Have you ever watched Investigation Discovery? It’s a television network owned by Discovery Communications. Investigation Discovery, or ID, as it is commonly called, shows documentary-style programs and re-enactments focusing on violent crimes, complete with expert commentary from journalists, law enforcement officers, and those impacted by the crimes. Psychologists also weigh in.
In viewing ID programming, you might notice that female and male criminals are profiled in markedly different ways – especially when it comes to murders. Male killers are painted as “born evil,” often portrayed as dark, brooding souls who spend time and effort planning violent crimes from the dark recesses of their minds. Either that, or they are portrayed as simple, hapless fools in love who committed crimes for the women who controlled them.
Female killers, on the other hand, are shown to have “snapped” after years of being normal, driven to their crimes through desperation, or are portrayed as clingy, obsessive and crazy.
The male actors in the re-enactments are big, tough, often unattractive brutes. They glare at the camera and menace around their scenes. The female actors are either demure, frightened, sweet, and sympathetic, or portrayed as sirens, wearing sky-high heels and blood-red lipstick and displaying ample cleavage. The female criminals are almost always portrayed as beautiful, even if their real-life counterparts are not considered conventionally attractive.
The conversation in society about male and female criminals is also fraught with stereotypes: Men kill because of innate aggression; women kill for love or out of desperation. In reality, prisons do have higher male populations, and men serve longer and harsher sentences compared to women for similar crimes.
But is there a real gender bias at play here, or is it something else? Do men really commit more crimes? Are female criminals truly more sympathetic figures?
According to a study completed by Deborah W. Denno, Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law at Fordham Law School, there is plenty of evidence to back up these gender stereotypes when it comes to criminals.
Denno completed one of the largest longitudinal studies of biological and sociological predictors of crime in America. The Biosocial Study revealed that men do commit more crimes overall, that their crimes are more violent in nature than are women’s, and that both sociological and environmental factors can predict crimes among men.
Biological factors were stronger predictors of crimes for women. So, broadly, men become aggressive due to their environments and women due to their biology. Denno went into depth on this topic in the Gender Differences in Biological and Sociological Predictors of Crime talk that she presented at a symposium on Biology, Behavior, and the Criminal Law in 1997.
Denno’s research is far from singular. Denise-Marie Ordway is a research reporter and editor for the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstien Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy’s Journalists Resource publication. Ordway cites research from the University of Pennsylvania that says heart rates are also a contributing factor to the differences in crime rates between the genders.
“As of February 2017, 93.3 percent of federal inmates were men, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” Ordway writes. One study has found that men with lower heart rates are 39 percent more likely to be convicted of violent crimes, 25 percent more likely to be convicted of non-violent crimes, and 39 percent more likely to incur injuries from an assault. “A low heart rate explains some of the link between gender and crime. Although findings do not document causality and do not suggest that a low heart rate completely accounts for the gender gap, they are, to our knowledge, the first to show that lower heart rates in males partly explain their higher levels of offending,” Ordway concludes.
She also notes that the University of Pennsylvania study correlated higher resting heart rates in female criminals, which may partly explain why the female prison population is so much lower than the male population. Men overall have lower resting heart rates compared to women. Other studies have shown low heart rates can be partly responsible for driving people to seek out adrenaline-spiking, risk-taking experiences that boost their heart rates.
Even Johnathan Strickland, a writer and podcaster for the very popular explainer website How Stuff Works, has jumped into this ongoing discussion of gender differences in the criminal justice system. Strickland discovered that even in populations where females outnumbered males, crimes committed by men were more aggressive and violent.
So far, research conducted by groups with different interests in the subject of gender bias and crime come up with similar basic results: men commit more crimes than women, and men’s crimes are more violent. While there is no definitive, all-encompassing answer as to why, various studies have turned up strong evidence for socio-economic factors, biology, and even gender-conforming stereotypes. As the issue of what truly constitutes gender continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see how the topic of gender as related to criminal behavior evolves as well.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.