Gendering Traditional Theories of Crime Research Paper

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The major theoretical paradigms in criminology developed with little to no consideration of sex or gender differences in offending. Insights from gender and feminist studies demonstrate, however, that ignoring sex and gender in explanations of crime is to the detriment of the field. In this essay, we discuss contributions of gender and feminist studies to criminology with an emphasis on gender research that developed within the major criminological paradigms as well as research that steps outside traditional paradigms to draw more explicitly from gender and feminist theory. These bodies of research have underscored the need to consider how gender influences male offending, female offending, and the gender gap in offending through shaping power arrangements, opportunities, definitions of the sexes, and identities. We propose that one of the most promising directions for future work in criminology lies in further integration of traditional criminological perspectives with emerging work on offending rooted in feminist paradigms and not yet integrated with some of the core insights from theories of offending.


Research consistently demonstrates that males commit more crime than females. Perhaps because of the persistent gender gap in crime, the major criminological paradigms developed with little concern for understanding female offending. Indeed, early work often ignored females altogether or focused on explaining sex differences in behavior, but did not incorporate gender as a social process that might explain sex differences and similarities in criminal involvement. Insights from gender and feminist studies, however, have shown that ignoring gender prohibits full understanding of the sources not only of female offending but also of male offending and of the gender gap in offending.

In this research paper, we discuss the contributions of gender and feminist studies to the major criminological paradigms – control, strain, and learning. In doing so, we discuss research that demonstrates that the variables and processes specified in traditional criminological theories are shaped by gender in ways that contribute to the gender gap in crime. Simply emphasizing that gender shapes these variables and processes, however, proves insufficient for understanding the social forces contributing to the gender gap in crime. As such, we highlight work that has drawn more heavily on feminist theorizing and gender studies to introduce new variables and processes – for example, power arrangements, gendered opportunities and constraints, and cultural meanings of gender – to traditional criminological theories. We maintain that these lines of work underscore limitations in traditional theories and suggest avenues for the expansion of criminological theory that are important not only for understanding the gender gap in offending but for understanding crime generally. We also discuss research on gender and crime that departs from traditional criminological theory to focus on relationships between masculinities, femininities, and intersectionalities and crime. This work has made important contributions to criminology beyond what has been achieved by work focused on traditional theories of crime. It is our view that more theorizing and research must integrate new gendered insights into traditional perspectives to provide more thorough understanding of the structural and social-psychological processes leading to male offending, female offending, the gender gap in offending, and gender/race/class differences in offending.

Theorizing Gender Vis-Vis Traditional Theories Of Crime And Delinquency

Early theorizing in criminology provided only cursory explanations for the gender gap in illegality, positing that females have either less exposure to the processes and variables in traditional theories that promote illegal behavior or more exposure to those that control such behavior (Sutherland 1947; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Some scholars have demonstrated that the concepts from traditional theories have gender-differentiated effects on crime and delinquency, proposing that these differences are linked to gendered processes that have remained largely unmeasured and undertheorized (e.g., LaGrange and Silverman 1999; Broidy 2001; Lonardo et al. 2009). There, of course, have been some important advances within each of the criminological traditions – control, strain, and learning – that have drawn heavily from feminist theory and gender studies (Hagan et al. 1987; Chesney-Lind 1989; Heimer 1996; Heimer and De Coster 1999). We discuss the development of each of these traditions and the contributions of feminist and gender studies to these traditions below.

Control Theories

According to control theories of crime, everyone would be tempted to break the law in the absence of social constraints. The prime focus in this category of theory, therefore, is not why people commit crime but why they refrain from illegal behavior. The most prominent perspectives in this tradition – Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory and Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory – were not formulated to address the role of gender differences in offending, although some research has moved in this direction. The power-control theory of Hagan and colleagues (1987), for example, was specifically formulated to address gender and sex differences in offending and, in so doing, contributed importantly to criminological thinking.

Briefly, Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory suggests that bonds to society – attachment to conventional others, commitment to conventional pursuits, involvement in conventional activities, and belief in the single moral order – effectively explain offending regardless of the sex of the offender. Scholars subsequently have suggested that the process of social bonding may be gendered. For example, drawing on feminist theory about relationships to others, some scholars posit that females develop stronger attachments to others and that this is associated with lower rates of female than male offending (e.g., Heimer 1996). Although some scholarship concludes that family bonds influence female and male delinquency similarly (e.g., Kruttschnitt and Giordano 2009), other research supports the proposition that the process of bonding through attachments to others is gendered (e.g., Heimer and De Coster 1999). Additional research supports a gendered bonding perspective, reporting that conventional beliefs control delinquency more strongly for females than for males (Liu and Kaplan 1999). This research generally suggests that understanding sex differences in crime and delinquency may require thinking conceptually about gender and moving beyond the original statements of social control theory.

