The Effects of Childhood Victimization, Family Distress and Community Disorder on Women and Crime

Rebecca Duke

Arizona State University



The Effects of Childhood Victimization, Family Distress and Community Disorder on Women and Crime

            Academics have long researched, studied and debated women and crime causation, and although research provides several platforms that may explain criminal behaviors, not one field of study significantly prevails over the others.  Theoretical studies of women and crime suggest that women engage in criminal behaviors based on four main philosophies; physical environments, social disorder, peer influence, and distress that would include drug addiction and prostitution.  Women who engage in criminal behaviors do so for a variety of reasons; however, childhood victimization and one’s physical environment, as defined by social control theory and social disorganization theory respectively, appear to have significant effects on women and their propensity for crime. 

Social Learning and Social Control Theories

            Social control theory suggests that individuals tend to break the law when social bonds break down, signifying that social ties aid in the prevention of deviant behaviors (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2004).  Social learning theory, on the other hand, suggests that individuals commit crime because they are exhibiting behaviors they witness either in the home or in society (Bandura, 1977).  Bloom et al. (2004) assert that female offenders tend to engage in criminal behaviors because of low-income limitations, lack of educational opportunities, and childhood victimization.  Baskin and Sommers (1998) explain that, ideally, the family unit is where loving relationships are communicated, self-esteem and self-confidence are encouraged, and safety or stability is the foundation of a healthy environment.  However, in families where mental health problems, substance or alcohol addiction, or violent behaviors disrupt the well-being of the family unit, criminal or delinquent behaviors may often be the result (Baskin & Sommers, 1998).  Adolescent girls who are subjected to violence in the home, compared to that of their male counterparts, may seek ways to escape the victimization, often engaging in delinquent behaviors such as petty theft, drug experimentation, or even prostitution.

According to Baskin and Sommers (1998), childhood victimization is viewed as the primary cause for female offenders who engage in delinquent behaviors early in life.  Siegel & Williams hypothesize that adolescent girls who run away from home do so because of physical, emotional or sexual abuse within the family unit (2003).  Unfortunately, arrest of these young girls may lead to additional problems, especially if they end up on the street where they may engage in prostitution and theft to survive.  Poe-Yamagata & Butts (1996) affirm that females, under the age of 18, are arrested more often for theft crimes than any other crime.

             Bloom et al. explain that most female offenders’ “…pathways to crime are based on survival of abuse, poverty, and substance abuse” (2004, pg 34, para 4).  Siegel and Williams claim, “studies of female delinquents report that approximately half (48-53 percent) have been sexually abused, and the proportion of women prisoners who report having a history of childhood sexual victimization is two to three times greater than women in the general public” (2003, pg. 71).  However, this statistic is somewhat misleading because sexual abuse alone, according to Siegel and Williams, is not a significant attribution for females and criminal behaviors (2003).  Rather, the combined elements of victimization, including physical, emotional as well as sexual, cause females to engage in crime as reactionary behaviors. In other words, for example, adolescent girls who run away may steal to survive on the streets rather than stealing to gain social acceptance or as a result of peer pressure.

            The breakdown of familial support, including domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse, childhood physical or sexual abuse, contribute significantly to females engaging in crime and delinquent behaviors (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2004).  Bloom et al. suggests that causation explanation for women, specifically, in crime incorporates a “…whole life perspective…,” and that crime exists on a multi-faceted foundation that may not be easily understood (2004).  Some academics may closely relate broken or distressed family histories with social disorganization theory, in which environmental and community disorder contributes to criminal behaviors (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2004).

Social Disorganization Theory

            Social disorganization theory describes issues at the community level, in which poverty, residential mobility, and ethnic heterogeneity influence criminal behaviors (McNeeley, 2014).  Baskin and Sommers explore how the distressed community influences women and their participation in crime, claiming neighborhoods that exhibit high levels of crime inadvertently encourage more crime, often as a method of survival (1998).  Baskin and Sommers describe that crime in distressed neighborhoods develops from a kill or be killed mentality (1998).

