An Overview of Research on Girls and Violence
Institute for Urban and Minority Education, Teachers College
Youth violence, and particularly violence carried out
by girls, has been the subject of intense media attention recently, with
an ever-increasing number of girls portrayed as carrying guns in their
mouths and participating in violent crime. Although the percentage of
girls’ involvement in delinquency and crime has increased in the last
two decades, it is still far below the level of boys’ involvement, and
it differs quite significantly.
There is a paucity of literature on girls’ violence,
as most research on youth violence does not distinguish between girls
and boys. The most comprehensive and extensive literature reviews on
young women’s crime and delinquency have been conducted by Meda Chesney-Lind
and her associates. While not focusing exclusively on violent girls,
their work on girls in trouble with the law provides much insight into
the complex issue of girls’ aggression and violence. The summary of
research in this brief is, for the most part, guided by their work.
Overall, the brief reviews the extent of girls’ delinquency and
violence, the ways they differ from boys’, the contributing factors, and
effective program strategies to prevent female delinquency.
The Scope of Girls’ Delinquency, Crime, and
The Extent of Girls’ Involvement
An understanding of the extent of girls’ delinquency
can be gleaned from statistics, as compiled by the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) and other official agencies, and from self-report
surveys conducted with young people. These data demonstrate that girls
are far less likely than boys to be arrested; in 1994, for example,
girls accounted for one-fourth of youthful arrests (Chesney-Lind &
Brown, 1999). However, by all accounts, girls appear to be involved in
substantially more violent crime than they were a decade ago. Based on
an analysis of FBI statistics, arrests of girls for murder were up 64
percent; robbery arrests, 114 percent; aggravated assault, 137 percent;
and other assaults, 126 percent (Chesney-Lind & Brown, 1999).
There are a number of reasons why these figures need
to be interpreted cautiously. First, there has been a parallel increase
in boys’ arrest rate for violent offenses since 1985. Chesney-Lind and
Brown assert, "this pattern, then, reflects overall changes in youth
behavior, rather than dramatic changes and shifts in the character of
girls’ behavior" (1999, p. 176). In addition, boys are far more likely
than girls to be arrested for violent crimes (homicide, forcible rape,
aggravated assault) and serious property offenses (burglary, arson).
Girls account for a very small percentage of violent crime, and violent
crime by girls is a small percentage of all girls’ delinquency, and it
has remained essentially unchanged since the mid-1980s. Only 2.1 percent
of girls’ arrests in 1985 were for serious crimes of violence; the
figure climbed only slightly, to 3.4 percent, by 1994. Thus, large
increases in girls’ violent crime rate translate into only small
increases in the number of crimes committed.
Another explanation for the increase in girls’ violent
offenses is a redefinition of what constitutes a violent offense. For
example, a review of 2,000 cases of young women referred to the Maryland
juvenile justice system for "person-to-person" offenses revealed that
almost all involved assault (Mayer, 1994). A closer look at the cases
showed that approximately one-half were incidents with family members
such as "a girl hitting her mother and her mother subsequently pressing
charges," thus criminalizing the girls’ action. In the past, such
aggression might have been dealt with informally, or the girl may have
been charged with a less serious status offense ("a person in need of
supervision"). More recently, a girl who hits a family member or
acquaintance (often while defending herself or attempting to leave) is
charged with battery or assault, is placed in the juvenile justice
system, and often goes to prison. Several researchers have found this
practice, sometimes referred to as "bootstrapping," especially prevalent
in the delinquency of African American girls (Bartollas, 1993).
Other factors that may account for the large increases
in assault charges for girls are more stringent law enforcement,
including "zero tolerance" school policies which bring police onto
school grounds more readily, and the arrest of girls who skirmish with
other girls (Chesney-Lind, personal communication, February 1999).
The Nature of Girls’ Crime
When girls do commit violent crimes, they differ
significantly from boys’. For example, girls are more likely to use
knives than guns and to murder someone as a result of conflict rather
than during a crime. Girls are also more likely than boys to murder
Self-report data also show that boys are far more
likely to commit aggressive acts than girls. One recent study on
self-reported aggression showed that about a third of girls, as compared
with half the boys, had been in a physical fight in the last year. Girls
were far more likely to fight with a parent or sibling, while boys were
more likely to fight with friends or strangers. Boys were also two to
three times more likely to report carrying a weapon in the past month
(Girls Incorporated, 1996).
