Politics · Women

Are men given longer prison sentences than women? If so, is it misandry?

Lately I’ve been looking into why some people who I generally consider intelligent and rational are anti-feminists. As a strong believer in feminism and the patriarchal nature of our society, I often question how right I really am in my beliefs. I like to look at what people with differing views have to say so that I can evaluate for myself if they have a point, or if they’re right and I’m wrong. One reason for being against feminism that I came across recently was the assertion that men are given over 50% longer prison sentences than women for the same crime. One study published by the Journal of Criminal Justice found that women are also less likely to be put in jail prior to trial and that their bonds were significantly lower than men’s.

There are some obvious reasons for why this would be, from a feminist and men’s rights activist standpoint. Women are seen as weaker, more fragile, and thus judges think that they couldn’t handle a long time in prison compared to men. But I didn’t want to just believe that this was the case because someone on the internet said so, so I did some research into whether this was true, how it’s been studied and by whom, and how much it’s been studied.

I think it’s mistaken to assume that these findings mean it is simply true, particularly given that the Journal of Criminal Justice study, which was done on 3,593 felony cases, found that women were generally given the same sentence time as their male counterparts. The page also states, “The authors hypothesize that judges might treat female defendants more leniently when they conform to the traditional gender roles of housewife and mother. [They] found support for the “evil woman” theory, which suggests that this “chivalry” is reserved for certain groups of women who appear to be docile and in need of protection.” In other words, a “good woman” needs to be protected, but a “bad woman” deserves to be punished (think Eve vs. Lilith). As long as you submit, you’ll live a life free of persecution. (Submission doesn’t sound very free to me.)

This doesn’t mean that the “sentencing length gap” isn’t real, but it does mean that we should be more cautious in our assumptions. However, for the sake of the points I want to make in this post, let’s assume that it is true.

When I did a basic google search, the first page and a halfish of results were all reports on the same study, conducted by Sonja Starr, which found that on average, men receive 63% longer prison sentences than women for the same crime, when controlling for factors like past criminal record. In the Starr study, they also reference another study which found similar results. A few studies seem to have found results like these, albeit not enough to be completely certain that it’s true, but enough for it to be reasonable to think it is.

But in my research, what I’ve been unable to find is studies on exactly why this might be. When I first heard this statistic, I thought it was proof that men are indeed victimized by the patriarchy just like women are, an aspect of gender inequality that I acknowledge but prefer to focus less on in the pursuit of making women more powerful socially, economically and legally. But as I thought about it, I started to realize that there are actually many potential reasons that have nothing to do systemic prejudice against men OR women, which is why I’m writing this now.

Everyone seems to be drawing their own conclusions about why this is, assuming that what they think of is simply true. I have my own theory that I think is most likely to be true. I’m not saying that it is necessarily true, just that I think we need to consider more options than whatever interpretation suits our own agendas.

There are five main reasons that I think are likely culprits here:

  • Men tend to be more violent than women, so despite being charged for the same crime, a man who beats someone to death is going to seem a lot more threatening to society than a woman who stabbed someone in the stomach.
  • A woman who kills someone (usually a man) who poses an ongoing threat to her life or physical well-being because of abuse is likely to be charged with first-degree murder because she killed her victim when he was asleep rather than in the process of physically threatening her, for example. But despite convicting her of murder when it was really self-defense, the judge might also acknowledge her reasonable motivation for the murder, and thus give her a shorter sentence. (Sort of a halfway understanding of the situation she was in but not enough that it’s let off as self defense rather than a crime.)
  • Authorities, like cops and judges, really like it when you’re submissive – I know from personal experience – and women are far more likely to be submissive, especially to male authority figures (cops and judges tend to be male), while men are often more inclined to try to assert their power to authority figures, which only gets you in trouble (I also know that from experience).
  • Men are taken more seriously as autonomous beings with full agency and control over their actions. When a man commits a crime, it’s generally going to be assumed that he knew exactly what he was doing; when a woman commits a crime, there’s going to be less certainty. “Maybe she’s just confused.” “Maybe it was her time of the month.” “Maybe someone suggested she do it and she listened to them without thinking it through.”
  • Men are simply much more likely to commit crimes than women. In keeping with the male tendency towards crime and violence, men who commit a crime once are more likely to commit further crimes in the future.

Those bullet points sum up my theories on this subject, but if you want a more in-depth explanation and exploration of each, read on.

