Female Delinquency Theories
A. Introduction
1) Many of the theories covered so far only explain delinquency from a
male perspective
a. Males have historically dominated the study of delinquency
b. Since criminology has tended to be dominated by men who see the world
through their own eyes, women have been largely ignored or unfairly compared
to males
• i. Furthermore, women have often been under-represented in the arenas of law-making,
the court system and the juvenile corrections system in general
c. A social system that enforces masculine control of the sexuality and labor
power of women, or patriarchy, has led to unconscious assumptions about
female and male behavior/misbehavior
• i. “Patriarchy and its privileges, then, remain as part of the defining quality of the
culture and thus of criminology and crime processing”…[and]... when the researchers
did include girls in their samples, it was typically to see how girls fit into boy’s
equations.” – Joanne Belknap
d. So how does patriarchy and gender stratification affect the lives of girls as
they grow up, and what are the results when previous theories that we have
studied are specifically applied to females?
2) The development of gender roles and stratification
a. Generation after generation, young girls have grown up in societies that have
viewed them as being “inferior” to boys
• i. The relegation of girls to more restricted lives is a reflection of a patriarchal society, in
which societies perceptions of gender roles leads to gender stratification
• ii. One’s sense of self and one’s relation to others is highly influenced by society’s
conceptions’ of “proper” gender roles
b. The process of creating gender-role identities, or individual identities based on
sexual stereotypes begins at birth
• i. Infant males are typically designated as possessing certain traits such as: firmness, largefeatures, alertness and strength
• ii. Infant females are often characterized as being soft, fine-featured, delicate and small
c. According to Marie Richmond, parents encourage dependence in girls and
independence in boys
• i. Other researchers contend that by the age of four or five, children become aware of their
gender and the behaviors appropriate to it
d. Gender roles are often reinforced through toys and games in the early stages of
• i. For instance, boys are frequently given toys that encourage creativity and manipulation
(chemistry sets), while girls are given toys that encourage passivity (dolls)
• ii. According to Doreen Kimura, girls are more likely to play in small unstructured groups
with few rules that emphasize cooperation
• iii. Contrary to this, boys are more likely to play in relatively large, structured groups that
emphasize competition
e. Early education also seems to have an impact on the socialization process of
young girls
• i. Patterns of interaction between students and teachers, (whether conscious or
unconscious), serve to encourage and to solidify gender roles
• ii. Self esteem is also built up in school, with males typically expected to be tough, posses a
strong body, competitive in sports, etc. (machismo)
• iii. With young girls, building self-esteem is often much more problematic (being pretty,
popular, sociable, pre-occupied with body weight, etc.)
f. The socialization of gender roles also occurs in the home
• i. Jeanne Block argues that parents encourage girls to stay at home or in close proximity to
their mothers, to avoid risks, and to fear social disapproval
• ii. Researchers such as Robert Burisk have concluded that boys are typically encouraged by
their parents to be independent, group orientated and aggressive
3) The effect on girls’ identities
a. The aforementioned processes of socialization leads many girls to identify with
traditional female roles and to accept political, social and sexual privileges
secondary to those held by boys (second-class citizen-ship)
• i. This socialization tends to create a glass ceiling of sorts and often instills a self-perception
of powerlessness in young girls
• ii. Researcher Carol Gilligan postulates that since girls are raised to identify with the primary
care-taker of their household, (their mother), a relationship that promotes interdependence
and responsiveness is created that follows these children into adolescence and beyond
• iii. Nancy Chodorow contends that since girls are more likely to define themselves
relationally, they do not develop the same precise and rigid ego boundaries common to boys
(which can explain why females are less likely to engage in delinquency)
b. Sexual behavior
• i. Sue Lees conducted a 3 year study of 100 girls in London, ages 15 and 16 and found that a
girl’s sexuality is central to the way she is judged in everyday life
• ii. While a boy’s social standing is often increased by his sexual exploits, the possibility of
being labeled a “slut” or a “whore” requires a girl to defend her sexual reputation (moral
• iii. A girl’s sexual behavior is often seen as a barometer, gauging her capacity to learn
“appropriate codes of social conduct” with boys
B. Theories of female delinquency
1) Biological and psychological theories
a. Atavism revisited
• i. Cesare Lombroso and William Ferrero applied Lombroso’s original theory of atavism to
the study of female delinquents in 1895
• ii. They argued that like the male criminal, female criminals were “throwbacks” or more
“primitive” than non-criminals
• iii. However, they chauvinistically concluded that since women were “lower on the
evolutionary scale” their atavistic qualities were a bit less visible
• iv. Moreover, Lombroso and Ferrero contended that the reason why rates of delinquency
were lower among women was because women are “naturally more child-like, less
intelligent, weaker than men, etc.”