Despite the aforementioned "bootstrapping" of offenses,
girls, when arrested, are still much more likely to be arrested for
status offenses, such as running away, prostitution, or curfew
violations, than for violent offenses. Chesney-Lind and Shelden (1998)
suggest that girls are arrested disproportionately more than boys for
status offenses (28 percent versus 11 percent) because of a tendency to
sexualize their offenses and an attempt to control their behavior. Thus,
while crime and delinquency among youth have risen overall since the
1970s, the character of juvenile arrests has not changed.
Girls’ Participation in School-Related Violence
Most aggressive acts in schools, such as physical
fighting, bullying, and weapon possession, are carried out by males and
aimed at males, although females also engage in similar aggressive acts.
Indeed, student-on-student assault is the most common form of school
violence reported. According to a recent national study by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one-half of boys and
one-quarter of girls reported being physically assaulted by someone in
their school (Hamburg, 1998). Tolan and Guerra (1994) reported that
almost one-half of urban school children have witnessed someone being
beaten or attacked in the preceding year. In a recent CDC Youth Risk
Behavior Survey, 18 percent of boys and 5 percent of girls reported
carrying a weapon to school (Flannery, 1997).
While boys’ rates of aggressive incidents in school
are higher than girls’, girls’ rates are not inconsequential. For
example, in schools characterized by large numbers of boys carrying
weapons, there is a correspondingly high rate of girls who also carry
weapons. Webster, Gainer, and Champion (1993) found that in school
settings where high numbers of boys carry guns (40 percent), a high
percentage of girls (67 percent) carry knives.
Psychosocial Theories of Girls’ Delinquency and
Relatively little attention has been paid to female
experiences with crime and delinquency because it has been generally
associated with boys. In fact, most early researchers viewed delinquency
and gang activity as strictly male pursuits; when females were discussed
they were viewed as either tomboys or sex objects (Campbell, 1984,
1991). In the 1970s, though, violent girls began receiving more
attention because of the perceived increase in their offending and the
involvement of more women in scholarship. Much of the work focused on
explaining why so few girls and women participate in criminal activity
compared to males, rather than on what motivates females toward crime
and delinquency (Artz, 1998).
It was thought that differences in biology and
socialization explain differences in the crime rate. Boys become
aggressive and independent while girls become passive, dependent, and
conventional (Artz, 1998). The increase in female violence was
attributed to the perpetrators’ renunciation of femininity and the
adoption of masculine characteristics and values. The women’s movement,
which fostered female assertiveness and was said to encourage young
women to adopt certain "male behaviors" (drinking, stealing, and
fighting), was also blamed (Adler, 1975).
Subsequent research, including data showing that the
increase in female crime was really not as significant as thought,
discredited much of this research. Further, scholars and youth workers
began to call for more nuanced approaches to understanding girls’
aggression and violence which would consider how social class, race,
ethnicity, and culture interact to create variations in the way young
women experience and make use of violence (Chesney-Lind & Shelden,
Risk Factors for Girls’ Violence and Aggression
There have been few in-depth studies exploring the
pathways to violence for girls. The handful of studies that do exist,
however, yield important findings. Several risk factors that appear to
foster young women’s delinquent and violent acts have been isolated:
physical and sexual victimization, negative attitudes toward school,
lack of academic success, perceived lack of opportunities, a great deal
of social activity, low self-esteem, and traditional beliefs about
women’s roles. Specifically, for example, the girls in Chesney-Lind and
Koroki’s study (1996) of female delinquent girls of racially mixed
backgrounds in Hawaii all reported severe family problems: poverty,
divorce, parental death, abandonment, alcoholism, and frequent
experiences of abuse.
Abuse and Victimization
The relationship of physical and sexual abuse to
women’s criminal activity and violence can be seen clearly in studies on
the backgrounds of incarcerated women and girls. Compared to their male
counterparts, women jailed for crimes are much more likely to report
previous sexual or physical abuse. In one study, almost one-half of the
incarcerated women surveyed on their backgrounds reported that they had
been abused previously while 12 percent of their male counterparts
reported they had been.