First, these studies, at least the one done by Starr (the one that most people reference when talking about this), use only arrest offense codes, which, as Starr writes, means that the nuances of the crimes beyond their generic classifications are not taken into account. When simply looking at these codes, all you will see is that someone committed first-degree murder, which is premeditated, intentional and willful. It doesn’t tell you how the murder was done or for what reason. The method of the murder or the reason for it may seem irrelevant when we’re talking about something as severe as murder, but it’s more nuanced than that, as so many things are. (Here’s a link to a song that I can’t bring myself not to link after writing that sentence. Go watch that show. It’s a gift from a goddess [by the name of Rachel Bloom].)

It’s known that men are cross-culturally more prone to violent action than women are. When men commit homicide, they are more than twice as likely to use guns than women, opting for firearms two-thirds of the time, while women use much more varied weapons that are often of a much subtler variety. In keeping with the classic image of the woman who poisons people she doesn’t like (I’ll try not to go on a tangent about my love for Catherine de Medici), women are much more likely to use poison than men (Washington Post). While both methods clearly get the job done, guns are much more hazardous to society than poisons. If someone’s weapon of choice is something that is gruesomely violent and can easily be turned on anyone a person wants dead, including random people on the street, that person is going to be seen by a lot of people as more dangerous than someone who uses a method that takes a little more restraint and planning and can’t so easily be used to attack tons of people at once. We hear about mass shootings all the time (well, here in the US we do, which is a rant for another time), but how often do we hear about someone mass-poisoning people? Only when it’s a religious cult or something of the sort, which is very rare and very different from your average homicidal convict.

When they’re not using guns, male murderers often use other violent methods that require significant amounts of aggression, anger and potentially sadism, such as beating, hitting people with an object, and strangling. Women tend to use methods like “stabbing, asphyxiation, poison, fire, drowning, explosives and defenestration” (quote from the Washington Post article). With the exceptions of fire and explosives, these methods are less violent, meaning that the woman simply knows who she wants to kill and does it quickly and effectively. Whereas methods like shooting and beating someone imply that the attacker is driven, at least in part, by anger and aggression, the methods women tend to use imply that they are much more controlled in their resolve to kill their victim. They are not out of control and overcome with rage in the moment. Further, men using such graphic methods implies that they are more content to inflict pain on someone than women are. Part of the reason for the differences in the methods is probably that men are usually capable of physically overpowering other men or women, whereas women have to use their brains, rather than their bodies, to overpower men. (You know the whole attitude that if you win by outsmarting someone instead of engaging in a “fair fight” then you’ve cheated? There’s some misogyny going on there. What’s fair about someone biologically larger and stronger than their opponent winning a physical fight? Why are physical fights the be-all and end-all of power establishment? I think I know why.)

I’m not remotely saying that every man who kills is overcome with emotion and can’t control himself or that every woman who kills is stony and removed, or that judges, police officers and juries give men and women different treatment because of these overall gender differences. What I’m saying is that when a judge is faced with a defendant who used a restrained, relatively non-violent method to kill someone, in which they made no aggressive or uncontrolled move in the killing, they’re likely going to consider that person less of a threat to society at large than someone who used a violent, typically out-of-control method to kill someone. It comes down to a simple concept: if you seem restrained, you’re generally considered less of a threat to society; if you seem prone to violent aggression, you’re generally considered more of a threat to society. Women are less violent and therefore seen as more restrained; men are more violent and therefore more prone to violent aggression.

Plus, women are more likely than men to have been acting in self-defense, but not an in-the-moment self-defense. (I don’t have statistics on this one, but given my earlier point about women often needing to use their brains instead of their bodies to defeat men, and how often women are in abusive relationships that they have no feasible or safe way to get out of, I think it’s quite a safe assumption.) For example, when your husband (who controls your finances, mobility, and other relationships, and is likely to stalk you and harm you or people you know even if you do manage to get away – this is the situation for many women) is in the act of beating you, assuming there is an average difference between his size and strength and yours, fighting back is pointless. It will only make him angrier, give him a larger surge of adrenaline, and make him beat you even harder. You can’t win in a physical fight. The best thing you can do is lie down and take it. But, when he’s asleep that night, you can sneak out to the kitchen, get a knife, and stab him to death. (It only takes one quick stab in the right place to kill someone fast enough that they can’t hurt you.) Or to slip some poison into his coffee or beer. Men take advantage of women’s weaknesses, so women take advantage of men’s weaknesses.

Because we as a culture don’t see that kind of retaliation as “fair,” that woman is pretty likely to be convicted of first-degree murder, even though it technically should fall into the third-degree category, which is intentional but unplanned and done due to some great, understandable mental disturbance. (Well, I think it should be classified as the non-crime of self defense, but let’s not get lost in daydreaming.) But, because the judge/jury sees the nuance here, they’re still going to give the defendant some leniency for the fact that s/he did have a reasonable motive. I realize that this one is sort of layering theory on top of theory, but I think it’s definitely worth considering.

