Violence in women: Prevalence, change, and the social construction of female violence

Donna M. Cairns (2001)

Historically, there has been minimal interest in or investigation into the study of violence perpetrated by women, despite extensive organized research into factors that contribute to the expression of violence by men. Researchers have attributed this neglect to the low level of female perpetration compared to that of males, and to the perception of normal females as "the gentler sex," anatomically and spiritually. Analyses of gender differences, both in nature and in nurture, have been proposed to explain the overwhelming divergence in the predilection to violence between genders. This paper reviews the perception of violent behavior in females beginning with a historical perspective and moving to current areas of theoretical investigation, and presents statistical changes in the rates of violent offending by gender. It is the premise of this discussion that violent acts by women are increasing, and a social constructionist narrative for shifts in both the prevalence and perception of violent behavior by women is presented. As such, an attempt is made to bridge the sociological/criminological and psychological approaches to the question of female violent crime and to analyze statistical changes in the context of a changing culture. It is proposed that males and females historically have had different thresholds at which violent or aggressive behavior will overcome sociocultural barriers to its expression, and that significant changes have occurred over time that have lowered the threshold for many females. These changes include innate and acquired biological alterations as well as differences in how the individual teams to define herself in the context of her world through individual psychological development, family relationships, social role integration, and interaction.