Correctional Service Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Common menu bar links

Women Offender Programs and Issues

Warning This Web page has been archived on the Web.

Understanding Violence By Women: A Review of the Literature

Explanations Of Violent Behaviour By Women

Explaining women's aggression
Experiencing violence
Moving from victim to offender
Alcohol and drugs
Summary

As the previous section suggests, explanations for violence vary considerably between disciplines. The literature focusses variously on the links between aggression, anger and physical violence, the predisposing and individual factors, social and economic factors, and situational factors (eg. Geen 1990; Reiss and Roth 1993). It has been concerned almost exclusively with explaining male violence.

Psychosocial explanations tend to stress that aggression and violence are learned behaviours in response to frustration, to achieve goals, and by observation of violent behaviour (Boyd, 1988; Reiss and Roth 1993). They point to personality factors, cognitive learning skills, socialization, early child development, and to broader social and cultural factors such as poverty and race, and the role of predisposing factors, situational factors and activating factors.

There has been, however, an increasing recognition of the need to consider situational and environmental factors and their interaction with personal factors, rather than just personality characteristics or demographic factors (Goldstein & Keller 1983). Reiss & Roth (1993 p. 34) similarly stress that `awareness of the diversity of violence and the complexity of its causes expands awareness of opportunities for intervention.' Felson & Tedeschi (1993) outline a promising `social-interactionist' approach to aggression and violence which emphasises the interaction between situation and interpersonal characteristics, as well as the meaning of the events for those involved. They do not consider how this relates to women's violence. Thomas (1993) in a study of women's use of anger rather than violence similarly suggests that no single theory can ever be satisfactory and notes the move towards more integrative theories which recognize the importance of cognitive processes and the personal meanings attached to events.

Almost the only explanations which have traditionally been used to explain women's violent crime are biological. Such explanations have continued to stress hormonal factors and PMS (d'Orban & Dalton 1980; Mazur 1983; Taylor 1984). As indicated in the previous section, a number of critiques have argued against the validity of the classification of PMS as a mental disorder, that there is little empirical evidence which supports the association with crime including violence, and that it reduces women's behaviour to `irrational' emotions and raging hormones, rather than other explanations for their anger or violence (see Kendall 1991 for a review; Campbell 1993; Faith 1993). As Kendall (1991) notes:

`Individual women, rather than the fundamental structures of existing institutions which produce feelings of anger, frustration, loneliness and powerlessness become the focus of inquiry. The prescribed change is individual change rather than social change.'(p. 91)

Similarly, violent crimes by women have been explained at the court level in terms of mental instability, personality disorder, psychosis, or character defect (Allen 1987; Sim 1990).

 

Explaining women's aggression

`Differences in socialization inputs for each sex are dramatic with regard to anger and aggression.' (Lerner 1985 p. 52).

In recent years there has been an increasing focus on trying to understand and explain women's anger, aggression and violence, rather than violence in general, or as a primarily male activity. While the outward expression or result of violence by men and women may be apparently similar, the meaning of that anger is seen as very different, resulting from a different pattern of upbringing, a different chain of factors leading up to it, and different reactions to its use by both the user and observers. Much of this work has focussed on women in everyday situations, and in relationships (eg. Lerner, 1985; Tavris, 1989; Thomas, 1993) and stresses the crucial importance of socialization and upbringing patterns.

In a wide-ranging study of women's use of anger in everyday situations Thomas (1993) notes that much prior work on the origins of anger is based on male populations and on experiments under laboratory conditions, and has failed to take account of even the basic differences in the ways men and women express anger.

As Lerner points out (1985 p.1) `Women...have long been discouraged from the awareness and forthright expression of anger.' Stanko (1990, p.10) argues that `men manage danger quite differently from women', `they learn to negotiate physical danger, usually in the company of other men' as they accumulate experience in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. A few writers have considered the implications of these different patterns of socialization for women offenders (Darke, 1987; Campbell, 1993).

For the past twenty years the psychologist Anne Campbell has focussed on women's use of aggression, initially in trying to understand the aggressive behaviour of women prisoners and delinquent girls. The interesting question for her has become, not why do a very small number of women commit violent crimes, but `how do most women avoid fighting?' (p.2). In Men, Women, and Aggression (1993) which brings together much of the psychological literature on sex differences as well as her own work, she outlines some of the major ways in which men and women understand and use anger and aggression, by recognizing the gendered nature of their expression and origins. She argues that for men aggression is `a means of exerting control over other people when they feel the need to reclaim power or self-esteem'. For women it is `a temporary loss of control caused by overwhelming pressure and resulting in guilt' (p. viii). For women it is a failure of self-control, for men a means of imposing control and one which rarely results in guilt.

Formal psychological theories, Campbell argues, have always competed to establish a single theory of aggression, but it should now be acknowledged that separate theories are necessary to explain men's and women's aggression. Thus in tracing some of the psychological and sociological explanations for aggression she distinguishes between men's aggression as instrumental - a means for imposing control over others, and women's aggression as expressive - a release of accumulated tension.

