Women and Violence

Anyone can be a victim of violence. From petty crime to theft, domestic violence, physical or verbal abuse, emotional trauma, as well as rape, and murder. The list goes on and none of it is pretty. Violence can lead to physical and mental ill health, homelessness, feelings of shame, embarrassment, and acts of retaliation. The severity of violence is vast, and each case is unique. I am fortunate enough to live a life where I feel cared for, loved and safe. But too often, I take these life essentials for granted.

Three stories have featured in tonight’s news headlines, each involving women and acts of violence. Without going in to too much detail, Adrian Ernest Bayley was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum jail term of 35 years, for the rape and murder of Melbournian Jill Meagher. Ms Meagher’s father said ‘justice has now been done’. But, nothing will bring back the innocent woman who found herself in that eventually fatal position in Brunswick last September.

St Kilda footballer Stephen Milne was yesterday convicted of four counts of rape of a 19 year old female, dating back to 2004. Victoria Police say they have ‘implemented substantial reforms and improvements to [their] sex crimes investigative processes which has enabled a number of older investigations to be reviewed, offenders identified and charges laid’. Yet one may beg to ask why it has taken so long for the truth to come out. There has been deception and what one party involved called a ‘sabotaged investigation’. However, the AFL have now disputed Milne’s suspension based on the presumption of innocence. I find it hard to believe that in any other workplace or sector that an organisation would speak out against an employee’s suspension when accused of rape, but is it not both troubling and fascinating to hear the different arguments in play?

The third news item is undoubtedly less severe but just as intriguing in its own way. In recent months there have been numerous reports of abuse on Melbourne and Sydneys’ public transport system. On Monday evening, a customer was physically and verbally assaulted on an Eltham-bound train out of Melbourne’s CBD. The difference in this case though, was that the victim was a 56 year old man, and his abusers, two 15 and 16 year old girls. While the girls have been questioned and the victim’s story has been told and retold, the emphasis has certainly been placed (at least by commercial and tabloid media) on the age and gender of each of the three involved. Yes, it is terrible and unjust, the man was victimised and abused in a public situation that should have been safe. Yes, others should have stepped in to prevent the action or assist the man (hello, PSO officers?). But the focus is on the two girls. Journalistic reporting also shifts: words chosen are inherently more feminine, soft, and possibly, forgiving. The teens are described as ‘feral’ rather than violent or brutal.

So, why do we find female criminals so, do I dare say, inviting?

I took a subject over the summer called Women and International Justice that asked this very question. Through exploration of the way women are treated in court, in society, and in prison facilities, I gained a great deal of knowledge, and began to form my own perspectives on these issues. Women can be both victims and perpetrators of violence, and there are many factors – biological, environmental, psychological – that play a part in each case. For my final essay, I focused particularly on the case of Aileen Wuornos, America’s most infamous female serial killer. Filmmaker Nick Broomfield made two documentaries on Wuornos, and a blockbuster film Monster, starring Charlize Theron was produced in 2003. I highly recommend all three of these films, and for you to watch the documentaries first, to gain the ‘facts’, and then Monster, as a testament to and so as gain fully appreciate Theron’s incredible acting. She physically embodies Wuornos’ character and personality in a way I’ve never seen an actor do so, before.

Charlize Theron in 'Monster'

Charlize Theron in ‘Monster’

 

I’ll also post my essay below, for further interest.

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Meanwhile, I’ve had another week at artsHub and here are the links to this week’s work:

The End of the Educational DVD

$12,000 Playwright Commission Available

International Artists Bolster Competition in Stencil Prize

Record Breaking Box Office for Melbourne Jazz Fest

Penguin Kicking Goals with the AFL

60th Sydney FIlm Festival Award Winners

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Compare and contrast two major theories to explain the offending behaviour of women.

Gender is a socially constructed idea, and unlike sex, which is biologically determined, is reflective of the culture in which it is located. The definition of ‘gender’ changes as what is considered ‘acceptable’ for a male or female is both rooted in tradition, and crafted by new thinkers and philosophies. Whether male or female, a person’s life course is affected by conditions including race, social class or socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and physical ability. Much traditional thought expresses women as inferior beings to their male counterparts, and feminist theory sees many women criminals to be stuck in a patriarchal bind, where “women have no civic identity separate from their husbands or fathers” (Goodstein, 2000). This struggle to pronounce themselves as separate individuals leaves many women relying upon men for representation in the public sphere, money, and other resources. Such dependence was not always held respectfully, as what males chose to do to their ‘property’ behind closed doors was off limits to those enforcing justice (Goodstein, 2000).

