Risk Factors for Youth Victimization: Beyond a Lifestyles/Routine Activities Theory Approach

Article excerpt

Past efforts to understand the risks for youth victimization have primarily utilized concepts from lifestyle or routine activity theory, such as the increased exposure and reduced guardianship that are entailed when youth engage in risky or delinquent behavior. In this article, we argue that other personal characteristics put youth at risk, not through any lifestyle or routine activity mechanism, but by making certain youth more "congruent" with the needs, motives, or reactivities of potential offenders. Three specific types of such characteristics are those that increase the potential victim's target vulnerability (e.g., physical weakness or psychological distress), target gratifiability (e.g., female gender for the crime of sexual assault), or target antagonism (e.g., behaviors or ethnic or group identities that may spark hostility or resentment). Using data from a national youth survey, we test variables measuring such aspects of target congruence and show that they make a significant contribution over and above lifestyle variables alone in predicting nonfamily, sexual, and parental assault.

Youth are the most victimization-prone segment of the population. Data from the National Crime Survey show that youth ages 12-17 suffer 2.3 times more violent crime than the population as a whole, including 2.4 times as much assault and 1.8 times as much robbery (Moone, 1994). Over half of all sexual assault victims reported to law enforcement are under 18 (Langan & Harlow, 1994). Moreover, other studies also show youth to be considerably more vulnerable than the adult population to intrafamily violence (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994b; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980), a form of victimization that is poorly estimated in law enforcement statistics and the National Crime Victimization Survey, especially for the youth population (Whitaker & Bastian, 1991).


Within the field of criminology, explanations for young people's differential vulnerability to victimization have in recent years generally been drawn from the closely related "lifestyle exposure" and "routine activities" theories (Cohen, 1981; Garofalo, Siegel, & Laub, 1987; Gottfredson, 1986; Hindelang, Gottfredson, & Garofalo, 1978). Such theories highlight the fact that lifestyles and activities of different groups of individuals put them in environments or situations where they are more or less in contact with potential offenders and at risk of potential victimization. Miethe and Meier (1994), arguing that lifestyle and routine activities are essentially the same theory, have distilled the four central concepts that have been used in these approaches to explain the connection between lifestyles and risk: proximity to crime, exposure to crime, target attractiveness, and guardianship. So, for example, living in high crime areas and being out at night increase a person's proximity and exposure to criminals. Owning desirable and portable possessions increases a person's target attractiveness. And spending considerable time alone or apart from the family or other possibly protective individuals reduces the potential for guardianship that would deter would-be offenders. These concepts have proven useful in empirically explaining why certain groups like men, blacks, and single people have higher crime victimization rates, and why rates have increased over time.'

These concepts have been applied to the analysis of youth victimization, in particular how increased exposure and decreased guardianship heighten youth vulnerability. Young people are viewed as engaging in risky behaviors, such as staying out late, going to parties, and drinking, which compromise the guardianship provided by parents and adults and expose them to more possibilities for victimization (Jensen & Brownfield, 1986). Much of the research on youth victimization has particularly stressed its connection to delinquent activities (Lauritsen, Laub, & Sampson, 1992; Lauritsen, Sampson, & Laub, 1991). …