There are various feminist theories of interpersonal violence (e.g., socialist feminism, standpoint feminism, multicultural feminism), but despite this diversity there is a set of assumptions that feminist theories share. First, feminist theorists see gender—that is, the socially constructed expectations, attitudes, and behaviors associated with females and males, typically organized dichotomously as femininity and masculinity—as a central organizing component of social life. This means that in studying any form of behavior, including violence, one must consider in what ways the behavior is gendered; in other words, one must study how gender influences the frequency of the behavior and how it is expressed. Furthermore, instead of conceptualizing gender as natural and dichotomous, feminist theorists see gender as a process that is shaped by and that shapes social action, opportunities, and experiences.
In making the argument that gender shapes and is shaped by social action, opportunities, and experiences, feminists are not claiming that the genders or gender relations are equal or symmetrical. Instead, a second assumption of feminist theories is that on both the structural and the interpersonal levels, one gender is valued over another, a phenomenon called sexism. In American society and many others, male voices and experiences have historically been privileged over female voices and experiences. At the same time, however, not all men are equally privileged, nor are all women disadvantaged equally. A third assumption of feminist theorists, then, is that gender intersects with other demographic factors, including social class, race and ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation, to influence advantage and disadvantage, behavior, opportunities, and experiences.
In theorizing violence, feminists reject traditional legalistic definitions that focus almost exclusively on forms of physical assault, such as beating, kicking, threatening with a weapon, or using a weapon against another person. Feminist theorists consider such definitions too narrow. Instead, feminist theorists adopt a broader definition of violence that includes sexual, psychological, and economic violence as well as physical violence. At the same time, feminist theorists emphasize victims’ perceptions and experiences along with the consequences of particular actions, instead of relying on purely legalistic criteria. For example, someone could be injured or harmed by behavior that does not involve physical assault, such as stalking or being constantly berated or insulted. Feminist theorists, therefore, define violence as any act—physical, sexual, or verbal—that is experienced by an individual as a threat, invasion, or assault and that has the effect of harming or degrading that individual or depriving her or him of the ability to control various aspects of daily life, including contact with others.
Early Feminist Theories of Interpersonal Violence
One early feminist perspective on interpersonal violence, the liberation hypothesis, was developed during the 1970s. Historically, women’s rates of violent crime had been significantly lower than men’s violent crime rates. During the 1970s, several reports indicated that women’s rates of violent offending were not only increasing, but were increasing faster than those of men. Some theorists argued that these changes were the result of the women’s liberation movement, which was giving women not only more legitimate opportunities, but also more illegitimate opportunities, including opportunities to engage in violent behavior. Careful reanalyses of crime data, however, showed that women’s violent offending had not changed significantly and that the women who were being arrested for violent offenses could hardly be characterized as “liberated.”
Most early feminist theorizing on interpersonal violence focused not on women’s violent offending, but rather on men’s violent victimization of women. Feminists pointed out that men’s violence against women—for example, sexual assault, battering, incest, sexual harassment—had historically been overlooked by crime theorists. Feminists emphasized that women’s victimization at the hands of men, especially men they knew and with whom they had intimate relationships, was more widespread than commonly thought. This violence, they argued, was a direct outgrowth of gender inequality, a means by which men preserve and reinforce their dominance and women’s subordination in a patriarchal society. Men in patriarchal societies have greater access to resources and, therefore, greater power than women. Gender norms justify this inequality and bestow on men a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, services, and deference. Indeed, research with male perpetrators has documented their sense of entitlement as well as their motives for using violence to punish and control women.
More Recent Feminist Theorizing On Interpersonal Violence
Although rates of male violence against women are high, relatively few men actually violently victimize women. Recent feminist theorizing on interpersonal violence, then, has addressed the question of why some men find violent behavior, against women, children, and other men, rewarding. Feminist theorists are also examining women’s use of violence in intimate relationships and other social contexts.
One theoretical model that has emerged from this research conceptualizes gender as something men and women do in response to contextualized norms of masculinity and femininity. This perspective rejects the notion of gender as a static social role. Instead, it sees gender as flexible, changing over time and from situation to situation, as males and females decide or choose how they will establish their masculinity or femininity, respectively, in a given set of circumstances. Such choices, of course, are constrained by structural conditions and learned normative expectations, as well as by a person’s social class, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. But rather than producing a single, homogenous gender role for males and another for females, these conditions produce a multitude of masculinities and femininities, each influenced by the social positioning of the individual.
Violence, then, may be a means of doing gender in certain situations. For example, in studying the characteristics of typical hate crime perpetrators and their victims along with the characteristics of the crimes themselves, criminologist Barbara Perry argues that committing such crimes is a way of accomplishing a specific type of masculinity, hegemonic masculinity, which is White, Christian, able-bodied, and heterosexual. Similarly, criminologist Jody Miller, who has studied girl gang members, maintains that while girls sometimes behave in ways they think of as “masculine,” such as fighting, at other times they embrace a feminine identity, as girlfriends of male gang members or as mothers of young children. Moreover, while crime may be a way of “doing gender,” gender may also be used to accomplish crime, such as when a woman capitalizes on her femininity in order to manipulate a robbery target into a situation that makes the crime easier to complete.
Feminist theorists also examine the ways in which violent victimization may be a pathway to criminal offending, including violent offending, especially for girls and women. Recent research indicates that girls who were sexually abused as children are significantly more likely than nonabused girls and than both abused and nonabused boys to be arrested for violent offenses. This pattern appears to hold in adulthood as well.
There are various other feminist theoretical approaches to understanding interpersonal violence. However, it should be clear that all feminist theories place gender at the center of the analysis and examine how gender intersects with other social locating factors to influence specific behavioral outcomes.
- Miller, J. (1998). Up it up: Gender and the accomplishment of street robbery. Criminology, 36, 37–66.
- Miller, J. (2002). The strengths and limits of “doing gender” for understanding street crime. Theoretical Criminology, 6, 433–460.
- Perry, B. (2001). In the name of hate: Understanding hate crime. New York: Routledge.
- Renzetti, C. M. (2004). Feminist theories of violent behavior. In M. A. Zahn, H. H. Brownstein, & S. L. Jackson (Eds.), Violence: From theory to research (pp. 131–143). Cincinnati, OH: LexisNexis.
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