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Gender Differences in Crime – Chivalry Thesis

The chivalry thesis: examining gender differences in crime.

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What is the Chivalry Thesis?

The chivalry thesis proposes that because of their perceived vulnerability as victims of male violence, female criminals are treated differently than their male counterparts by criminal justice systems. It suggests that police officers, prosecutors, judges, and juries are all more likely to treat female offenders with leniency due to their gender . In other words, it implies that men face harsher punishments for the same crimes than women do.

‘Men hate to accuse women and thus send them to their punishment, police officers dislike to arrest them, district attorneys to prosecute them, judges and juries to find them guilty, and so on’ – Pollak (1950)

Evidence Against the Chivalry Thesis

Despite early evidence in favor of the chivalry thesis, researchers have since found plenty of data that refutes this hypothesis. For example, a 1998 study by Heidensohn et al., which looked at 35 countries including England and Wales found no evidence that female offenders were consistently treated more lightly than male offenders. Similarly, studies conducted by Carlen (1992) and Walklate (1998) both concluded that there was no significant difference between how men and women were dealt with by criminal justice systems.

In addition to these empirical findings, functionalist sex role theory has also been used to explain gender differences in crime. According to this perspective, differences in offending patterns between men and women can be explained by looking at how society rewards particular types of behavior for each gender based on traditional gender roles—for example, males are rewarded for aggression while females are rewarded for passivity and obedience. This theory suggests that instead of being treated differently because they are female, women commit fewer offenses because they do not receive social approval or rewards for aggressive behavior like men do.

Feminist Explanations for Female Crime

The feminist perspective provides an additional explanation for why women commit fewer crimes than men—namely, patriarchal power structures prevent them from having access to resources necessary to engage in certain types of criminal activities such as drug dealing or theft from businesses (Smart & Neale 2006). Because these activities require some degree of financial independence or freedom from supervision (both of which are largely denied to most women), they are less likely to engage in such crimes than their male counterparts who have greater access to resources and autonomy within society (Smart & Neale 2006). Furthermore, feminists argue that due to patriarchal power structures like sexism and racism which limit economic opportunities for minority women particularly those living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods- many resorting illegal activities as a means of survival.(Smart & Neale 2006).

Gender Differences in Crime

Overall it appears clear from our discussion today that while there may have been some truth behind Pollak’s original chivalry thesis when it was first proposed back in 1950; further research has revealed a much more complex picture regarding gender differences in crime today. As we have seen here there is strong evidence against the notion that criminal justice systems treat female offenders differently than male ones but also important insights provided by functionalist sex role theory and feminist explanations which cast light on why certain behaviors may be seen as ‘deviant’ or ‘criminal’ depending on one’s gender identity or socioeconomic background respectively . All these factors combined prove just how nuanced an issue like this really is – one which requires further exploration if we ever hope to fully understand its implications both now and into the future .

Why not check out our video on Why Women Commit Less Crime Than Men? ​​

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Chivalry Thesis - Gender and Crime

Last updated 30 Nov 2022

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The concept of chivalry thesis as an explanation of why crime statistics show men commit many more criminal acts than women is explained in this video.

  • Gender (Crime)
  • Crime and Deviance
  • Chivalry Thesis

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AQA Sociology A2 and AS revision

Top band essay, value of the chivalry thesis in understanding crime.

Using the material from item A and elsewhere assess the value of the chivalry thesis in understanding gender differences in crime (21)

The chivalry thesis starts by arguing that men feel a protective attitude over woman because they are socialised into their certain roles and so they need to be kept on track. Woman are the care givers and so putting them in prison will take them away from this duty.

If we look at the statistics it is visible that men commit more crime than women, they are given longer sentences than woman and they are found guilty of more crimes than woman. This is not necessarily because they commit more crime in reality, but because the criminal justice system works on the idea that woman needed to be treated kindly and chivalrously and so they are not reported, they are not prosecuted and they are not found guilty. For example, Hoods looks at 3,000 court cases and found that woman are 1/3 less likely to be given a jail sentence than men. This shows that although they did commit a crime, their crime was not as severely punished as that of a man. Therefore the chivalry thesis argues that woman are treated more leniently than men for crime.

However it has been argued that this is simply not the case, they do commit crime and they do have the same sentences as men. For example, Farrington and Morris looked at 408 cases of theft and found that on all of them, woman and men were treated and sentenced equally. This shows opposing evidence to that of Hood who said they were treated differently. However, it could be argued that the crimes they were looking at were not the same. For instance hood looked at 3,000 cases and so these may not always be theft or other crimes, whereas Farrington and Morris only looks at theft and in this case there could be some equality. So the chivalry thesis may not be of great value when explaining differences in offending if these are different between types of offending. But if there is equality for this type of crime why is there not for other crimes?

It has been argued contrary to that the criminal justice system actually works against woman and it is not the judges or their views of chivalry that explain gender differences in criminal offences, but it is still their socialisation. In other words, men are brought up differently to women in our society and as such they have different roles to play. Sociologists have said that in court cases it is not the evidence that judges or juries rely on to find a verdict when dealing with woman it is whether they are ‘good woman’ in their roles and the offence they committed. Carlen found that if a woman was prosecuted for a violent crime they were more likely to be convicted and found guilty because violence is a direct violation of their traditional roles. Therefore the chivalry thesis again has little value because it cannot explain why there is a bias against woman in the criminal justice system.