b. Sigmund Freud believed that female delinquency arose primarily from the
anatomical inferiority of women and their inability to deal with the Electra Complex
(“Inferior Girl” theory)
• i. According to Freud, the Electra Complex arises during what is called the Oedipal state of
development (between ages 3-6)
• ii. Freud contends that when a girl realizes she has an inferior sexual organ, she develops an
inferiority complex which may cause the girl to act out later in life (as in delinquency)
c. W.I. Thomas furthered Freud’s idea and developed what is known as the
“Unadjusted Girl” theory which argues that both males and females are motivated by
natural biological instincts leading to ‘wish fulfillment’ (there are 4 distinct
categories of wishes)
• i. the desire for new experience
• ii. The desire for security
• iii. The desire for response
• iv. The desire for recognition
d. Thomas believed that women, by their biological nature, have an intense need to
give and receive love which tends to lead girls into delinquency, (especially sexual
• i. The behavior of girls is the result of choices circumscribed by social rules and moral
codes designed to guide people’s actions as they attempt to fulfill their wishes
• ii. Since these constraints can prevent a girl from realizing her wishes, she may use her
sexuality as a form of capital to obtain her goals and desires
e. Otto Pollack developed what is known as the chivalry hypothesis or the belief that
lower rates of crime and delinquency among females reflect men’s deference and
protective attitude toward women whereby female offenses are generally overlooked
or excused by males (“Deceitful Girl” theory)
• i. Pollack argued that just as women are forced to conceal their menstruation cycle each
month due to social norms, they also are forced to conceal their delinquent behavior
• ii. This theory also contends that the physiological nature of women in terms of stature and
strength make them more likely to be inconspicuous when engaging in delinquency (similar
to “hidden delinquency”)
• iii. Since male victims of female delinquency are hesitant or unwilling to take action against
the perpetrators, the actual rates of delinquency among females may appear lower than they
actually are
f. The adolescent girl in conflict
• i. Gisela Konopka was strongly influenced by the work of Freud and also believed that
delinquent behavior was driven by girls’ sexuality
• ii. The origin of a girl’s problematic behavior can be traced back to negative experiences in
the family such as an absence of warmth and love in the home which subsequently leads to
low self-esteem
• iii. This tarnished self image can lead a girl to seek acceptance, even if it means engaging in
sexual delinquency
• iv. The result can be ephemeral and abusive relationships that can lead to further sexual
g. Clyde Vedder and Dora argue that girls are led to engage in sexual delinquency
because of dysfunctional families and unsatisfactory peer relations
• i. The lack of love and/or approval from family and peers can lead girls to ‘act out’ by
engaging in acts of delinquency
• ii. The most common types of delinquency that girls engage in are: running away,
incorrigibility, sexual offense, probation violation and truancy (with running away being the
most frequent and truancy being the least frequent)
• iii. Vedder and Dora believe that officials often ‘protect’ the delinquent girl by charging her
with a lesser offense to mask more severe crimes
h. Recent biological studies by James Dabbs, Robert Frady, Timothy Carr and Norma
Besch have concluded that higher levels of testosterone are found among violent
female offenders than among those considered non-violent (males produce 6x as
much testosterone and 2x as much androgen as females)
• i. Studies examining a possible link between premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and delinquency
have found no correlation between the two
2) Sociological theories
a. In the past, researchers have ignored the presence of females in juvenile
• i. Frederic Thrasher accounted for girls in gangs in stereotypical and simplistic terms “The
girl takes the role of a boy and is accepted on equal terms with the others. Such a girl is
probably a tomboy in the neighborhood”
• ii. The Shaw and McKay study relating to social disorganization defined delinquency as
implicitly being a part of the male domain, (female delinquency as a product of social
disorganization was not explored)
• iii. Robert Merton’s strain theory also seemed to ignore the issue of female delinquency as
did Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association
b. Albert Cohen contended that since boys and girls have different adjustment
problems requiring different solutions, the delinquent subculture develops largely as
a response to the problems faced by boys and is not an appropriate response for
dealing with the problems of girls arising from the female role
• i. According to Cohen, the primary delinquency engaged by females is sexual delinquency
since it is “one kind of meaningful response to the most characteristic problem of the female