Then there’s the way women and men act differently in any social setting, but especially when faced with authorities who have power over them. Women are socialized to be submissive, especially around men, which cops and judges tend to be. Being submissive means being quieter, deferring to others, taking up less physical room, apologizing more often, being accommodating, etc etc. While these characteristics are probably less prevalent among women who are criminals, they certainly are still present a majority of the time, probably unconsciously. Men have a mirror of this behavior. They’re socialized to be loud, confident, take up physical room, entitled, stubborn, all of which criminals are more likely to be. Which of these things sound like they’ll make a judge go easier on you?

Then there’s the one that may be my favorite: men are viewed as having more agency than women.

Recently, Metacrone and I were watching a documentary on Bonnie and Clyde. They described how Clyde watched his older brother steal cars and get away with it, living a glamorous life of crime, which inspired Clyde to do the same. Then they talked about how Bonnie, when she first got involved with the crime, didn’t really think about or understand what she was doing, and probably only did it because she’d seen people do it in movies – and, of course, because she had a crush on Clyde. (And we all know men are the main motivators for any woman’s actions.) In other words, they told us that Clyde was influenced by his brother and made an informed, fully autonomous decision to live a life of crime, and Bonnie barely understood that she was committing a crime at all.

This is the attitude that permeates our culture. Women are taken less seriously; it’s the reason people don’t pay attention to my female classmates but listen to my male ones, the reason rape victims are treated with contempt, and anything women are interested in is “fluff” but men screaming over a sports game is serious business. It’s part of the reason women don’t get promoted to higher job positions – “Sandra just doesn’t seem that serious about her work.” It’s the reason mothers, who go through hours or even days of agony, in addition to the physical and emotional strain of being pregnant, and in doing so prolong the human race, are just mothers, but soldiers who return home with war injuries are revered as courageous, strong heroes.

It’s the reason people “joke” or say without the pretense of humor that when a woman is upset or angry, it’s because she’s on her period. Or that a pregnant woman is stereotypically thought of as losing all ability to think or focus (think of women on TV shouting and screaming insults at people they love when they’re going into labor). In one class of mine, a man said that he thinks the only female character of the movie “Five” is strong because she was able to think clearly enough to wander around the LA desert looking for food and shelter, and even capable of walking into the house she found!!!! Because she was pregnant when she did this, and according to him and his undoubted expertise, “when a woman is pregnant, she can barely think or walk at all.” (No one responded to this except with a huh, yeah, good point. They then went on to discuss how racist the movie was for showing the black man doing women’s work – since women’s work is degrading and less valuable than building things and hunting, like the white man was doing.) I could go on and on, but that’s for another day.

If this is a factor in men receiving longer sentences, then this would be one aspect of misogyny that almost always hurts women, but in these rare exceptions, benefits them.

And for the final point: men are simply more likely to commit crime. When a woman commits a crime, it’s more likely that there was an usually compelling reason for it, but among men, it’s more likely that he’s prone to crime and will commit one again. In addition to being aware of the trends among men versus women, judges and cops can probably tell with a certain amount of accuracy whether someone is the kind of person who is prone to this behavior or who simply acted out once, or was pushed into the activity by outside forces. And, since we know men are generally more violent and defiant than women, women are often going to seem less likely to commit further crime in the future even on an individual basis – since, of course, they are.

I don’t know if any of these are true, but I do think that they’re very plausible theories worth considering. My belief is that all of these factor in, probably more than can show up on a study, given the unconscious, deeply ingrained socialization involved, which is very hard to study. It’s also probably the other reasons proposed by men’s rights activists and feminists alike. Whatever the reason, we certainly shouldn’t simply assume that this is misandry. Especially feminists, who are supposed to be working towards a cultural understanding of the many complex ways that patriarchy impacts women. Jumping to the conclusion that men are being mistreated and women are being given a privilege is the opposite of what any egalitarian should do.

This article by Jessica Abrahams goes into some really good detail and explains a lot of my theories, probably better than I have. I recommend it if you’re interested in this subject.

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6 thoughts on “Are men given longer prison sentences than women? If so, is it misandry?

  1. I’m not sure if you exactly make your point.
    Women who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs won’t always be submissive at time of arrest.
    My sister has had some contact with law enforcement when she was drinking, she can be violent and is not docile.
    While I have no doubt that men commit more crimes, is there documentation that compares crimes that are similar. I would also like to see sentencing comparisons for misdemeanors for women vs men.