However this does not explain why even in violent crimes woman are still let off before it gets to court then men are. For instance, the Ministry of Justice found that 49% of females were just given cautions compared to only 30% of men. This just shows that maybe there is a bias against woman in the courts, but before it gets there there is a definite difference and attitude towards woman’s crimes. How the types of crime again need to be considered. It is a stereotype that female crimes involve shoplifting, mainly of clothes and other commodities. If this stereotype is true then it means that woman’s crimes wouldn’t necessarily be prosecuted anyway because shoplifting is such a trivial offence, it also doesn’t deviate much from the woman’s norms because they are stealing clothes which are feminine in this sense. Although it has been argued by Buckle and Farrington that men actually shop lift more than woman, a whole 2 times more, and yet it is seen as a female crime and trivial, even if the official stats say they are equal. So there is some favour for men as they commit this crime more but are not getting punished for it. Maybe because of gender stereotypes of men not committing these crimes so it is unbelievable or that for such petty crimes people are unwilling to confront men. So it is not that there is a chivalry aspect that men treat woman better for such crimes, but in fact that the justice system favours men for these events. If men commit this crime 2 times more than woman and are not getting convicted for it, then surely they are in favour. Therefore the chivalry thesis is not valued here because thus suggests the opposite view.

It has also been argued by more realist sociologists that the crime stats do present a real view of who is committing more crime, it suggests men are committing more crime. This is relevant because the chivalry thesis suggests woman are committing crime and getting away with it but sociologists like Messerschmidt are arguing that in fact criminality is a male thing, it is for those who express their aggressive and tough masculinity, so woman don’t do it in the first place. Messerschmidt argues that men who cannot get the dominant form of masculinity; paid work, toughness, breadwinner etc turn to crime to accomplish the money and toughness aspect. So in reality woman don’t commit the crime they aren’t getting caught for because men are predominantly the ones who are criminal. Although this is heavily criticised for being a pointless argument because it is just a description of criminals, who happen to be male, who happen to be masculine not a real reason why woman don’t appear in the official statistics. It has been argued that when woman do commit serious acts such as murder and fights like men do, but that this is treated more harshly. Box argues that woman who commit these serious offences are more likely to be treated harshly in terms of their sentence than men. If crime was masculine then woman wouldn’t do these things. So it is either really masculine woman or crime is a non-gendered thing and woman are treated more harshly. However either way the chivalry thesis in this instance is not valued because woman are treated harshly whether males commit the crime or not. But this relates to the issue of whether they are fitting in with heir roles, men are meant to be tough and aggressive so fights and murder are seen as overstepping their roles not completely deviating away from them. Again either way their appears to be no chivalry thesis meaning for this it is not valued either.

However men may appear to commit more crime, but in self-report studies they commit a hell of a lot less crime than is suggested in the official statistics. Yet they are still found guilty more often than woman. For instance, Graham and Bowling’s study of nearly 2,000 14-25yr olds showed that men committed less crime, still more than woman but to a lesser extent than previously thought. This doesn’t tally with how woman are let off more than men. Therefore there has to be some kind of chivalry in the justice system and this explains why even though men commit less crime than we thought, they are still over-represented in the guilty statistics. However even when woman do get sentenced they are 2 times more likely to be denied bail for drug offences than men, showing evidence to the contrary.

In conclusion, the evidence against the chivalry thesis is heavy compared to the light evidence for the thesis. This is due to the fact that it is based on woman being treated more leniently than men, whereas it is been suggested woman are treated more harshly because of the strict gender roles they must conform to. But this difference in offending doesn’t really start at the criminal justice system, it starts at the early socialisation into roles of gender. Men are taught they need to provide for the family, work hard, but still be married to their wife, who looks after the kids and does all the house work. Woman are controlled and have little time to commit crime which may suggest that the stats are true that they don’t commit as much, not that they are let off. And men are forced to provide, but they may not have the education or skills to do so and so are forced into crime to accomplish their masculinity, which explains why they are over-represented in the stats. So the real question is not about the value (which is little) of the thesis but why there is a difference at all between the genders and how their traditional roles set them up for crime.

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The chivalry thesis claims that women will be treated more leniently for committing certain crimes, generally shoplifting is often associated more with females than males, but the statistics suggest that males commit many more acts of theft than women, an

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Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the value of ‘chivalry thesis ‘in understanding differences in crime.  gfg

Pollak (1950) was of the opinion that police and magistrates tended to be more ‘chivalrous’ and ‘lenient’ towards female offenders, resulting in sentence disparities, and as a result, criminal statistics underestimate the amount of female offending. (Item A).

Pollak (1961) argued that men – namely in this case police officers, magistrates and judges, are socialised to be protective towards women and thus are less likely to chare or prosecute them, and are also treated more leniently in court. Pollak goes further to argue that women are accustomed to deceiving men, for example in faking orgasms during sex, or lying in a relationship to gain material wealth. This skill in deceit mean that their crimes, such as poisoning and infanticide, are less easily uncovered (item A) leading to women being underrepresented in criminal statistics.

