By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 26 January 2012)
In her book When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence, author Patricia Pearson argues that women are universally perceived as passive victims rather than potential aggressors because both conservative patriarchs and feminists have a stake in maintaining the myth of female innocence. To support her claim that violence is not inherently masculine, Pearson offers case studies, comprehensive statistics, and cross-cultural comparisons.
Differences Between Male and Female Aggression
The aggressive strategies employed by men and women differ in cultures where females are perceived as gentle. Women in such cultures are more inclined to achieve their aims using social aggression that may include manipulation and attempting to destroy the reputations of others. By contrast, in cultures where female aggression is not stigmatized, women are more likely to settle disputes with their fists.
Battered Husbands and Female Violence Trends
According to Pearson, evidence suggests that men are just as likely to be victims of domestic violence as women. A large 1980 survey of American homes found that 12% of men and 11.6% of women were subjected to hitting or kicking by their partners.
In a citywide survey, Winnipeg social scientist Reena Sommer found that 39.1% of women had committed acts of violence against their partners, with 16.2% admitting to severe violence. Following up on these surprising findings, Sommer called 737 respondents and found that an overwhelming majority hadn’t acted in self-defense. Rather, they had struck out as a result of anger, jealousy, frustration, or intoxication, and 14% of their male victims had been so severely injured that they required hospital treatment.
Why do men stay in abusive relationships? For many of the same reasons as women, according to the Easton Alliance for the Prevention of Family Violence. Battered husbands stay due to fears about their children’s safety, financial constraints, depression, addiction, or love for their partners.
A valid argument has been made that women are more vulnerable in abusive situations because men tend to be bigger and stronger, and as a result of sociopolitical gender inequities, but abused men are vulnerable for other reasons. Many won’t strike back because they have been conditioned never to hit a woman. Also, they fear that legal authorities won’t believe that they acted in self-defense and they worry about losing their children. Male victims of domestic abuse often feel that they will not be taken seriously if they report it, and there are few services in place to help them.
Oddly enough, those who are physically abused by their fathers are more inclined to become victims of domestic abuse in adulthood, whereas children abused by their mothers more often become victimizers. This has been attributed to the fact that in many families, fathers are still seen as authority figures while mothers are perceived as teaching figures.
Many people believe that that women rarely kill for reasons other than self-defense or defense of others, but a review of female homicides indicated that while some were clear-cut cases of self-defense, many victims were children, other women, or men who were not directly threatening the female killers. Revenge against a straying partner was a common motive for murder.
Female Serial Killers
Pearson notes that approximately 17% of U.S. serial killers are women, but they get far less press coverage than their male counterparts, with the exception of a few high-profile cases such as that of Aileen Wuornos.
Jane Toppan, whose stated ambition was “to have killed…more helpless people than any man or woman has ever killed,” murdered almost 100 nursing home patients not long after Jack the Ripper murdered 5 prostitutes, yet Jack the Ripper was the one who achieved lasting fame.
Female serial killers in positions of power, such as Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th century Hungarian countess who had 610 peasant girls abducted and murdered so that she could bathe in their blood, are also less well-known than men who abused their power by commissioning multiple murders.
Since female serial killers often murder for money or other “practical” reasons, they tend to be placed in a different category than male thrill killers. Also, murderous women tend to be trappers who whose victims are brought into their comfort zones by chance or design, where they are often poisoned or smothered, while male serial killers often stalk their victims and favour guns and knives as weapons. Thus, male killers usually provide more gruesome tabloid fodder.
Childhood Abuse and Crime
It has been argued that the majority of women in jail have suffered abuse in childhood, but the same can be said of male inmates. While the effects of childhood abuse are profound and should not be downplayed, the exclusive focus on childhood abuse causes those who study crime to overlook other important factors, such as poverty, drug addiction, culture, morality, and individual personality. Pearson also suggests that maintaining an emphasis on victimization implies that women are either morally or intellectually inferior, and thus not responsible for their own choices.
Overall, Pearson cautions that “to separate one sex from the other as virtuous or blameworthy is to follow a false trail in understanding the causes of violence.” She believes that the culture of victimhood that arose in the 1980s has universally cast women in the role of men’s victims, which serves to obscure the complex causes of violence.
Ultimately, Pearson’s provocative book fills a gap in the literature, given that women’s aggression has been largely overlooked or treated as an occasional monstrous aberration. There is a danger that this book will be used by those with agendas to justify misogyny or deny historical patterns of gender inequality.
On the other hand, failing to address female aggression plays into the gender stereotypes that have historically been used to justify women’s oppression, as well as devaluing the victims of those women who succumb to their violent urges.
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Reference: Pearson, P. (1997). When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence. Toronto: Random House of Canada Ltd.