In Western countries a ‘rule of thumb’ operated, with a literal meaning that men could freely beat their wives so long as the instrument used was no thicker than their thumb. In a culture of male privilege and female service, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse and wife battering were not considered ‘real’ crimes until the 1970s (Goodstein, 2000). While some consider those violent towards women as having ‘sick personalities’ or a ‘psychological illness’, these practices are likely to have been founded more concretely as reflections of structural gender dynamics, in keeping with the traditional roles assigned to a man and woman. Ferraro (2000) argues social institutions of religion, kinship, the economy, and media, normalize hierarchical gender relations and enforce male power and privilege, leading some males to exercise emotional and physical control through abusive means (Goodstein, 2000). In broad terms, feminist criminologists agree with this sentiment, with radical feminism defining women’s oppression as originating in the categorization of women as an inferior class. Similarly, socio-cultural feminism sees the patriarchal structure of society perpetuating sexual violence against women which is particularly evident in some middle eastern nations, where rape has not been criminalized in marriage, and domestic violence is a pervasive problem.

Attachment Theory

The Attachment Theory suggests that abuse and offending behaviour is a cycle, passed through generations, perpetuated by childhood abuse and offending as a result of insecure and anxious attachment to a primary parental figure. Both boys and girls growing up in violent environments have higher propensities to model such behaviour (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004), yet girls must also negotiate gender oppression, where yearning for someone to be close to them, they feel powerless and are left with limited options for change, where thus, they are met with continued abuse and violence.

Many girls abused as minors try to flee violence and trauma, leaving them without a home, education, or access to a steady income and daily necessities. Widom (2000) attests that victimized girls who enter delinquency as a result of this continuum, and “often with deficits in cognitive abilities and achievement and few positive relationships or social controls”, end up on the streets with very few survival skills (cited in Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004, p. 106). Furthermore, they may experience lowered self-esteem, a lack of sense of control over their lives, and thus show tendencies towards criminal behaviour. Chesney-Lind and Pasko (2004) state that consequently, these girls grow into women “with few social or psychological resources for successful adult development” (p. 106), and are likely to become involved with others who have walked similar paths. Group affiliation penetrates crime-ridden neighbourhoods and some women feel compelled into illegal behaviours through their menfolk or other associations (van Wormer, 2010). Geography is significant in determining the influence of crime and drug use (van Wormer, 2010), with areas populated by those of lower socio-economic status often reporting higher levels of crime, gangs and drug abuse. This supports the evidence in favour of the Attachment theory, and reinforces one’s experiences during childhood as a key determinant of one’s ability to grow into a law-responsive adult.

Prostitution is commonly known to be the only crime in which women dominate numerically. Research has shown it to be part of a recursive cycle of victimization leading to criminality and then back again, where these women are knowingly both offenders and victims, in order to maintain their lives. Women arrested for embezzlement were often employed in low-paying clerical, sales and service positions, and were found to have pocketed smaller amounts than males involved in embezzlement. Women were less likely than men to be ‘commercial shoplifters’ (stealing for possible resale) and saw their criminal activity as being part of a ‘second shift’ of household management, rather than for extensive or personal gains (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004). Where women are arrested for more serious crimes (such as robbery) they are more likely to have served as accomplices to men in various capacities, than to have masterminded the offense. Murders by women are likely to be domestic or inflicted upon someone they knew, to be carried out whilst the victim was asleep or incapacitated, and as an act of self-defense, with the women in fear of her (or a child’s) life. Female perpetrators of these crimes were less likely to have a criminal history, or to have a criminal history overwhelmingly dominated by prostitution.