The same is true in the case of research based on Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory. Proposed to be gender neutral, the theory posits that sex differences in low self-control – typified by impulsiveness, thrill-seeking, and an inability to delay gratification – are the primary cause of gender differences in law violation.

More specifically, sex differences in offending result from the fact that females acquire higher levels of self-control because parents are more likely to monitor and punish misbehavior in daughters than sons (e.g., LaGrange and Silverman 1999). These differences established early in life are presumed to persist into adulthood. Beyond this, researchers have not often explored the possibility that the effect of self-control on illegality can vary across sex or that the processes of self-control may in fact be gendered. Pratt and Cullen’s (2000) metaanalysis indicates, however, that the effect size of self-control is larger for females than for males. Theoretical discussion of the gendered reasons for such a difference has been minimal to date. This may reflect the fact that the theory is intended to be general and hence, in effect, gender neutral.

By contrast, power-control theory, developed by Hagan and his colleagues (Hagan et al. 1987), maintains that understanding sex differences in law violation requires a perspective that focuses explicitly on gendered power structures and control processes that relay gendered messages within families. Specifically, power-control theory maintains that gender differences in the control of sons and daughters, via emotional attachments and supervision, can be traced to power relations between mothers and fathers (Hagan et al. 1987). When fathers experience greater power than mothers in the workplace, this is said to translate into greater paternal than maternal power in the home (patriarchal households). When fathers and mothers have equal power in the workplace, they share more or less equally in power in the home (egalitarian households). These power dynamics shape the relative control of daughters and sons, through supervision and emotional attachments, which influences risk preferences and perceptions among boys and girls. These processes ultimately create a sex gap in delinquency that is larger in patriarchal households than in egalitarian households. In more recent formulations of the theory, risk orientations have been replaced with discussions of gender schemas related to appropriate behaviors and characteristics of the sexes (Hagan et al. 2004). Empirically, research has supported the prediction that the sex gap in delinquency is larger in patriarchal families than in more egalitarian families because of gender differentiated social control, gendered orientations toward risk, and gender schemas (e.g., Hagan et al. 1987, 2004). While some research fails to replicate some of these findings (e.g., Jensen and Thompson 1990), power-control theory has received a good deal of empirical support. This support demonstrates that traditional control perspectives that fail to consider the way in which gendered power structures shape controls and gendered messages within families offer an incomplete portrayal of the structural and social-psychological roots of law violation among both males and females.

Strain Theories

Strain theories maintain that crime is not an innate characteristic of individuals and instead focus on the social factors that promote offending. A central tenet of these perspectives is that illegality results from failure to achieve positively valued goals. Classic strain explanations focused on failure to achieve economicor class-based status goals (e.g., Merton 1938; Cloward and Ohlin 1960), which some argue renders them entirely ineffective for explicating the sex gap in offending since females face more structural barriers to success in the economic realm than males (Chesney-Lind 1989). However, macro- and microlevel reformulations of strain theory coupled with insights from feminist and gender studies address this gendered challenge.

At the macrolevel, gender researchers have drawn on Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) extension of anomie/strain theory to emphasize that blocked legitimate opportunities do not always result in illegality because people also face barriers to economic success in the illegitimate world of crime. For instance, Steffensmeier (1983) proposes that the petty, nonserious, and non-lucrative nature of female crime can be explained largely by the fact that male-dominated illegal networks exclude or restrict women from organized criminal enterprises. This theme is one that finds prominence also in ethnographic work on economic street crimes, including robbery, burglary, and drug-trafficking (Miller 1986, 2001; Maher 1997 ; Mullins and Wright 2003). These studies demonstrate that the illegal activities associated with the highest pay, power, and status are largely the domain of males who have access to male-dominated street networks that operate to limit female participation in the most lucrative criminal enterprises in the streets. Daly’s (1989) research shows that this pattern of exclusion applies also to white-collar crimes where women’s opportunities are restricted by their occupational positions and limited access to both organizational resources and maledominated criminal networks. Although these studies are not situated specifically in the strain tradition, they speak to strain theories by highlighting the importance of gender in shaping opportunities and constraints in the illegitimate world of crime. More generally, they demonstrate that understanding differences in crime across broad categories of not only gender but also of age, class, and race may require consideration of illegitimate opportunities that often are made accessible through social networks that tend toward homosocial reproduction.