Expressive theories of aggression - whether psychological or sociological - usually focus on socialization factors and the developments of social or personal controls over our basic instincts, or the fear of punishment if we fail to curb them. We are taught to restrain our instincts and to develop self-control. Instrumental theories by contrast imply that people use aggression not because they loose control, because of the clear benefits it offers. These may include social rewards such as respect, a bolstering of self-image, or material rewards. Such instrumental aggression has been described as `coercive power - the use of threats or punishments to gain compliance and to have demands met, whether they be for money, sexual gratification or political change' (Campbell 1993 p. 13).

The process by which women and men come to understand aggression, Campbell argues, is based on everyday theories or `social representations' which guide our perception of aggressive behaviour (women seeing it as stressful or unpleasant, men as a challenge) how we feel about it (fear versus outrage) and how we behave (crying, yelling or throwing things versus attacking a challenger). These social representations are learned and reinforced throughout life, in very different ways for men and women.

Early child studies suggest that there is very little difference between the anger and aggressive tendencies of male and female infants, but as they grow older and begin to recognize their gender identity they are socialized in different ways. Thus from childhood boys are taught when and how to use aggression, while girls are taught to suppress it:

`The most remarkable thing about the socialization of aggression in girls is its absence. Girls do not learn the right way to express aggression; they simply learn not to express it.' (Campbell p.20)

Boys on the other hand witness aggression and fighting from an early age, and while they may initially be discouraged from using it, it becomes a major experience of testing and standing up for themselves - aggression and toughness are seen as an essential part of manhood, one which is reinforced by adults around them as well as by the surrounding culture. `What is called "strength of character" in boys is called "unfeminine" in girls. (Symonds quoted in Lerner, 1985).

In analysing women's day-to-day experiences of anger and aggression

Campbell shows how expressive aggression develops from a control of initial anger, through periods of argument or crying which may relieve the anger if the situation improves, but which can build up to the use of physical aggression if the problem continues or increases - an explosion which again acts as a means of release. The final stage is one of guilt or embarrassment at the outburst, which, if it is witnessed, will also be subject to public censure.

ANGER > CRYING > PHYSICAL > GUILT
+

restraint and self- control


arguing gives sense of release
aggressioin if frustration continues or increases
embarassment

result

`Women cry rather than hit not because of their hormones, their reinforcement history, or their role as carers but because they see aggression as a personal failure...' (Campbell 1993 p.85)

By contrast, accounts of men's experience of aggression show that it is more likely to be in a public setting, to be within a group, to act as a reinforcement of their masculinity and self-worth, and to be justified and glorified `as an adult extension of the routine physical encounters of boyhood' (Campbell,1993 p. 66; Stanko, 1990). Such an analysis of the role of aggression for men, particularly in terms of bolstering self-worth, is also stressed by Hans Toch (1969, 1994) in his classic studies of violence in men's prisons, and by James Gilligan (1992) on the basis of 25 year's experience working in a men's maximum security institution and prison hospital.

What is central to much of this analysis of women's behaviour is the self-control which women use to contain anger and aggression. Studies of everyday anger indicate that men and women both report episodes of feeling angry with the same frequency, yet among women these are less likely to develop into aggression. In addition, however, men are able to use aggression without feeling angry. Rape and robbery Campbell suggests, two crimes committed almost always by men, are two examples of aggressive behaviour which is not usually associated with anger.

Women's capacity to empathise would appear to be one of the major explanations for the guilt women experience when they are angry or aggressive. Empathy is also one of the factors seen as central to therapies for controlling aggression, and an important dimension of the notion of antisocial personality among violent offenders.

Both Campbell and Lerner are clear in pointing out that within genders there are also wide differences in personality and upbringing which will lead to greater or lesser propensity to experience anger and to act aggressively. It is also recognized that both men and women may, at times, use aggression or violence instrumentally and expressively. Nevertheless, it is the constant reinforcement of men's and women's ways of behaving which help to maintain these very different social representations of anger and aggression.

 

Experiencing violence

What are the implications of men's greater ease with and use of aggression for women? Women are at much greater risk than men from violence in their daily lives from partners, acquaintances, friends, at home and in the workplace. They are at greater risk of physical and sexual violence from men they know. As children girls are more likely to be sexually abused than boys (Reiss and Roth 1993).

One of the `commonsense' views about violence is that experiencing it will lead to the subsequent use of violence. In an extensive review of the literature on childhood abuse and its links with subsequent delinquency, aggression, violence and abuse Widom (1989a & b) has established that this is not inevitable. Not all those who have experienced violence or sexual abuse as children will necessarily use it themselves against others. She concludes:

`Being abused as a child may increase one's risk of becoming an abusive parent, delinquent, or an adult violent criminal. However, on the basis of the findings from the existing research literature, it cannot be said that the pathway is straight or certain.' (Widom 1989a p. 24).