Many studies of women’s crime focus on the events and circumstances women faced during childhood, with a specific emphasis on the importance of victimization and abuse. Heimer identifies, ‘Nearly all of the women discussed in the ethnographic literature on women’s poverty and crime find themselves living in disadvantaged, disorganized, and deteriorating communities with high rates of drug use, property crime, and violence’ (p. 26). Daly coined a subgroup of female criminals as “harmed and harming women” who experienced abuse as children in addition to economic hardship, invoking what Heimer calls a ‘quasi-psychological argument’, maintaining that as abused girls grew up, they were unable to contain their rage and were increasingly violent and committed violent crime. She adds that these felons are simply reproducing their experiences of abuse, and utilizing them as a coping mechanism when faced by confronting circumstances or situations. Moreover, women living in marginalized communities are more likely to encounter and become incorporated into criminal and deviant networks where family members may serve as the conduit between young women and criminal groups (Miller, 1986, cited in Heimer, 2000). Therefore, these women are easily initiated into groups of crime that then sustain their criminal involvement.

Economic Marginalization Hypothesis

The economic marginalization hypothesis suggests the gender gap in crime has narrowed as women have experienced increasing economic hardship relative to men. When this occurs, women’s rates of crime as compared with men’s rates will increase. The hypothesis emphasizes that economic circumstances and crime are a dynamic process (Heimer, 2000) influenced by social demographic and economic indicators. Importantly, gender ratios of arrests can increase when female crime rates are not rising if men’s crime rates are dropping off more rapidly (Heimer, 2000). Citing Blau and Blau’s (1982) argument about inequality and violent crime rates, Heimer notes that high levels of inequality can create a sense of relative deprivation, to which crime is a natural response. Similarly, Steffensmeier and Allan (1996) discuss poverty as a key factor driving changes in women’s offending.

Employment, or lack thereof, is a significant indicator when studying individuals or demographics at risk of criminal behaviour. Box and Hale (1983, 1984) reported that women’s rates of registering as unemployed had some influence on female conviction rates in England and Wales, for the period of 1952 to 1980, yet the percentage of unemployed women does not give information about levels of male unemployment, thus capturing absolute rather than relative economic status (cited in Heimer, 2000). In a study of women street hustlers in Milwaukee, Romenesko and Miller (1989) note previous jobs of women in their sample included work as cooks, housekeepers, store clerks, waitresses, and go-go dancers (cited in Heimer, 2000). Baskin and Sommers (1998) reported that employed women offenders in their sample worked mostly in unskilled jobs as factory workers, salespersons, and office clerks. In these positions, women are at greater risk of committing property crime when faced with financial hardship. Additionally, Daly (1994) observed that at the time of arrest, only 8 of 40 women studied worked in legitimate jobs, 16 were receiving welfare benefits, and the remaining 16 had “no clear means of economic support” (cited in Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004, p. 26).

Chesney-Lind and Pasko (2004) discuss a study done by Gilfus (1992) in which 20 incarcerated women were interviewed in exploration of the link between childhood injuries and adult crime. Gilfus found many likenesses between the 20 women, most of whom were single mothers who considered their illegal activities as work, economically necessary to support partners, children, and addictions. Three-quarters were intravenous drug users, 17 had histories of prostitution, 13 reported child sexual abuse, 13 ran away from home as girls, and only four completed high school. The women collectively recalled trying to care for and protect others, particularly younger siblings, from violence and abuse, and 15 had lived with violent men who expected them to bring in money through prostitution and shoplifting. These women saw their criminal role as a form of caretaking. Whilst this study consisted only of 20 women incarcerated in the United States, the social and economic conditions in which they were brought up are similar to those of women held in prisons across the globe. Baskin and Sommers (1992) note, “‘violence and drug involvement’ are adaptive strategies in underclass communities that are racked by poverty and unemployment” (p. 114). Chesney-Lind and Pasko support this statement that “women experiencing gender and racial oppression and social marginalization are particularly vulnerable to both abuse and victimization and involvement in illegal activity” (2004, p. 106).

