/female equivalence in crime. What this means is that law enforcement officials now treat women in the same way they treat men, and as a result, inflict stricter penalties upon them. Women are now consequently being arrested and prosecuted for crimes that law enforcement officials may have let pass to in prior eras. In addition, Chesney-Lind and Pasco note that the vast growth seen in women’s incarceration rates is largely the result of the nation’s “war on drugs.” For example, women who might have once been sentenced to drug treatment programs are now being placed in prison.

Chesney-Lind and Pasco (2004) are also adamantly opposed to the mere concept of equivalence in crime. They argue that kinds of crimes women commit and their motivations for breaking the law are rooted in a different set of social circumstances. Hence treating female and male offenders in an identical fashion prevents society from examining the kinds of issues that give rise to women’s crimes and prevents women from getting the kind of assistance they may need.

But this train of thought poses several important sociological questions. If women’s arrest rates haven’t really increased in spite of massive social/structural changes, does this mean that women are inherently different from that of men? Or could it be that the social/structural changes that have taken place over the past forty years are not as revolutionary as we’d like to think, and as a result, women’s crime patterns have basically remained the same?

A recent article published in Newsweek magazine argues that despite the changes in women’s status that occurred as a result of the women’s liberation movement, sexism and discrimination is alive and well (Benet, Ellison, & Ball, 2010).  They write that the success stories told about high profile women “mask persistent inequality … and just as the first black president hasn’t wiped out racism, a female at the top of the company doesn’t eradicate sexism” (p.44).  The fact that women make roughly 77 cents for every dollar a man makes demonstrates that patriarchy is alive and well in America. And just because women’s labor force participation has skyrocketed and that a few women now head fortune 500 companies, doesn’t mean they’ve broken through the majority of glass ceilings.

This fact that America continues to be a country rife with gender inequities is manifested in women’s crime patterns. When comes to larceny-theft and embezzlement, the fact that women tend to steal smaller amounts of money than that of men is indicative of their low level occupational positions. For example, one of the reasons why Xaviera Hollander instituted her call girl ring is because she could earn more money in the field of prostitution than she could through her work as a secretary.

The tendency for women to murder their husbands or boyfriends in self-defense is also reflective of the persistent risk of being abused at the hands of their husbands and boyfriends.  And the penchant for female offenders to have histories of physical and sexual abuse also speaks to their lower status and vulnerability. What’s more, the fact that most of our nation’s poor tend to made up of poor women and their children explains why many women turn to theft in their quest to feed and house their children, a number of women turn to crime. Sociologists have shown time and again that there is a definite link between rampant social inequality and crime.

Likewise, it is evident that a good number of women continue to obtain their self-worth through their association with men with the recent scandal involving Tiger Woods being a case in point.  The fact that over a half dozen women were willing to form romantic liaisons with this rich and powerful athlete despite the fact that he was married is demonstrates that this social rule is alive and well. The inordinate concern with finding and pleasing men, which is indicative of a life lived within the context of a male dominated society, also explains why so many women turn to crime as a result of their association with a romantic partner.

It is also evident that despite the progress made as a result of varying feminist movements, women continue to be valued for their sex-appeal. This explains why women can use their sexuality to earn money in the illegal market and why they’re far more likely than men, to engage in prostitution.  So despite broad cultural changes, traditional gender roles are alive and well.

But by this same token, women who find themselves at the upper rungs of the economic ladder may be induced to commit crimes usually associated with wealthy men. High profile businesswomen such as Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley broke laws in keeping with their social class positions. So when analyzing women in crime from a sociological perspective we cannot neglect to make note of the fact that both American women live in a capitalist society which induces them to attempt to accumulate large amounts of wealth and acquire valuable objects which are highly prized by the culture. In other words, the greed that is fostered by our consumer driven culture can also compel a woman to commit certain types of crimes.

It is therefore important to remember that although many factors induce females to break the law. Changes in social rules are also at least partially responsible for the increase seen in women’s driving under the influence arrests. While it is apparent that the some of this increase can be attributed to stricter drunk driving laws and the tendency toward equivalence in crime, there’s another important issue at play: women have much more freedom of movement that they did 50 years ago.  In contemporary times, women can venture into nightclubs without the protection of a chaperone. And after a night filled with dancing and drinking, some of these women may attempt to drive home while intoxicated. In these instances, changes in gender rules may account for at least some of the increases in drinking and driving among women.

In the end, women’s crimes are the result of a number of different factors that work together in tandem: The gender rules society expects women to follow; their socioeconomic position which is impacted by their race; and the fact that America’s consumer driven culture encourages individuals to accumulate vast amounts of wealth. Though increases seen in women’s arrest rates are probably somewhat related to the gender rules and roles that have occurred over the last fifty years, stricter legal statutes and the tendency of law enforcement officials to look for equivalency in crime also account for the growth in crime seen among females.