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Mother Theresa to Maleficent: Are Women Capable of Serious Crimes?

Women are considered to be a vulnerable population in the criminal justice system, often the victim, and hardly ever the culprit – especially with regard to committing serious crimes such as murder, torture, cannibalism, and/or sexual crimes. How true is this perception? Is it really that women do not often (or ever) commit serious crimes, or that they are better at getting away with it?

 

I want the world to know I killed these men, as cold as ice. I’ve hated humans for a long time. I killed them in cold blood, real nasty.” 

– Aileen Wuornos (female serial killer)

 

Are there any specific biological, psychological, and/or social risk factors that make some women like Aileen more prone to violence than others?

This is a difficult question to answer, as research on female offenders is limited due to the misconception that women are not capable of gruesome crimes (oh boy, the male-dominated scientific community couldn’t be more wrong!). Therefore, the majority of the psychological instruments were created and validated only for the male population. 

This worked very well for female offenders during criminal justice procedures, as there is a gender difference in how disruptive personality traits are exhibited for men vs women. What does this mean? It means that female offenders had the benefit of not being detected as “cold-hearted and manipulative” (even when they had committed very grave crimes), which resulted in reduced sentences.  

As the scientific community became more aware of this situation, there is now an emerging trend of psychological research to assess antisocial, psychopathic, and violent tendencies of women; to observe how it looks different from men. What have they found so far? 

Women who commit serious crimes as an adult, have had very troubling and abusive childhood experiences due to poverty, parental divorce, and bullying, etc. Female offenders are more anxious, fearful, and emotionally unstable compared to adult men who commit serious crimes, but they do not act impulsively like most male offenders, and rather make deliberate plans to harm their victims. 

Their victims are known to them (i.e., not random strangers) mostly from vulnerable populations (no preference for gender), such as senior citizens or children, as female offenders are not as physically strong as their male counterparts. Female offenders do not commit serious crimes without a strong need for personal benefit, such as insurance money, and this risk is enhanced when they are pressured by external factors, such as an abusive partner, debt, loss of a loved one, and/or societal ridicule, etc. 

Female offenders are more manipulative and better at gaining trust from their potential victims before causing serious harm. They often kill at home where victims feel safe and secure, and hence, would not stay guarded. Female offenders drug their victims to compensate for their lack of physical strength, and then use discrete methods such as poison, suffocation, and/or staged accidents. For example, if they are to use poison as the chosen method of killing, this may happen over years in small doses until the victim will eventually die as “seemingly due to natural causes”, allowing the offender to stay undetected. 

In comparison to direct, reckless, and swift methods of killing (preferred by men), such as stabbing and shooting, poisoning a supposedly loved one over years goes to show how female offenders may be more calculating and callous in their crimes. Furthermore, they continue to stay undetected for longer; as unlike male offenders, female offenders do not boast about their crimes or hold evidence (e.g. videotapes of committing the offence). This lengthens their average time of being arrestedit takes twice the time to capture female offenders. 

If research has been able to reveal these characteristics of female offenders, why are there still very low numbers of arrests and prosecution for female offenders? Is it because they do not commit crimes as much as male offenders? 

Yes and no. Yes, men commit more serious crimes than women; but no, more women should be prosecuted for their crimes, as only less than 1% of female offenders who commit serious crimes are actually convicted for their actions.  

True, as aforesaid, female offenders tend to stay undetected for a longer period, and hence it lowers the rate of their arrest and prosecution, but what’s holding back the criminal justice system to convict them (only if guilty, of course), once arrested? The answer simply comes down to, “societal perception and attitude of law enforcement agencies towards women”. 

So what about it? A majority of female offenders are educated and married with children, which are usually considered to be protective factors against a person becoming or continuing to be violent. Often these female offenders hold feminine and caregiver roles in the community, such as teachers and nurses. Women are perceived to be the nurturing sex (i.e., domestic roles such as wives and mothers), where male victims are mocked at for not accepting unsolicited advances (yes, it is possible for women to sexually harass men). 

Especially during prosecution, female offenders are quite emotional, remorseful, and willing to accept responsibility for their actions; and additionally, the criminal justice system is also more acceptive of mitigating factors for women that may justify their serious crimes (i.e. abusive partner, mental health difficulties, PMS-ing at the time of the crime – oh yes, it’s a fact!).

In conclusion, “are women capable of serious crime?” Hell to the yes, they are. Not only they are capable of it, but they are also better (than men) at execution and evading consequences. This should in no way be misinterpreted as female empowerment though. Despite the gender of the offender/victim, the law should be equal to everyone to serve right by victims. 

 

(The writer is a forensic psychologist based in Sri Lanka who currently leads a QR-GCRF-funded research project regarding post-crisis disaster management of armed forces. She has research and clinical experience across a maximum-security prison, military hospital, and high-secure hospital. Her research interests include trauma and recovery, bullying, callous and unemotional traits, psychopathy, and serial homicide)