Aileen Wuornos – A Case Study

American serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, embodied many facets of both Attachment Theory and the Economic Marginalization Hypothesis. She was arrested and charged with capital murder in January 1991. Wuornos was born to a broken family, where her mother left Aileen and Aileen’s brother to her own parents (Wuornos’ grandparents), and her father committed suicide in prison soon after. Wuornos’ grandmother was an alcoholic and it is alleged that her grandfather beat her, and his friend molested her. At nine years of age, Wuornos began work as a sex servant and became pregnant at the age of 13. After the pregnancy and subsequent adoption, Wuornos was told she could no longer live at the house and took to the streets, making money as a prostitute. Prior to the murders, Wuornos committed crimes of theft, robbery, assault and illegal possession of a firearm and had served short sentences in prison. Maher (1997) argues female sex workers robbed their clients as a way to build reputations for violence to help them divert potential victimization (cited in Heimer, 2000). Wuornos had experienced victimization from a young age and it is possible these crimes were an example of building her resilience, in addition to maintaining her lifestyle and her life. Wuornos also played the role of caretaker to her lover, Tyria Moore, who eventually got Wuornos to confess to the murders via telephone, tapped by police (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, 1993, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, 2003; Monster, 2003).

While Wuornos worked alone as an adult, during childhood, she was surrounded by drugs, rape and criminal behaviour. Often betrayed by loved ones, Wuornos was unable to trust anyone and learned to fend for herself at a young age. She was economically marginalized and often homeless, where hooking and stealing were her only avenues through which to obtain money and necessities. Unlike other female offenders, Wuornos was the key perpetrator of the crimes she was involved in. She was socially and economically marginalized, unemployed (save prostitution), sparsely connected to family or friends, and was victimized and abused as a child (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, 1993, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, 2003; Monster, 2003).

While her status as a serial killer may be uncommon amongst women, her traumatic childhood and marginalization from social, economic and familial realms stands to support the propositions of each theory. With a more supportive networking system and a stable income from an occupation not marred by such potential risk and violence, Wuornos may have found a life very different from the one she led. The Attachment Theory signifies the importance of a parental figure in a child’s life, and without this presence, Wuornos found herself to be detached from society. In turn, she held loose morals and became a victim of the social system, from which she was largely set apart.

Conclusion

A broad feminist framework is vital for understanding offending women, yet both the attachment theory and the economic marginalization hypothesis help shed specific and critical light on many of the underlying issues. Without these perspectives, our understanding of the reason why women offend would be much more limited, as would our capacity for generating legal reforms and social changes that might ultimately lead to a reduction in women’s crimes and their underlying causes.

References

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer 2003, documentary, Lafayette Films, Louisiana, USA, viewed 21 December, 2012.

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer 1993, documentary, Lafayette Films, Louisiana, USA, viewed 22 December, 2012.

Baskin, D and Sommers, I 1992, Sex, Race, Age, and Violent Offending, Violence and Victims, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 191-201, Springer Publishing Company, New York, USA.

Chesney-Lind, M and Pasko, L 2004, ‘Trends in Women’s Crime’ in The Female Offender Girls, Women and Crime, 2nd edn, Sage Publications, Inc, California, USA.

Ferraro, K J 2000, ‘Woman Battering: More Than a Family Problem’ in Goodstein L and Renzetti C, Women, Crime and Criminal Justice: Original Feminist Readings, Oxford University Press, USA, viewed 27 December 2012, http://roxbury.net/images/pdfs/wcj2_chapter1.pdf

Goodstein, L 2000, ‘Women, Crime and Criminal Justice – An Overview’ in Goodstein L and Renzetti C, Women, Crime and Criminal Justice: Original Feminist Readings, Oxford University Press, USA, viewed 27 December 2012, http://roxbury.net/images/pdfs/wcj2_chapter1.pdf

Heimer, K 2000, Changes in the Gender Gap in Crime and Women’s Economic Marginalization, Criminal Justice, vol. 1, pp. 427-483, viewed 27 December 2012, https://www.ncjrs.gov/criminal_justice2000/vol_1/02i.pdf

Monster 2003, film, Media 8 Entertainment, Florida, USA, viewed 20 December, 2012.

Steffensmeier, D J 1980, Sex Differences in Patterns of Adult Crime, 1965-77: A Review and Assessment, Social Forces, vol. 58, no. 4, pp. 1080-1108, The University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina, USA.

Van Wormer, K 2010, Working With Female Offenders, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, New Jersey, USA.

Widom, C S 2000, ‘Understanding the Consequences of Childhood Victimization’ in Reece, R M ed. 2000, Treatment of Child Abuse, The John Hopkins University Press, Maryland, USA.

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