Chivalry and the Moderating Effect of Ambivalent Sexism: Individual Differences in Crime Seriousness Judgments

Article excerpt

Previous studies have shown that female offenders frequently receive more lenient judgments than equivalent males. Chivalry theories argue that such leniency is the result of paternalistic, benevolent attitudes toward women, in particular toward those who fulfill stereotypical female roles. Yet to date, studies have not examined whether such leniency is indeed associated with paternalistic societal attitudes toward women. The present study goes beyond the investigation of demographics and employs Click and Fiske's (1996) concepts of hostile and benevolent sexism. We use these concepts to highlight the role of individual differences in attitudes toward women as a key to our understanding of lenient attitudes toward female offenders. Eight hundred forty respondents from a national sample of Israeli residents evaluated the seriousness of hypothetical crime scenarios with (traditional and nontraditional) female and male offenders. As hypothesized, hostile and benevolent sexism moderate the effect of women's "traditionality" on respondents' crime seriousness judgments and on the severity of sentences assigned.

Principles of justice require that arrestees, suspects, defendants, and sentenced offenders (henceforth offenders) be treated equally. Accordingly, offenders' characteristics, such as their demographics, ought to be disregarded. However, a vast amount of theoretical and empirical research suggests that in practice this is not the case (see Daly & Tonry 1997). Most of this literature reports discrimination against disadvantaged social groups, such as African Americans, and individuals who are financially underprivileged.

Even though women are members of a socially weak group, several studies have demonstrated that female offenders tend to receive more lenient treatment than male offenders who have committed the same crimes (see Daly 1989; Daly & Tonry 1997; Spohn 1999). Chivalry theory has arisen as the primary theoretical framework for understanding these findings, suggesting that protective and benevolent societal attitudes toward women lead (predominantly male) decision makers throughout the criminal justice system to take a relatively lenient approach toward female offenders. However, despite the theory's logical appeal, several of its assumptions remain untested. First, most studies of chivalry theory maintain their focus on the characteristics of the offender (e.g., Johnson & Scheuble 1991; Spohn & Beichner 2000; Bickle & Peterson 1991), whereas a test of the theory's assumptions actually requires examination of the characteristics of the evaluators of crime.

In addition, the majority of studies on crime judgments adopt a sociological perspective and take into account demographic characteristics, such as gender (e.g., Allen & Wall 1993; Coontz 2000). The premise of this sociological perspective is that demographics represent the underlying attitudes that ultimately guide crime judgments. However, even if members of different demographic categories (e.g., men and women) tend to form different crime judgments, such a perspective forgoes the possibility of exploring individual differences among members of the same demographic group. When trying to explain differences in crime judgments, there is no reason to presume that all men or all women will hold the same attitudes. Therefore, instead of restricting the investigation to demographics, a direct assessment of attitudes toward women is more likely to provide meaningful insights for our understanding of the chivalry phenomenon.

Finally, because the theory proposes societal norms and attitudes as the basis for the differential treatment of offenders, one would need to study crime judgments among the general public in order to complement extant evidence from concrete decisions taken by law enforcement employees (e.g., police officers, prosecutors, judges). Even though some studies have revealed corresponding judgment patterns for law enforcement personnel and society as a whole (e. …