Delinquent girls have also reported very high rates of
physical and sexual abuse, ranging from approximately 40-70 percent in
various studies (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998). For example,
participants in a Canadian study on white working-class violent girls (Artz,
1998) revealed frequent experiences of sexual and/or physical abuse in
the home, with most describing violent homes characterized by dominant,
abusive, and often alcoholic fathers and/or brothers, and mothers who
made a tremendous effort to minimize tensions and victimization. The
young women, in attempting to cope with the violence and silence,
learned that power and control in the family resided in physical force.
The message that survival means dominating the weaker members of the
group guided them in their relationships outside the home as well.
In fact, Artz (1998) argues that girls’ violence
against other girls is grounded in the idea of "horizontal" violence.
This means that members of oppressed or powerless groups (such as the
girls in homes with dominating and abusive men) view similarly situated
girls through their oppressor’s eyes and mirror the oppressor’s
behaviors. Thus, in hoping to gain some measure of power, they beat up
other girls. While the aggressor may feel powerful momentarily, the
feeling is short-lived as it does little to change her status; rather,
it perpetuates a cycle of retaliation. As Artz found, violent girls
reported higher rates of victimization in the form of sexual abuse,
physical abuse, and attacks by a group of peers than nonviolent girls.
School failure has been shown to increase the risk
that young people will turn to violence and delinquency, although poor
school performance appears to have a stronger effect on girls than boys
(Rankin, 1980). For example, in one study on the delinquency of African
American youth, girls who reported more involvement in delinquency and
violence were more likely to say they were not satisfied with their
school experience, whereas for boys, "poor family relationships" rather
than school experience seemed to predict involvement in delinquency (Farnworth,
1984). And while high grades and positive self-esteem seem to depress
girls’ involvement in violence and delinquency, boys’ high grades raise
their self-esteem, creating favorable orientations to risk-taking and
thus greater delinquency (Heimer, 1995).
Additional Risk Factors
Many girls with extremely troubled school and social
lives nevertheless held high aspirations of graduating from high school
and going to college. However, unable to gain status through white
middle-class means (i.e., schooling, careers, etc.) because of their
families’ low income, they sought recognition through adoption of a "bad
girl" image. These girls also expressed very traditional gender role
expectations for the future: a desire to marry and primarily be
supported by a man, to have a large family, and to work in a
stereotypically female job. They believed that men should be strong and
assertive and women passive and nonviolent. Chesney-Lind and Shelden
suggest that traditional beliefs and aspirations influence young women’s
relationships with romantic partners and serve to hold them in abusive
relationships, raising their risk of involvement in delinquent and
Moreover, the sexual abuse of girls plays a role in
their low sense of self-worth and also contributes to their negative
views of other females. In fact, Artz hypothesizes that a major factor
in girls’ aggression toward other girls is an internalized belief in
women’s inferiority that allows violent girls to rationalize such
violence. She urges that much more research be conducted on how violent
girls interpret and make sense of their own violence.
In a study of young African American and Latina women
who were incarcerated for serious offenses in California, Bottcher
(1986) identified three aspects of their lives that propelled them
toward violence: leaving home or being kicked out and considerable free
time without adult supervision; frequent experiences with physical and
sexual abuse; and an inadvertent drift into violence and crime as their
lives began to fall apart. Most of the young women indicated that they
felt alienated from family and peers and suffered from low self-esteem.
Artz’s study of violent girls (who were not involved in the criminal
justice system) also provided detailed accounts of troubled families,
experiences with abuse, internalized notions of women’s low social
status, and poor performance and problems with discipline in school.
Female gangs make up a relatively small percentage of
gangs nationwide. One estimate puts the number of female gang members at
7,200, or only 4 percent of youth identified as gang members (Chesney-Lind,
Shelden, & Joe, 1996). Moore (1996), however, who studied gangs in Los
Angeles, estimated that girls accounted for one-third of the youth in
There are a number of excellent accounts of gang girls
and their lives and experiences in gangs. The best known perhaps is by
Ann Campbell (1984, 1991) whose pathbreaking book, Girls in the Gang,
explored the lives of African American and Latina female gang members in
New York City. She documented the acute hardships faced by these
low-income women, such as turbulent family lives, poverty, abuse, lack
of education, and the everyday difficulties they faced as poor young
women of color. For many of the young women, joining a gang served a
social function: gangs provided a place where they belonged, and were
accepted and protected. Moreover, they participated in violence because
it was an expected means of survival and a way to prove themselves
capable of fighting and to establish their reputation. Having a
reputation provided protection for themselves and their female friends,
and gave them a sense of worth and power. Gang girls also participated
in violence to settle arguments over boys.
Gang participation provides girls with skills to
survive in their harsh communities and at the same time allows them to
escape temporarily a dismal future (Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995). According
to Campbell (1984, 1991), joining a gang is an adaptive solution to
difficult life circumstances, such as a bleak occupational future
because of a lack of education and marketable skills, male subordination
in the home, the sole responsibility for children, social isolation in
the home, and the social and economic marginalization resulting from
living in poor communities and the threat of victimization from crime.
Program Development to Address the Needs of Violent
Programs serving young violent women effectively must
take into account girls’ status in a gendered society. While delinquent
and violent girls share with their male counterparts many of the same
problems, girls’ problems are often a result of their status as females
(such as sexual abuse, male violence, oppression by family members,
occupational inequality, and early motherhood). As such, they require
different program approaches from boys. Unfortunately, the record for
funding girl-focused programs or those with components which address
delinquent girls’ unique needs has not been good. In 1975, for example,
only $1.00 of every $4.00 donated by corporations was spent on girls’
programming (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998). Recently, a review of youth
program evaluations showed that only 2.3 percent of delinquency programs
served girls only.
An evaluation of the few existing programs effective
with at-risk young women suggests that they have three common elements
that combine in a culturally-sensitive approach to support girls in all
facets of their lives (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998). While counseling
can be an effective component, it must be included in a complete program
addressing the multiple needs of delinquent and at-risk young women,
covering sensitively such areas as sexual abuse and violence in teen
relationships. Programs also need to include educational and
occupational support and skill-building. They also must respond to the
many needs of young women no longer able to live with their families.
Finally, girls need access to caring adults, involvement in organized
community activities, and other protective environments to help them
mature into healthy and productive women.
Girls Incorporated (1996) has recently published a
review of promising programs that target delinquent girls and girls at
risk of getting into trouble. Common to most of them is an emphasis on
addressing the needs of young women in all spheres of their lives:
family, educational, occupational, and health. Examples of effective
programs include many of the Girls Incorporated programs that are
sponsored nationally, such as Friendly PEERsuasion, which addresses
issues such as helping girls to avoid substance abuse; Preventing
Adolescent Pregnancy, which teaches girls prevention strategies
including better parent-daughter communication and skill-building in
postponing sexual activity, and provides health care; Operation SMART,
aimed at enhancing skills in science and technology; and FUTURE (Females
Unifying Teens to Undertake Responsible Education), which provides peer
support to young troubled women in such areas as substance abuse, sexual
and physical abuse, and avoiding gang involvement.
There are also notable local programs targeting young
women sponsored by Girls Incorporated. For example, PACE (Practical,
Academic, Cultural, Educational) in Florida, cited by the U.S.
Department of Justice as a model program, offers comprehensive services
to at-risk girls 12 to 18 years old, including life management skills,
counseling, community service, educational programs, and job placement
services. A unique program in Minneapolis which targets young Hmong
women focuses on living in two cultures and teaches educational and
vocational skill-building and provides support. This program has been
particularly effective in deterring young women from gang involvement,
and is highly visible and accessible to girls in the community.
Finally, because the issue of male violence and
aggression against young women cannot be ignored in the understanding of
female delinquency and violence, separate programs need to be developed
for aggressive and violent men and boys. This would minimize the risk of
female victimization and, in turn, reduce the risk of girls’
participation in violence.
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This brief was developed by the Choices in Preventing Youth Violence
initiative, with funding from the Metropolitan Life Foundation. It was
published by the Institute for Urban and Minority Education, Teachers
College, Columbia University. The opinions expressed in the brief do not
necessarily represent the pinions or policies of the Metropolitan Life
Foundation or Teachers College.
Choices in Preventing Youth Violence,
Erwin Flaxman, Director, Teachers College,
Box 228, Columbia University,
525 West 120th Street,
New York, NY 10027, 212/678-3158