Girls Gone Bad: 5 Theories of Female Criminality

Female Offending

When you think of a stereotypical criminal, you tend to think of a male. It is unlikely the image of a female will come to mind when imagining a criminal. And if you look at prison statistics, you might think this stereotype was justified. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, in Canada females only make up 5% of the prison population, and in the USA this figure goes up to 6.9%. Furthermore, 81% of the women in prison in the USA are in prison for non-violent crimes. While there are still many less women in prison than men, the rate of women being convicted is rising drastically faster than the rate of men, suggesting this “criminal gap” is fast closing. There is debate about whether this rise is due to reporting and conviction policies, or whether women are genuinely starting to commit more crimes. The FBI (2010) found that the most common offences committed by women where theft, driving under the influence, and drug offences. Considering it’s so uncommon for women to commit crime, theories on why some women do become criminal are extremely useful. Here are five possible explanations for female criminality.

1 – Lombroso (1895)

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This old theory suggested that criminals had certain biological characteristics, which manifested in them looking a certain way. According to this theory, female criminals are genetically and biologically disadvantaged, and less evolved than men. It’s suggested these women suffer from “penis envy”, which causes them to turn to crime. There is very little evidence for this approach, other than Lombroso’s own observations, and nowadays this theory would be considered sexist, and completely outdated. This theory is completely incorrect. However, more modern theories do suggest reasons why females may commit crime which seem more serious and genuine, these theories will be discussed below.

2 – Women’s Liberation theory

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If you listen to traditional gender roles, women should be timid, quiet, attentive and soft. These traits hardly make a good criminal, and some suggest this is why traditionally less women where engaged in criminal activities. Women and men are socialised from an early age to adhere to certain gender roles and stereotypes, and this largely prevents women from having the same criminal opportunities as men. However, due to women’s liberation and feminism, society is changing their views towards gender. Women have more rights than before, and these strict gender roles are being blurred more and more in Western society. This change means women are becoming more confident, and having higher self-esteem. It also means women have more opportunities in many aspects of their lives. An unfortunate side effect of this is that they also have more opportunities in the criminal world, and are more likely to commit “masculine” crimes. According to this theory, women commit crimes due to the loosening of gender roles. This is support by Giordano and Cernkovich (1979) who found delinquent girls were more likely to agree with the statement “I can do whatever a boy can”.  However, even then female criminals do still hold some traditional views, usually surrounding family (Berger, 1989).

3 – Self-Control theory

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This theory was originally devised by Hirschi and Gottfredson, and is considered a “general theory of crime”. This means it aims to explain all crime, and does not think you need gender specific explanations of criminality. The theory suggests that crime occurs when people (men or women) have a lack of self-control. They suggest a lack of self-control comes about due to ineffective child rearing practises of their parents as they are growing up. People who are low in self-control are likely to be impulsive, insensitive and get physical quicker. These are obvious traits that could lead to criminality. Thornton, Graham-Kevan and Archer (2013) found that criminals are often versatile, and this support the idea that they have a lack of self-control. However Longshore (1998) did show there are many other factors which predict criminality, so this cannot be the only explanation which is correct.

4 – Social Control theory

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Developed by Hirschi in 1969, Social Control theory suggests that every one of us experiences criminal urges. However, the reason the majority of us do not act upon them is that external forces control these urges, stopping us acting on them. Examples of these kind of external factors include attachment, commitments, involvement, beliefs and conformity. These factors all ensure a person is suppressing their criminal desires. However, if these controls are missing or weak in a person, they are more likely to act upon their criminal urges. Alarid, Burton and Cullen (2000) found support for this theory when they found very few gender differences in the relationship between a lack of social control and criminality. This suggests that this theory of crime can also be applied to female offenders.

5 – Social Learning theory

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Social Learning theory was a theory developed by Bandura to explain all types of human behaviour. This theory suggests behaviour is learnt through imitation and reinforcement. Therefore, they would suggest criminal behaviour is learnt through observing criminal activity, modelling that behaviour (reproducing it) and then either having it reinforced or not. Therefore, according to this theory, the more crime you observe the more likely you are to become a criminal yourself. Indeed, Akers (1998) did find that criminality could be explained by the amount of criminal behaviour a male observed in their life. However, does this relationship hold true for females to? Alarid et al (2008) found it did indeed, however it was not as strong for females. It is important to remember, those around a person are likely to be from a similar background to them, and so this could be a confounding variable in this relationship.


No one of these theories fully explains female criminality. They do however all add to the picture of why a female may become criminal. So what do you think? Which theory holds the most merit? Do you think women are less criminal than men, or is this an untrue stereotype? Do you think women are committing more crimes, or is this an artificial phenomena caused by changes in policies?


Alarid, L., Burton, V., & Cullen, F. (2000). Gender and crime among felony offenders:Assessing the generality of social control and differential association theories. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 37, 171-199.

Berger, R. (1989). Female delinquency in the emancipation era: A review of the literature. Sex Roles, 21, 375–399. doi: 10.1007/BF00289598

Gottfredson, M.R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lombroso, C., & Ferrero, W. (1895). The female offender. New York: Philosophical Library.

Longshore, D. (1998). Self‐control and criminal opportunity: A prospective test of the general theory of crime. Social Problems, 45, 102–113. doi: 10.1177/0093854898025001005

Thornton, A.J., Graham‐Kevan, N., & Archer, J. (2013). Development and confirmatory factor analysis of the non‐violent and violent offending scale (NVOBS). Journal of Aggressive Behavior, 39, 171–181. doi: 10.1002/ab.21468


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