Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

Are Girls More Violent Today Than a Generation Ago? Probably Not*

Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

Are Girls More Violent Today Than a Generation Ago? Probably Not*

Article excerpt


The authors examine recent trends in girls' violence as reported in Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) arrest data, National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) victimization data, and Monitoring the Future (MTF) self-report data. Augmented Dickey-Fuller time series tests and intuitive plot displays show much overlap yet differences in each source's portrayal of trends in girls' violence and the juvenile gender gap. All three sources show little or no change in the gender gap for homicide, rape/sexual assault, and robbery. However, UCR police counts show a sharp rise in female-to-male arrests for criminal assault during the past decade or so but that rise is not borne out in NCVS counts based on victims' reports and in MTF counts based on self-reported violent offending. Net-widening policy shifts (e.g., policing physical attacks/threats of marginal seriousness that girls in relative terms are more likely to commit) and more gender-neutral enforcement have apparently escalated the arrest proneness of adolescent females for "criminal assault." Rather than girls having become more violent, official data increasingly mask differences in violent offending by male and female youth.

Sociological Viewpoints recently ran a review of Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Howard Spivak's Sugar and Spice and No Longer Nice: How Can We Stop Girls Violence, which concludes that "girls are committing significantly more acts of violence than they did a generation ago" (see Zumpetta 2005, p. 87). This depiction echoes similar recent accounts in both the popular and scientific press. This article assesses the accuracy of these assertions using the best available data. Information from official arrest sources as well as nationally-based self-report and victimization surveys are used to examine the involvement of girls in violent activity, including whether such activity has increased relative to boys.

One of the most consistent and robust findings in criminology is that, for nearly every category of crime, females commit much less crime and juvenile delinquency than males. During the past couple of decades, however, female juvenile delinquency has apparently undergone substantial changes compared with male delinquency. For example, between 1980 and 2003 in the United States, girls' arrests nationwide increased 42.7%, while arrests of boys actually decreased by 10.2% (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2004). Within this same time period, arrests of girls for serious violent offenses and "simple assaults" increased by 75.2% and 318.5%, respectively; whereas, boys' arrests declined 11.3% for serious violent offenses but increased 130.5% for simple assault. These arrest trends, along with high-profile cases of female delinquency, are the main source for media headlines such as: "Girls getting increasingly violent," "Girls catching up with boys in delinquency and crime," "Girls not all sugar and spice," and "Bad Girls Go Wild" - the title of a recent Newsweek story which described "the significant rise in violent behavior among girls" as a "burgeoning national crisis" (Scelfo 2005).

However, because arrest counts are a product of both delinquent behavior and responses to it, researchers and policymakers face a dilemma about "how to interpret" or "what to make of" the arrest statistics. Do the arrest gains indicate real changes in underlying behaviors of girls, or are the gains artifactual, a product of recent changes in public sentiment and enforcement policies for dealing with youth crime and violence that have elevated the visibility and reporting of girls' "delinquencies" and "violence?"

To answer this question, we examine trends in violence perpetrated by girls and in the gender gap for the 1980-2003 period using three longitudinal data sources: (1) official arrest data from the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), (2) self-report data from Monitoring the Future (MTF), and (3) victimization data from National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) in which the victim of violence identifies the sex of the perpetrator. …

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