At the microlevel, Agnew (2006) broadens the scope of crime producing strains beyond the economic realm by considering goals related to the pursuit of meaning, interpersonal relationships, and a desire for justice. His general strain theory posits that failure to achieve these goals produces negative emotions that promote crime when individuals lack social supports and legitimate coping resources.

In a gendered extension of this theory, Broidy and Agnew (1997) propose that gender socialization shapes the variables in general strain theory in ways that are relevant for understanding the gender gap in illegality. Specifically, they posit that the types of strains to which males and females are exposed, their emotional responses to these strains, and their coping mechanisms (including social support) are shaped by gender. For instance, they draw on feminist work to suggest that males and females experience different types of strains because they have genderdifferentiated goals; females focus on maintaining relationships, nurturance, and the treatment of others in interaction, whereas males focus on goals related to economic success, personal achievement, and the outcomes of interaction. They propose that the genderdifferentiated strains experienced by males and females are relevant for understanding the gender gap in offending because male-typical strains may be more conducive to illegality than female-typical strains. For instance, the maletypical strains of failure to achieve economic goals and criminal victimization are conducive to property and violent offending, respectively. Female-typical strains are less conducive to illegal behavior because such behavior often harms others or damages social relationships. Although research supports the notion that strains align with gender-differentiated goals, there is little evidence that male-typical strains are more likely than female-typical strains to produce crime and delinquency (see Agnew 2006).

Emotional responses to strain have been shown to be gendered in ways consistent with Broidy and Agnew’s (1997) proposition that males and females both experience anger, but they do so in ways that are qualitatively distinct. That is, both males and females respond to strain with anger (Broidy 2001). However, female anger is more likely than male anger to be accompanied by depression, which Broidy and Agnew (1997) suggest tempers the impact of anger on their offending. This claim is not supported by empirical research, however (De Coster and Zito 2010). The proposition that coping and social support resources more effectively buffer the impact of strain on illegal behaviors among females than males also has not been supported empirically (see Agnew 2006).

Overall, strains and emotions are gendered in ways consistent with Broidy and Agnew’s (1997) propositions. Empirical evidence indicates, however, that the gendering of strains and emotions is fairly unimportant for understanding the gender gap in offending. Instead, gender differences appear to emerge because males are more likely than females to respond to strain and negative emotions through illegal behaviors, suggesting that more emphasis should be placed on understanding the gendered messages males and females learn about appropriate methods for dealing with strain and expressing negative emotions.

The significance of Broidy and Agnew’s (1997) research for understanding female offending may lay in the attention it draws to strains outside of the economic sphere. This insight has been at the center of some feminist research that focuses on physical and sexual abuse at the hands of family members as particularly relevant for understanding female crime because females are more likely than males to be the victims of such abuse in patriarchal society (see Chesney-Lind 1989). A common coping strategy for dealing with abuse at home – running away – has been criminalized, leading young girls to the criminal justice system or to the streets, where their opportunities for survival are limited, as discussed above. Given that females are valued as sexual objects in patriarchal society, prostitution becomes a viable survival strategy for these girls even though this strategy would be largely unavailable to similarly situated boys (Miller 1986; Chesney-Lind 1989). Although research shows that males and females are equally likely to respond to family abuse with delinquency (see Kruttschnitt and Giordano 2009), the theme underlying this work is that exposure to abuse, the types of abuse to which youths are exposed, and the reasons for abuse may be intimately informed by power relations in patriarchal society. That is, these studies highlight the importance of focusing on the unique problems and circumstances that lead females into crime and delinquency because they lead lives markedly different from males in patriarchal society. We believe this insight also highlights the importance of considering the ways in which patriarchy uniquely shapes males’ lives in ways that may make them particularly crimeprone (e.g., Messerschmidt 1993).

Learning Theories

Learning theories contend that crime is motivated by social factors but move away from an emphasis on blocked goals and stressful circumstances to focus on the socialization and interactional processes by which individuals develop and internalize attitudes, behavior patterns, and definitions of situations that promote offending. The original statement of learning theory was Sutherland’s differential association theory (Sutherland 1947), which was later reformulated as social learning theory (see Akers 1998). As with other traditional theories of crime, learning theories were not formulated to address sex differences in offending; however, because they focus on differences across groups in orientations toward crime and deviance, even the earliest versions included discussion of differences in the socialization experiences of females and males that are linked to differences in law violation (Sutherland 1947: 100–101). Following this observation, research on the gender gap has explored the ways that sex and gender shape the form and content of learning and interactions that lead to offending. The addition of concepts from feminist theory to this tradition emphasizes an important dimension of gender in society that has not been addressed in traditional learning theories – cultural definitions of gender, which like definitions of law are learned in interactions (e.g., Heimer and De Coster 1999).

A major tenet of learning theories of crime is that people learn definitions and behavior patterns that are both favorable and unfavorable to law violation in interactions with others; when a person’s definitions and behavior patterns favorable to offending are in excess, law violation is likely to occur (Sutherland 1947; Akers 1998). Factors that affect interactional patterns – like sex and gender – can be expected to shape learning about crime and delinquency. Research shows that, regardless of sex, people learn law violation from interacting with criminal peers (e.g., Smith and Paternoster 1987) and deviant families (Lonardo et al. 2009). In terms of sex differences, research on juvenile delinquency shows that boys break the law more often than girls in part because boys have more deviant friends and, in some cases, because the impact (i.e., size of the effect) of peer influence is larger for boys (e.g., Heimer and De Coster 1999; Bottcher 2001).

Heimer’s (1996; Heimer and De Coster 1999) reformulation of traditional differential association theory draws on the feminist argument that, traditionally, females have been more encouraged than males to focus on care, concern, and the maintenance of interpersonal relationships. Their research shows that close relationships with parents are more important for learning delinquent definitions among females and that a more direct parental control – supervision – is more relevant for boys’ learning. These findings suggest that gender differences in learning crime cannot be understood in terms of only male-female differences in levels of supervisions and control, as emphasized by Sutherland (1947); rather, theory and research must also recognize that there are significant differences across sex in the mechanisms through which social groups (e.g., parents) communicate and affect the learning of definitions of crime and delinquency.

In addition, Heimer and De Coster (1999) maintain that it is not enough to consider the learning of definitions of the law; theory and research must also recognize that in genderstratified societies, people are surrounded by strong cultural definitions of gender that become internalized and operate alongside definitions of the law to influence crime and delinquency. Because the dominant or hegemonic cultural definitions of femininity are more inconsistent with harming others (e.g., through theft or aggression) than are dominant definitions of masculinity, gender definitions would seem to be important for understanding criminal behavior. Indeed, research has shown that traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity are important for understanding aggression and law violation (e.g., Simpson and Elis 1995; Heimer and De Coster 1999; Bottcher 2001). As such, learning theories cannot be limited to a focus on the cultural product of definitions of the law but also must acknowledge the role of definitions of gender.

Gender Studies, Feminist Theory, And Explanations Of Offending

Other research on gender and crime – that is not clearly associated with the three dominant traditions in criminology – also emphasizes the importance of cultural definitions of gender for understanding crime. However, this work stresses the need to consider how race, class, gender, and sexuality shape persons experiences and definitions of gender in ways that deepen our understanding of law violation. We maintain that these developing lines of study are becoming important not for simply understanding gender differences but also for understanding variability in crime and violence among males and among females (De Coster and Heimer 2006).

There is a growing body of research that highlights the importance of hegemonic gender definitions – or culturally dominant ideals about gender. This work draws inspiration from gender studies, especially the theorizing of Connell (1995), which argues that societal definitions of masculinities represent a power hierarchy, with hegemonic masculinities being the idealized masculinity that is accessible to members of powerful groups, such as heterosexual white men from the middle and upper classes. By contrast, marginalized masculinity is constructed by members of oppressed groups as they try to navigate their disadvantages in terms of resources and power. The reaction of marginalized groups to hegemonic masculinity – unattainable to men who cannot demonstrate masculinity via legitimate avenues – can involve the use of violence and crime (e.g., Mullins et al. 2004). Messerschmidt (1993) argues that, over time, violence can become an accepted way to claim masculinity in communities that experience persistent blockage of legitimate avenues for “doing gender”. In these settings, men can become culturally accountable to marginalized definitions of masculinity that are characterized by competition through the show of physical power, heterosexuality, and the use of violence (e.g., Mullins et al. 2004; Miller 2008).

Consistent with this, sociological studies suggest that claiming masculinity in extremely disadvantaged urban communities can require demonstrating “nerve” in various ways, including “throwing the first punch, getting in someone’s face, or pulling the trigger” (Anderson 1999: 92). Research shows that these conceptualizations of masculinity have important implications for understanding law violation, including street crime and violence against women (e.g., Messerschmidt 1993; Mullins et al. 2004; Miller 2008). Although not born of traditional criminological theory, this line of work has very important implications for understanding variability in offending among males and across groups at different junctures of societal power. While it is clearly important for illuminating the “gender gap,” research and theorizing on masculinities and offending has a good deal to offer to criminology generally – even to research that does not address sex differences. In short, it shows that “gender matters,” in that constructing masculinities is a part of daily life that has implications for crime among men.

What has been less well developed is the relationship between femininities and offending. Some research proposes that normative conceptions of femininity are relatively incompatible with crime and violence (e.g., Simpson and Elis 1995; Heimer and De Coster 1999). This logic, however, has not accounted for variations in femininities but has focused on what gender studies scholars like Connell (1995) call “emphasized” or dominant femininities, which are most accessible to white, middle-class women (see Hill Collins 2004). These dominant femininities – which are inconsistent with the use of crime and violence to solve problems – support hegemonic masculinities and are sometimes not a cultural option for displaying gender among minority and poor women (Simpson 1991; Hill Collins 2004). Consequently, some researchers stress the need to focus on alternative forms of femininities that are more conducive to violence than the hegemonic form, resulting in discussions of “pariah” (Schippers 2007), “bad girl” (Messerschmidt 1997), and “racialized” (Hill Collins 2004) femininities.

Others suggest that females who break the law are not enacting alternative femininities but may be enacting masculinities or using law violation to protect feminine identities (Miller 2001). Indeed, ethnographic studies indicate that females in economically marginalized communities, like males, use violence instrumentally to garner respect and protect identities and reputations. Unlike males, who often are protecting identities as tough and masculine, females more often use violence to defend themselves against threats to their respectability or reputations as “respectable girls” (Miller 2001, 2008; Miller and Mullins 2006; Mullins et al. 2004). Additionally, it has been suggested that crime and violence by females can be a reaction to men displaying masculinity. For example, girls in gangs may act tough to avoid victimization (Miller 2001, 2008), and women may retaliate with violence and other crimes in response to prior and present abuse at the hands of men (Maher 1997). These examples may well be reactions to dangerous environments shaped by patriarchal power structures and not the enactment of hegemonic or alternative femininities.

Generally, there appear to be a variety of mechanisms through which gendered structures and identities influence crime and violence among females. Further articulation of these mechanisms is an important endeavor for the criminological community because theory and research on multiple masculinities and femininities may be particularly well suited for explicating the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect in the production of race-class-gender patterns of offending (De Coster and Heimer 2006).


This research shows that the variables and processes identified as important in the etiology of offending are gendered in ways that contribute to the sex gap in offending. This, of course, marks an important contribution to the understanding of crime and the sex gap in crime; however, a more comprehensive understanding of criminality by males and females requires consideration of variables and processes rooted specifically in gendered arrangements which have been highlighted in feminist and gender studies.

Researchers have incorporated feminist and gender studies into each of the theoretical traditions discussed, demonstrating the utility of wedding traditional criminology with gender and feminist insights by uncovering structural and social-psychological sources of offending by males and females that are shaped by gender – for example, power arrangements, illegitimate opportunities, and cultural definitions of gender – and that heretofore had been de-emphasized or ignored altogether (Hagan et al. 1987, 2004; Chesney-Lind 1989; Heimer and De Coster 1999). These feminist-informed studies are important not only for having reoriented traditional theories of crime but also for having laid the groundwork for the evolution of research on crime rooted more squarely in feminist and gender studies paradigms. This research, though not rooted in traditional criminology, proves promising for pushing traditional criminology forward as it becomes more fully incorporated into general theories of offending.

An important corrective to traditional criminology derived from emerging feminist scholarship on crime is that biological sex and gender socialization should be decoupled to allow for an emphasis on variations in gendered power, identities, and definitions within sex that give rise to offending differences within sex groups. Gender and feminist studies do not simply contribute to our understanding of the gender gap in crime; they significantly expand our understanding of the causes of crime. What we have learned is that even studies of male crime, for instance, are incomplete without consideration of how gender shapes everyday life. The incorporation of this insight into understanding crime is likely to be at the heart also of understanding variations in offending across groups and individuals situated at various junctures in race, class, and gender hierarchies (see De Coster and Heimer 2006).

An essential direction for future work in criminology lies in the integration of traditional criminological perspectives with emerging work on offending rooted in feminist paradigms. Miller and Mullins (2006) recently advised that the most promising direction for the future of feminist criminology resides in work that enriches its analyses of the gendered lives of males and females with work from the broader field of criminology. We add to this that the most promising direction for the future of criminological endeavors generally resides in drawing further insights from feminist studies that underscore the importance of considering how gender structures everyday life.


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