Girls and Violence: Is the Gender Gap Closing?

Meda Chesney-Lind

     Public concern about girls' aggression and violence has rarely been higher. This is particularly true after a hazing incident at Glenbrook High School on May 4, 2003, that was videotaped and given extensive media coverage. Instead of simply using covert or ""relational"" aggression against their victims (gossiping or spreading rumors about them), this collection of senior girls kicked, punched, pushed, and beat girls with bats. This is all in addition to smearing girls with pig intestines, feces, urine, fish guts, coffee grounds, and paint. Charged with misdemeanor battery, these girls have served as a high profile example that girls' well-documented ""meanness"" can sometimes result in physical violence (Meadows & Johnson, 2003). It was also a story that capped off over a decade of media coverage about apparent increases in girls' physical violence.
     We have always had ""bad"" girls and media eager to showcase their waywardness. In the 1990s we had the female gang members, who, like their male counterparts, carried guns, killed people, and practiced brutal initiation rituals (Chesney-Lind, 1997). In the 1960s and 70s we had female revolutionary figures like Leslie Van Houten and Friederike Krabbe, who carried guns and fought alongside their rebellious male counterparts (Klemesrud, 1978). Then there were the ""mean girls"" that ushered in the new millennium (Talbot, 2002). In many ways, the Glenbrook High girls just became the latest in a long line of ""bad"" girls for a country that grew up reading Longfellow's poem about his daughter: ""when she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid."" (Longfellow, 1992, p. 513) The case, though, also raised a larger question. Are girls closing the long-standing ""gender gap"" in violence?

Trends in Girls' Arrests

     In order to understand the renewed focus on girls' violence, it is important to review the crime trends that drew media attention to youth violence in general. In fact, although the U.S. had experienced relatively stable crime rates from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, violent crime rates for juveniles soared during this period. By the mid-nineties, the grim statistics regarding adolescent violence gained national attention. Among the more sobering statistics was an approximately 70% increase in youth arrest rates for violent offenses and a nearly 300% growth in youth homicide arrest rates from 1983 to 1994 (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). Soon the attention of the media was drawn to what some were calling an ""epidemic of youth violence"" (Cook & Laub, 1998).
     Criminologists largely explained the epidemic as a product of three unique trends (mostly relevant to boy's violence): introduction of new crack markets to inner-cities, increased distribution of guns to juveniles, and the involvement of gangs in the crack and underground gun markets (Blumstein, 1995; Blumstein & Cork, 1996; Blumstein & Wallman, 2000). The theory went as follows: young gang members used guns to solve the disputes arising within new and unstable crack markets. Gang members' reliance on guns to solve these disputes eventually spread to their non-drug dealing friends and set off a pattern where guns became the solution to a wide range of conflicts that youths confronted in their everyday lives (Chesney-Lind & Irwin, 2004).
     The vast majority of violent perpetrators and victims during the youth violence epidemic were boys and young men of color, so the media coverage of the ""epidemic"" was initially focused on boys. However, while boys and men were the primary individuals driving the violence arrest statistics, by the mid-nineties boys' arrests began to decline while girls' did not--a fact that was also not lost on the media. Between 1992 and 2003, girls' arrests increased 6.4% while arrests of boys actually decreased by 16.4%. While decreases were seen across many crimes of violence for both boys and girls, the period saw a 7% increase in girls' arrests for aggravated assault during a period that showed a 29.1% decrease in boys' arrests for this offense. Likewise, arrests of girls for assault climbed an astonishing 40.9% when boys' arrests climbed by only 4.3% (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003).
     Concomitant with these arrest increases were increases in girls' referrals to juvenile courts from police and other sources (like school officials and parents). Between 1990 and 1999, the number of delinquency cases involving girls increased by 59 percent (from 250,000 to 398,600) compared to a 19 percent increase for males (from 1,066,900 to 1,274,500) (Stahl, 2003). Looking at specific offense types, the report observed: ""The growth in cases involving females outpaced the growth in cases involving males in all offense categories. For both males and females, simple assault cases increased more than any other person offense (136% for females and 80% for males)"" (Stahl, 2003, p.1).
     Finally, and most significantly, the detention of girls (a focus of three decades of ""de-institutionalization efforts"") has suddenly increased. Between 1989 and 1998, girls detentions increased by 56% compared to a 20% increase seen in boy's detentions, and the ""large increase was tied to the growth in the number of delinquency cases involving females charged with person offenses (157%)"" (Harms, 2002, p. 1).
     Clearly, more girls were arrested in the last decade, and they were being arrested for ""non-traditional"" offenses like assault and aggravated assault. It seemed that just when the public and policy makers were able to put aside their fears of the juvenile super predator, they had a new and problem on their hands: violent girls. Is this really the case? Are girls really getting more violent?

Reasons to Be Skeptical

     Actually, there are several reasons to be highly skeptical of the recent increases in the arrest rates of girls for violent aggression. Most significantly, several self-report data sources revealed that boys' and girls' violence decreased dramatically in the late 1990s, thus indicating that the youth violence epidemic had waned significantly. What is most interesting is that self-reports indicated that girls' rates of violence decreased more dramatically than boys' rates.
     The CDC has been monitoring youthful behavior in a national sample of school aged youth in a number of domains (including violence) at regular intervals since 1991 in a biennial survey entitled the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (see Table 1). A quick look at data collected over the last decade reveals that while 34.4% of girls surveyed in 1991 said that they had been in a physical fight in the last year, by 2001 that figure had dropped to 23.9%or a 30.5% decrease in girls' fighting; boys' violence also decreased during the same period but less dramatically-from 50.2 to 43.1% or a 14.1% drop (Centers for Disease Control, 1992-2002). A logistic analysis of these trends (for the years 1991-1997) published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the analyses revealed decreases in physical fighting for both male and female students. The decrease for females was larger, suggesting they had a ""steeper decline."" (Brener, Simon, Krug, & Lowry, 1999, p. 444).

Table 1: Trends in Girls' and Boys' Self-Reported Violence

  1991 1993 1995 1997 1999 2001
In a Physical Fight
Carried a Weapon
Carried a Gun

Source: Compiled by the author from Youth Risk Surveillance data (CDC, 1992; 1994; 1998; 2000; and 2002).

     Further support of this notion comes from recent research on girls' violence in San Francisco (Males & Shorter, 2001). Their analyses of vital statistics maintained by health officials (rather than arrest data) conclude that there has been a 63% drop in San Francisco teen-girl fatalities between the 1960s and the 1990s, and they also report that hospital injury data show that girls are dramatically under-represented among those reporting injury (including assaults) (girls are 3.7% of the population but were only 0.9% of those seeking treatment for violent injuries) (Males & Shorter, 2001, p. 1-2). They conclude: ""Compared to her counterpart of the Baby Boom generation growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, a San Francisco teenage girl today is 50% less likely to be murdered, 60% less likely to suffer a fatal accident, 75% less likely to commit suicide, 45% less likely to die by guns, 55% less likely to become a mother, 60% less likely to commit murder, and 40% less likely to be arrested for property crimes"" (Males & Shorter 2001, p. 1). If girls were getting more violent, in San Francisco and elsewhere, one would expect other systems (like hospitals and health departments) to also be noting this trend, but that is not happening.

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