Poverty, in and of itself, is one of the main contributors to crime and delinquent behaviors. Individuals and families who reside in lower income neighborhoods must cope with a variety of limitations and stresses such as crime victimization, lack of employment opportunities, high population density, and social bonds or lack thereof (Steffensmeier & Haynie, 2000).  Steffensmeier and Haynie contend “…male and female attitudes and actions reflect the influence of external constraints…” and, therefore, reactive behaviors determine whether crime is advantageous (2000, pg 405, para 1).

Criminal behaviors in distressed communities often result from merely trying to survive.  In areas of high drug sales, for example, developing a respectable reputation is important and crucial to survival.  Similarly, people who witness violence in the neighborhood are more likely to carry a weapon for protection or assume an aggressive persona in order to ward off potential harm.  Furthermore, low-income families are often mobile, either moving households because of financial instability or just lack stable housing and are homeless.  Finally, minor crimes such as prostitution, loitering, and public recklessness become a way of life, which further invites delinquent behaviors among members of the community (Baskin & Sommers, 1998). 

Women in troubled neighborhoods tend to have a disadvantage and are more often victimized.  Although male domination exists in all environments, dysfunctional communities tend to exhibit more male aggressive behaviors, not only towards other men but also women.  For this reason, women may engage in criminal behaviors in an attempt to demonstrate self-confidence and self-sufficiency as a matter of survival (Baskin & Sommers, 1998).  For this reason, young females are more likely to join gangs to seek acceptance and protection (Alarid, Burton, & Cullen, 2000).  In areas where violence dominates the community, women tend to commit crime that is equally aggressive; however, because women are less often violently victimized they tend to engage in more non-violent crimes such as property offenses or larceny (Alarid, Burton, & Cullen, 2000).

Race and ethnicity play a significant role in arrest rates for women.  According to Steffensmeier and Hynie, studies revealed “…that black crime rates are related to some structural features differently than white rates” (2000, pg 406, para 2).  African Americans, in general, are incarcerated, “…at nearly six times the rate of whites,” however, more than 30 percent of black female offenders are sentenced to prison (The Sentencing Project, 2007; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2015). Also, according to the Sentencing Project, Hispanic females are 69% more likely to be incarcerated than white women (2007). Black and Hispanic females are not more likely to engage in criminal activity, only based on race or ethnicity, the social structure that drives minorities to reside in distressed neighborhoods also increases their chances of committing crimes and, therefore, incarceration.


Academics continue to study and explore the causes and influences of crime in relation to gender. Female offenders tend to engage in criminal behaviors as a result of personal histories (i.e. victimization) as well as the need to adapt to distressed social models in order to survive. Although victimization appears to be the main influence for minor female offending, social disorder tends to influence more violent behaviors. Combined theories, under new perspectives, for crime causation have less support than the original disorder theories; however, as more direct studies are concluded, perhaps society will have a better understanding as to why women engage in criminal behaviors when they are not typically identified as having aggressive and violent traits.



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Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory.

Baskin, D. R., & Sommers, I. B. (1998). Casualties of Community Disorder: Women's Careers in Violent Crime. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Bloom, B., Owen, B., & Covington, S. (2004). Women Offenders and the Gendered Effects of Public Policy. Review of Policy Research, 21(1), 31.

McNeeley, S. (2014). Social Disorganization Theory. Retrieved from The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (2015). Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. Retrieved from

Poe-Yamagata, E., & Butts, J. A. (1996, June). Female Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System. National Center for Juvenile Justice, Pittsburg, PA.

Siegel, J. A., & Williams, L. M. (2003, February). The Relationship Between Child Sexual Abuse and Female Delinquency and Crime: A Prosepctive Study. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 40(1), 71-94. doi:10.1177/0022427802239254

Steffensmeier, D., & Haynie, D. (2000). Gender, structural disadvantage, and urban crime: do macrosocial variables also explain female offending rates? Criminology, 38(2), 403-438.

The Sentencing Project. (2007, May). Women in the Criminal Justice System . Retrieved from The Sentencing Project: