Complexities of Gender in Relation to Crime and Punishment

face of a prisoner

The complexities of gender in relation to crime and punishment can be distracting, confusing, and disturbing. Recent scholarship has shown that in Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the ratio of men to women implicated in crime was not uncommonly about or below two men per woman.^ The ratio of men to women tended to be higher for violent crimes against the person than for property crimes. For example, in Surry, England, between 1663 and 1802, the ratio of men to women formally charged with assault and wounding was about four men per woman.^ In Cheshire, England, from the 1590s to the 1660s, the sex ratio of defendants in formally adjudicated cases of non-lethal violence against persons was similarly about four men per woman. While non-lethal violence does not cause death, it should be considered serious. In interpreting the Cheshire sex ratio for non-lethal violence, a female scholar attacked still-prevalent stereotyping of women:

Evidence for how women fought does not support a view that women’s behaviour was characterised by weakness and passivity. … Women, like men, spurned, trod, kicked, pulled and pushed, struck on the face and body, pulled head-hair, and threw opponents to the ground and objects at opponents. …In general, women, like men, armed themselves with whatever was to hand: any household or agricultural tool, stones; one woman even threw boiling water in the face of a man who came to collect a debt.^

The evidence from Cheshire shows that nearly three-quarters of the victims of female violence were men. Moreover, cultural norms probably depressed the number of formally adjudicated cases of female violence against men:

male victims tended to downplay women’s physical prowess and to highlight alternative forms of feminine disorder, such as abusive words. … Regardless of actual bodily harm, men situated injuries inflicted by women not on their biological bodies but on their households (family members, livestock, goods, land, dwelling-house), clothing, or other symbols of status and honour.^

Women’s violence against men tended to be presented as comical so as to “deny the seriousness of feminine force” and “inject derision into accounts of female aggression.”^

Anti-men gender bias affects reported violence. For example, a recent book-length study of homicide and gender in Victorian England judged:

almost all {of wives’} violence against husbands was retaliatory in nature, and arguably meriting substantially less punishment than violence against wives.^

Thorough immersion in Victorian ideals, as well as keen sense for his readers’ biases, apparently provided the foundation for these judgments of historically distant cases. Anti-men gender animus is now astonishingly pervasive in scholarly work on domestic violence. From a long-run historical perspective, the ratio of men per women among persons that participated in violent acts against other persons is difficult to ascertain apart from distant records created in the administration of criminal justice. The anti-men gender norms that have guided that administration of criminal justice probably imply that the ratio of men per woman participating in violent acts was less than those records indicate.

The relationship between criminal records and suffering under punishment is not simple. Persons who have committed crimes, persons suspected of crime, persons arrested, persons in different positions in judicial processes, persons sentenced to punishment, and persons actually punished are related groups but also significantly different. For example, among men and women formally sentenced to death for property offenses in London from 1690 to 1750, only 46% of the men and 22% of the women were actually executed.^ In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in regions near London, about 30% of men and 10% of women sentenced to death were actually hung. In London itself during that period, about 22% of men and 2% of women sentenced to death were executed.^ Major English courts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries seemed to treat female defendants more leniently than male defendants across stages in criminal justice processing.^ In the U.S. today, the ratio to men to women likewise increases across the criminal justice funnel from arrest to being in prison.

Involvement in the criminal justice system is not the same as suffering under punishment. Measures of involvement in the criminal justice system are many and complex. Analyzing gender and punishment can become so distracting and confusing that thinkers lose compassion for the vast majority of persons suffering under punishment. A better way is to seek deep, personal awareness of those who are absent in punishment.

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