The chivalry thesis claims that women will be treated more leniently for committing certain crimes, generally shoplifting is often associated more with females than males, but the statistics suggest that males commit many more acts of theft than women, and this may be because females are let off with a warning rather than a conviction. This could be because the statistics of crime are so male dominated, a police officer may not think convicting a woman of petty theft is worth it, when there may be, in his opinion, a man selling drugs elsewhere, it may not be worth it in his view. Similarly, men are more likely to be convicted of theft because the criminal justice system seemingly victimises males over females, while it is probably more likely that males are more likely to commit crime than females, the gap between the crime rates between gender may not be as large as first assumed. It is also possible that female occurrences of shoplifting, as Pollak argues, never even come to the attention of the authorities, again because more often than not they are not reported.

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Farrington and Morris (1983) which involved a study of ‘sentencing’ in Magistrates courts. They discovered in 1979, 6.6% of men, but only 2% of women found guilty of indictable offences were imprisoned. Although men received more severe sentences than women, the research found the differences disappeared when the severity of offences was taken into account. Although personal opinions of the judges, witness reports or specific details of the crimes in question may have played a role, this does show that to an extent women are more likely to be let off for an offence.

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Hilary Allen (1989) based upon an examination criminal statistics of 1987, showed apparent leniency towards female offenders. For example, of people found guilty of indictable motoring offences, 73% of women, but only 54% of men were given fines, this difference resulting in more men being given prison sentences. Although these findings may not show the severity of the specific offences. Campbell through self report studies in 1976, of urban schoolgirls, compared to 16 year old males, these sources showed that 1.33 offences were committed by males for every 1.0 for females, this hugely contrasted to 1976 official figures on convictions, which showed 8.95 convictions for every female 1.0. This shows how official statistics can be greatly misleading, that although males may convict more crime, the gulf between the amount of offences shown by statistics, and popular opinion, is not as wide as it seems.

Although these studies do give evidence towards the chivalry thesis, the bulk of research does not give this indication. Steven box 1981, reviewed data from self report studies in UK and USA, and concluded that ‘the weight of evidence on women committing serious offences does not give clear support to the view that they receive differential and more favourable treatment from members of the public, police or judges’. Although it has to always be remembered that in a self report study, the validity and reliability relies upon the respondent’s ability and willingness to tell the truth, which is not always apparent.

To counter this, Buckle and Farrington carried out an observational study on shoplifting in a British department store in England 1981, found that only 1.4 % of the 361 females observed shoplifted, whereas 2.8% of the 361 males did. Although far too small of a sample to conclude anything categorically, it does provide evidence against the chivalry thesis.

A rather different, feminist view is that women are treated far more harshly by the criminal justice system than men, which often is the case in rape trials. Carol Smart argues that such trials ‘celebrate notions of male sexual need and female sexual capriciousness. ‘ The feminist view is often of the opinion that women are labelled as being dressed provocatively, being drunk when the rape occurred, or often the male in the case argues she did not object at the time of the incident, and by these happenings the male is let off. A similar feminist opinion is found in the case of domestic violence, in a study on domestic violence by Dobash and Dobash, it was found that police officers were ‘very unlikely to make an arrest when the offender has used violence against his wife. ‘(1979). this has spurred feminist campaigners to urge police officers to take cases of domestic violence more seriously.

Pollak’s full chivalry thesis is in short, slightly sexist as it states that ‘women are particularly adept at hiding their crimes, this is attributed to female biology ‘. Because of his inadequate analysis the theory has been subject to a heavy and fierce amount of criticism. Frances Hiedensohn 1985 slated the theory greatly, stating that is was based on analysis that had very little evidence and many unsupported assumptions, she regarded it as being based upon an unsubstantiated stereotypical image of women. In conclusion, although some parts of Pollak’s chivalry thesis, namely the parts saying women are naturally more likely to conceal crime are quite unsupported and base, studies associated with the theory have hinted that women are often in some cases treated more leniently by the criminal justice system. Although the extent of this cannot really be measured, statistics would have us believe that the gap between male and female criminality is huge, but upon closer investigation this is not the case. Reasons for this may be that criminology and sociology is largely dominated by males that the research is done on males by males, leading to an underrepresentation on female crime, or that perhaps female crimes are comparatively seen as trivial and are not deemed worthy of research. Whichever way it is looked it, there is a case for the argument that females are often not treated as harshly as males upon committing crime, but of course the opposite argument could be valid also.

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Matthew Wilkin

Overall this is a really strong essay. The content never drifts from the focus of the question, there is a good even debate on both sides of the discussion and the use of the item has been applied well. The studies applied are also very effective and support the evidence throughout. At times there is opportunity to apply key terms such as iceberg theory or the hidden figure of crime.

The chivalry thesis claims that women will be treated more leniently for committing certain crimes, generally shoplifting is often associated more with females than males, but the statistics suggest that males commit many more acts of theft than women, an

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  • Subject Sociology

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