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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Understanding Violence By Women: A Review of the Literature

Problems In Understanding Women's Violence

How do we understand violence by women?
Problems of sampling and method
Differing disciplinary focus
Individual pathology
Gender-blindness
Popular images of violent women

How do we understand violence by women?

Official statistics about crime, at the most, provide only a rough picture of the relative frequency of reported violent offences by women, the types of charges, the sentences given, and to some extent, trends over time. They are of little help in understanding that violence. Problems arising from differences in definitions of violence, the limitations of legal categories and the variety of behaviours they include have also been outlined earlier. There are, however, a number of additional problems which create particular obstacles to understanding women's violence. Many of these problems arise from a failure to understand or take account of gender. In relation to the interpretation of official statistics, for example, it cannot be assumed that they reflect the same experiences and processes for men and women. As was suggested over 25 years ago with regard to statistics on women's mental health, such statistics:

`do represent something which is real about the troubles which people have, but what is real cannot be separated from the professional and administrative operations which make those troubles actionable. These operations make-over, tidy-up, sort out and shape what is actually happening with people into recognizable forms. [This] eliminates the situational variations, the contexts, the actualities, the recurrent social conditions characteristic of a given community...' (Smith, 1975 p.102).

In relation to violent crimes Allen (1987) argues that reports to the court, which provide the basis for trial and sentence, provide limited and restricted accounts of the event, its history, or the intent of the offender. Explanations or accounts of violence, rarely include the offender's views.

 

Problems of sampling and method

A number of difficulties in interpreting studies of women's violence relate to sample selection and methods of data collection (Wilbanks 1982; Maden, Swinton & Gunn 1994). They are often based on highly selected or very small populations such as clinic patients, hospital patients, or prison samples convicted of unusual offences. While such problems also influence studies of men, since the number of women available for study is usually much lower than men, such accounts provide interesting, but hardly representative, information on women who use violence. Similar problems are found in the family violence literature.

Moreover, comparisons between men and women are confounded by differences in the way the genders are treated by the criminal justice system. For example, Allen (1987) has demonstrated that women who commit acts of violence are more likely than men to be diagnosed as mentally unfit, or diverted for psychiatric treatment rather than imprisoned. Similarly, different countries vary in their response to violence by women in family settings (Greenland 1987). Expectations of behaviour and responses to institutional violence would also appear to differ across genders (Mandaraka-Sheppard 1986).

 

Differing disciplinary focus

There are considerable difficulties arising from the way different academic disciplines explain and interpret violent behaviour. Sociologists, for example, consider the context and social meanings attached to violent events (Downes 1982). This includes the history or events leading up to a violent incident, and the interactions between the participants. Most other disciplines focus on characteristic of the individual. Biologists and physiologists often focus on genetic and hormonal explanations of violence. Some disciplines such as psychology and psychiatry, place an emphasis upon individual development or pathological characteristics as an explanation for violent incidents (eg. Brownstone & Swaminath 1989; Daniel, Robins, Reid and Wilfley, 1988). Psychologists often base their studies of violence on laboratory experiments which may have limited applicability to real life situations.

The problem for understanding women's violence is that much of this literature has been developed on the basis of studies of men, and generalized to, or excluded, women.

 

Individual pathology

Individually focussed approaches are not concerned with seeing violence within its social context, nor as situationally conditioned. While this creates problems for male violence too, its implications for women are far more extensive. A major criticism of such approaches is that they have tended to use sex-specific explanations of women's behaviour which are derived from a view of women as having particular feminine characteristics. Violent or aggressive behaviour among women is seen as unnatural and unfeminine and possibly indicative of mental instability. Sim (1990) has explored the development of medical and psychiatric explanations of women's offending and institutional behaviour. In relation to the psychiatric diagnosis of women offenders Chunn & Menzies (1994) argue:

`forensic decision-makers individualize and depoliticize deviance. In searching for causes, they recurrently ignore structural factors and locate the source of the deviance in the woman herself. (p. 412)

Dorothy Smith suggests that `psychiatric ideologies take behaviour and situation apart' (1975, p. 5).

The use of the Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) as an explanation for women's violence is a prime example of the individualization and medicalization of women's behaviour. Their violence is seen as driven by hormonal changes, irrational and emotional, and beyond the control of the individual woman. It has been argued that such diagnoses, while having the appearance of being objectively derived, are based upon male views of appropriate behaviour by women (Caplan 1991; Kendall 1991).

 

Gender-blindness

While sociological studies usually consider violence within the context in which it takes place, most studies of violent crime in the fields of criminology, sociology and social psychology have focussed on male violence and/or failed to consider the possibility that women and men experience and use violence for different reasons and under different circumstances. They have not considered that women's violence may result from rather different histories and contexts because of their gender (Heidensohn 1985).

Thus among those disciplines which have considered the context of violence, far from using gender-specific explanations for women's violence, there has often been an assumption that the use of violence is the same by men and women, that it is somehow `gender-blind' (Dougherty, 1993). This problem has been particularly characteristic of much family violence literature including child abuse, but also of comparative studies of male and female homicide, or institutional violence. Studies of women's violence have systematically failed to take account of the gendered differences in up-bringing patterns of men and women, in their learning patterns, in how they deal with and use anger, aggression and violence, and in their different access to power.

 

Popular images of violent women

A major problem arises from the difficulty which society as a whole, as well as academic disciplines, have in seeing violence or aggression, even anger, as part of the female character. Traditional stereotypes of women as nurturing, gentle, passive and submissive deny any possibility of aggression or violent behaviour as a natural female response. Women who are violent tend to be seen, therefore, as inadequate, unnaturally masculine, sick or even mad, if they trangress expected ways of behaving (Heidensohn 1985; Naffine 1987; Carlen 1988; Morris 1987; Rasche 1990; Faith 1993). This is particularly true of women who kill children, since the notion of women as nurturing is inextricably bound up with notions of women as mothers. As Morris and Wilczynski (1993) put it in their discussion of mothers who kill their children:

`violent women are usually presented [by criminologists] as `evil' - they have chosen to act in a way which contradicts traditional views of women; as `masculine -they are not `really' women; as `sad' - they could not cope with social pressures; or as `mad' - they did not know what they were doing.' (p. 199).

Such oversimplification of explanations of women's violence has limited our understanding (Simpson 1991; Naffine 1987; Shaw 1995).

The tendancy to see people as either masculine or feminine, to enforce gender stereotypes, leads to considerable problems for women offenders who do not fit comfortably into a feminine `role' (Carlen 1985; Cain 1989; Kersten 1990; Birch 1993; Faith 1993; Chunn & Menzies 1994). The media tend to divide women who commit violent crimes into victims or demons as Birch (1993) has shown. Women in prison experience the consequences of these gender stereotypes more than any others, and Faith (1993) shows how women's violence in prison is often equated with `masculinity'. Women can only be seen in relation to men.

From a feminist perspective - from an increasingly more accepted perspective - a real understanding of women's violence requires specific attention to be paid to the particular characteristics of the experience of women as women within society (Chesney-Lind 1989; Cain 1989; Dougherty, 1993) as well as the constraints imposed on them by class and racial factors, and to see their behaviour in context. Given the variety of behaviours which constitute `violence' and the gendered nature of socialization it makes little sense to talk about `violent women'.