role—the establishment of satisfactory relationships with the opposite sex”
c. Though Edwin Sutherland didn’t apply his theory of differential association to
female delinquency; other researchers have looked at how girls’ association with
delinquent friends affects their likelihood of engaging in delinquency
• i. Xiaoru Liu and Howard Kaplan conducted a longitudinal study in Houston, Texas and
found that while females and males engaged in similar levels of minor delinquencies,
exposure to delinquent peers had been more positively associated with delinquency for
males than for females
d. Michael and Hirschi argue that the clear gender differences in delinquency can be
explained due to the process of socialization and specifically, gender stratification
(the socialization process trumps other factors)
• i. This socialization process tends to instill a greater sense of self-control in girls, and they
are therefore less likely to engage in delinquent behavior
e. Edwin Schur’s labeling theory contends that an informal form of social control
over females is maintained through the application of labels (i.e. “slut”, “tramp”)
• i. These labels can make it extremely difficult for a girl to attain her goals which can in turn
lead to delinquency
3) Marxist-Feminist Theories
a. Theorists of this school argue that patriarchal male dominance in the home and
interpersonal relationships with male control of the means of production can have
negative effects on the socialization process of young girls
• i. The criminal justice system “defines as crimes those actions that threaten this capitalistpatriarchal system”
• ii. James Messerschmidt argues that women experience double marginality; that is, they are
subordinate to both capitalists and men and are less likely to be involved in delinquency for
3 reasons: (1-most crimes are masculine in nature, 2-women are subordinate and less
powerful in such a system, 3-males control even illegitimate opportunities)
b. Messerschmidt’s theory was criticized by researchers such as Ronald Akers
• i. Akers and associates found that neither gender inequality nor female economic
marginality was related to female-male arrest ratios
c. Power-control theory, or the theory that emphasizes the consequences of the power
relations of husbands and wives in the workplace on the lives of children, was
developed by John Hagan
• i. Similar to the liberation hypothesis, or the view that changes brought about the women’s
movement triggered a wave of female crime, the power-control theory argues that female
delinquency is more likely in egalitarian families, rather than in patriarchal families
• ii. Studies that have been conducted on behalf of both of these theories has led to
inconsistent findings
d. Ruth Morris argues that the goals of women are fundamentally relational in
contrast to the material goals typically pursued by men
• i. Because women have lower material aspirations and their goals are in reach, they turn to
delinquency less
e. Allison Morris turns this theory on its head by stating that women have
aspirations similar to men but are denied the same opportunities to pursue them
• i. Wouldn’t this mean that there should be higher rates of delinquency among women?
f. Edwin Sutherland explained the gender gap in delinquency by saying that girls
who engaged in deviant behavior had less adult supervision
g. Chesney-Lind and Morash argue that children who develop identities built on their
relationship with a nurturing parent/guardian are less likely to engage in delinquency
• i. In patriarchal societies, the uneven distribution of power—which results in gender
inequality—leads girls to be the subject of oppression more often than males since
victimizers can call upon official agencies of control to exert/maintain their dominance
h. Differential Oppression Theory advanced by Regoli/Hewitt contends that girls in
patriarchal societies are doubly oppressed, (as both children and females)
• i. Adult conceptions of a young girl can lead to acts of oppression which will lead to
adaptive reactions from the child (passive acceptance, manipulation of peers, exercise of
illegitimate coercive power, retaliation)
• ii. This oppression also reinforces gender roles as young girls are often encouraged to
identify with their mothers and to concentrate on building and maintaining relations, (while
simultaneously being discouraged from pursuing independent and risk-taking activities)
• iii. The socialization process of girls means that they will be less likely to engage in
delinquency than boys
4) Limited Application
a. Since the architect’s of theories in criminology have often ignored female
delinquency, there has been a marginalization of policies aimed at
preventing/treating female delinquency
• i. Meda Chesney-Lind argues that “girls involved in the juvenile justice system are
particularly invisible in terms of programming” and programs that are available tend to be
based on stereotypes of ‘girls’ issues’
• ii. Chesney-Linds believes that programs for at-risk youths should allow for the occasional
separation of males from females so that issues related to sexism can be addressed in a
more comfortable forum
(End of Chapter 9)