Spanning the Gender Gap: Gender Differences in Delinquency among Inner-City Adolescents

Article excerpt

Currently, there is considerably controversy over the adequacy of current theories about female deviance (Smith & Paternoster, 1987). Most theories of deviance were developed and tested exclusively with males. Consequently, some scholars have argued that they are inappropriately applied to understanding delinquent behavior of female adolescents (Klein, 1973; Hoffman-Bustamante, 1973; Adler, 1975; Smart, 1977; Horowitz & Pottieger, 1991). Even when females have been included in the samples, the studies have been described as inadequate, a mere "add women and stir" approach (Chesney-Lind, 1986, p. 81). Critics of current theoretical applications assert that male and female delinquency result from qualitatively different underlying processes. They point to the fact that males report significantly more involvement in delinquency. Moreover, arrests of young women are largely for minor crimes and status offenses such as running away from home, incorrigibility, truancy, and other noncriminal offenses (Morash, 1986; Chesney-Lind, 1986; 1989; Naffine, 1989). Gender-specific theories are proposed to account for these different rates and patterns between male and female deviant activities. For example, Leonard (1982, cited in Smith & Paternoster, 1987) has stated:

Theoretical criminology was constructed by men, about men. It is simply not up to the analytical task of explaining female patterns of crime.... Existing theories are frequently so inconsistent with female realities that specific explanation of female patterns of crime will probably have to precede the development of an all-inclusive theory.

Others have argued for the viability of a more general, gender-neutral theoretical framework (Smith & Peternoster, 1987; Canter, 1982; Figueria-McDonough & Selo, 1980). They hold an empirical assessment of the applicability of traditional theories of deviance to explain patterns of female behavior is necessary before gender-specific theories are developed (Smith & Paternoster, 1987). Proponents of this view interpret differences in the incidence of delinquent behavior as reflecting differential exposure to the same general, predisposing factors (Schur, 1969; Sutherland & Cressey, 1978; Cernkovich & Giordano, 1979, Figuerira-McDonough & Selo, 1980). They suggest that the current move to develop gender-specific theories will only hinder the advancement of deviance theory. Indeed, Smith and Paternoster (1987) concluded that:

We regard this period of gender-specific theoretical development as the "dark ages" of deviance theory because it was based on the unproven assumption that the deviant behavior of males and females reflected different underlying processes and motivation. The current call for a separate body of theory to explain the deviant conduct of women simply perpetuates the sterile sexist origins of theories of deviance.

Ultimately, theoretical approaches that encompass both gender-specific and general influences will offer the most promise in accounting for the complexity of adolescent behavior. Before proceeding to develop such theories, however, factors that exert a gender-specific influence need to be further isolated and tested. For example, a link between delinquency and childhood sexual victimization has become increasingly apparent among runaway females (Chesney-Lind & Rodriguez, 1983) but not among males (McCormack et al., 1986). Specifically, a substantial proportion of delinquent females seem to be engaging in survival strategies on the streets after taking refuge from sexual abuse in their homes (Chesney-Lind, 1986). Gender roles also influence the scope and severity of female delinquency (Morash & Wright, 1983). Steffensmeier (1983) found that girls' involvement in deviant groups tends to be quite limited. Female gang members, for example, are often seen as affiliates who are under the rigid control of their male counterparts (Campbell, 1987). It will be important to carefully examine the implications of these and other influences on a broader theory. …