In a subsequent study of the links between child abuse and neglect and adult criminal behaviour (1989b) she was also able to show that for both men and women such a background did influence the chances of adult offending, but that it had a greater effect on women since they generally have very low rates of offending:

`experiencing early child abuse or neglect has a substantial impact on individuals with little likelihood of engaging in officially recorded adult criminal behaviour.' (p. 265)

She was also able to show that men (but not women) with a history of childhood abuse were also more likely to be convicted of violent offences than those without such a history. Among women such a history is also associated with a higher incidence of depression, and psychiatric treatment (Widom 1989b). Thus while it is evident that violence is common in the lives of many women in society, subsequent violent or offending behaviour is not inevitable.

When we consider those women who do come into conflict with the law, however, there is clear evidence of considerable experience of violence either in childhood or as adults. In Canada this has been found among women in federal and provincial prison populations, as well as women under community supervision (Comack, 1993; Shaw 1991b, 1994).

 

Moving from victim to offender

Many recent studies have traced the links between moving from victimized or defender status to that of offender or victimizer among women offenders (Chesney-Lind, 1989; Arnold, 1990; Gilfus, 1992; Higgs, Canavan & Meyer, 1992). In an American study Gilfus (1992) argues that economic, social and political marginality help to account for the fact that there is an overlap between being a victim of violence and being convicted for a violent offence:

`The process of criminalization for women is indeed intricately connected to women's subordinate position in society where victimization by violence coupled with economic marginality related to race, class and gender all too often blur the boundaries between victims and offenders.' (p 86).

Exploring the links between being victimized, surviving, and becoming criminalized, she found that most of the women prisoners in her study had left home to escape from physical or sexual abuse, turned to illegal activites including prostitution in order to survive, and were in turn further victimized by friends, clients, pimps, drug pushers and the police.

`When women have been violated and exploited as harshly and as often as the women in this study, one must ask how these experiences of violence affect women's development and women's moral orientation to the world. When extreme victimization is accompanied by poverty and racial discrimination, women may have very few options for survival by legal avenues and may find a sense of belonging and relational committment in the world of street crime when it is unattainable elsewhere.' (Gilfus, 1992 p.86).

Thus among women who enter the justice system the experience of violence in everyday situations is more common among some groups than others. Women from poorer social and economic backgrounds are likely to experience more violence on a daily basis than others, as are racial minorities. This may be from partners and friends, as well as from acquaintances and clients in working and street transactions. And apart from childhood experiences of violence, prostitution, alcohol and drugs all place women involved in such activities at far greater risk of violence than others.

 

Alcohol and drugs

The role of substance abuse in aggression and violence is central, in terms of increasing aggressive reactions and lowering inhibitions (Reiss and Roth 1993). Maden, Swinton and Gunn (1994a) note a higher incidence of substance abuse problems in England and Wales among female than male prison populations (22% and 10% respectively). Brownstein et al., (1994) on the basis of a small group of women serving sentences for murder or manslaughter in New York State point to the prevalence of substance abuse as a major factor in their offences, as do other American studies of women charged with murder (Goetting 1987; Mann 1990a). Steffensmeier (1995) notes that a higher proportion of women prisoners than men committed their offences under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Substance abuse among women federal offenders has been extensively reviewed by Lightfoot and Lambert (1991) and by Kendall (1993) but not in terms of its links to violent behaviour. Loucks and Zamble (1994) in a preliminary comparison of federally sentenced men and women found higher rates of alcoholism among men and of drug abuse among women. Moyer (1992) noted a much higher incidence of alcohol associated with murder or manslaughter charges among Aboriginals than non-Aboriginals.

Seabrook (1993) explored the relationship between alcohol, drugs, smoking and anger among women in the community, and found that prescription drug use was higher among women who felt anger, and among older women who drank more heavily. Most reviewers see substance abuse among women as symptomatic of other aspects of their lives (eg. Lightfoot and Lambert 1992).

 

Summary

Studies of violence by men appear to be moving away from single theory explanations towards more integrated approaches which take account of situational characteristics, social and economic factors as well as interpersonal factors. There has been increasing attention to developing understanding of women's use of anger, aggression and violence recognizing that most work in the field has been developed on the basis of men. This identifies differing socialization and up-bringing patterns for men and women which encourage men to use aggression, but women to suppress it. Women's use of aggression is characterised as largely expressive and men's as instrumental in gaining control. Thus the use of anger and aggression, ways of expressing it, reactions to its use, and the social reinforcements of such behaviours are very different for the two sexes.

Experiencing violence in childhood does not inevitably lead to its use as adults, nevertheless, among women in the criminal justice system a high proportion will have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse as children or adults. Prison based studies indicate a link between the victimization of girls and criminalization, making them more vulnerable to violence on the streets. Alcohol, and particularly drug use, are clearly associated with violence by women.