Spike in Female Juvenile Violence Prompts Multitude of Explanations

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If little girls are made of "sugar and spice, and everything nice," as the old song puts it, then why are so many more of them getting arrested for violent behavior?

That’s what some public health and education experts gathered to determine at a U.S. Department of Education Safe & Drug Free Schools conference in Washington this week.

For one public health advocate, the gender equality efforts over the last 20 years — coupled with a general increase in mean-spiritedness — have pressured girls to become more aggressive to the point of violence.

"If you live in a society where violence equals power ... then everyone is going to aspire to that," said Dr. Deborah B. Prothrow-Stith, a professor of public health practices at Harvard University.

According to Department of Justice juvenile crime statistics, the rate of violent crimes perpetuated by women more than doubled from 1987 to 1994. In 1997, females represented 26 percent of all juvenile arrests, 16 percent of all violent crime, 6 percent of homicides, 21 percent of aggravated assault and 9 percent of all robberies.

Female juveniles were responsible for 28 percent of burglaries, 16 percent of motor vehicle theft, 11 percent of arsons, 13 percent of drug abuse violations, 26 percent of disorderly conduct charges, 45 percent of embezzlements, 12 percent of vandalism and 9 percent of weapons violations.

These numbers reflect a "third wave" of a youth violence epidemic that began in the 1980s, Prothrow-Stith said, and it is perpetuated by a violent and aggressive culture.

She also blames the "feminization of superheroes" by the media which has encouraged girls to resolve their problems with violence, pointing to the video-game-turned-motion-picture Tomb Raider as evidence. She dismisses the film as little more than a "beautiful girl" who spends the entire film "changing clothes and shooting people in different outfits."

All this, she believes, adds up to a culture that practically encourages girls to be violent. "Forgiveness is so unpopular and empathy is so unpopular — for twenty years now I have been convinced that this is the heart of the problem," she said. Today, girls resort to "kick 'em, beat 'em up solutions," she said.

'More Complex Than That'

But some criminal experts, who were not at the conference, dismiss this sort of social theorizing and point to other potential reasons behind the increasing numbers.

Alec Christof, a criminal justice expert at American University, says it is difficult to nail down concrete causes for any increase in reported violence. He admits that media and culture likely play a role in how young girls are behaving today. But he resists the arguments of those whom he thinks "simplify it and say 'this is why it’s happening.'"

"I just think it’s more complex than that," he said.

For example, Christof acknowledges that police are arresting female offenders more frequently than they had before, but he said it may have to do with better policing techniques than a rise in actual violent behavior. "You don’t know if there is an increase in the behavior or a difference in the way the system is handling it."

And Robyn Johnson, an assistant state’s attorney in Connecticut, agreed. "Police are arresting more frequently, when before they would let things simmer down."

Role of Feminism

But Shepherd Smith, president of the Institute for Development in Virginia, says girls have indeed become increasingly violent, especially in school; and he says feminism is partly responsible.

"Feminism has its plusses and minuses," he said. "You see females modeling more male behavior, whether it’s women in the military, or construction, hunting — traditional male activities — I think that some of the spillover is that male aggression is picked up [by women] more than has been ever witnessed before."

Prothrow-Stith said the way the current generation of young women has been socialized explains some of the violence now reported. "You begin to wonder if we have socialized girls to solve problems like boys" instead of socializing boys to resolve problems in a manner that she said girls used to, namely, without their fists.

But Smith is optimistic and suggests that the rising crime trend for young girls will eventually reverse itself.

"I think that historically, you look at social movements and they tend to go to a certain limit and then there’s a realization that maybe we’ve gone so far," he said.