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    1. I don’t think they will ALWAYS be submissive. I’m talking about trends in this post, not individual cases. Women can be violent, of course. The point, as I reiterate many times in this work, is that women in general are less violent than men.

      A woman who is violent due to intoxication will, on average, be less violent than a man who is intoxicated because they have different levels of violent tendencies to begin with. Plus there is the added level that I also address in this post that women are generally smaller, so even if they are at the same level of violence, they won’t be as threatening and thus the cops arresting them won’t be as likely to take further preventative action.

      For documentation, click on the links given within the post.

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  2. I’m a nurse and I have worked with people with altered mental states, including those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I don’t agree with your statement that women will be less violent under the influence because they have different levels of violent tendencies to begin with. I’ve been kicked, hit, bitten, spat on, etc., by women as well as men. One woman presumed I was pregnant got a hold of a pen, and told me she was going to stab my baby.
    In the case of my sister, alcohol effects her brain in a very specific way where she has the capacity to become violent. Not everyone’s brains react to alcohol in the same way. My sister is smaller than I am. No way would I try to take her on.
    As far as your comment about men being socilaized a certain way, I don’t agree. I’m not really sure what taking up more physical space means. My high school aged son is 7 inches taller than my college aged daughter, so in that way he takes up more space, is he supposed to apologize for that.
    What do you mean about men being socialized to feel entitled ….which men do you mean?
    I haven’t raised my son to feel that way in comparison to my daughter.
    The other night my son went out to eat with a group of his teammates, kids of all different backgrounds. I think as teenaged boys they are much more likely to have a spotlight on them when they are out of behaving badly. My husband and I have told my son many times to watch how he behaves when he is about because as a teenage boy people will be suspicious. I’m sure other parents feel this anxiety as well, especially parents of African-American males. I would imagine that has to be incredibly demoralizing.
    Again, everyone knows that men commit more violent crimes than women. However women do have the capacity to become violent, especially towards their children. If you don’t know who the Pearls are…you should look them up. Many parents follow their methods for child discipline…I equate their methods to violence.

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  3. I never implied that anyone has to apologize for their physical size or behavior.

    Look up manspreading. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s not about inherent physical size. It’s about the unspoken messages in our culture that manly men sit with their legs spread wide open, use the armrests next to them without regard for the person in the seat next to them who might want to use that armrest, and walk in the center of the sidewalk so that no one else has room to pass them or walk next to them, while ladylike women sit with their legs closed, allow other people to use physical space instead of themselves, and keep themselves generally physically small. Here’s a link on manspreading. It’s a widely acknowledged phenomenon. http://www.cnn.com/travel/article/manspreading-public-transport/index.html

    I don’t know how you raised your children. Maybe they were raised in a gender equal household; I know those exist, I come from one. But how you raised your children or how I was raised is not the point. The point is how MOST kids are raised and the cultural messages that seep into their consciousnesses over the course of their lives that shape how they view themselves and their place in the world. I absorbed a lot of those messages despite being raised in a home with total gender equality (well, besides unconscious attitudes that my parents most likely have from their own experiences in a sexist world). It seems you’re not familiar with how powerful and ubiquitous social conditioning is, even regardless of the people you grow up in close quarters with. Here are a couple links to get you started.

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/differences-between-men-women-vastly-exaggerated-adam-grant?articleId=6300328426779734016#comments-6300328426779734016&trk=prof-post

    http://www.apa.org/research/action/difference.aspx

    From that second link, I want to highlight this quote in particular: “For example, after participants in one experiment were told that they would not be identified as male or female, nor did they wear any identification, none conformed to stereotypes about their sex when given the chance to be aggressive. In fact, they did the opposite of what would be expected – women were more aggressive and men were more passive.”

    Of course women can be just as violent as men, especially when alcohol and drugs are involved. When heavily intoxicated or otherwise disoriented, a lot of social conditioning falls away, because self-awareness falls away. You’re working with a very specific group of people. I’m talking about average trends among the overall human populace, not any one group in an altered mental state.

    Most people who are arrested for petty crimes aren’t intoxicated. It’s known that men are more violent than women on average. If a person is more violent, society will be more wary of them, including judges and cops.

    People are more suspicious of teenage boys because teenage boys are, on average, more dangerous. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/aug/10/science.highereducation (that article argues that it’s “natural” for teenage boys to be more violent, which I think is only a little true because testosterone does encourage aggression, but it does affirm that teenage boys are more violent, in keeping with overall gender trends.) Teenage boys also, in general, get away with more than teenage girls. They’re certainly not belittled the way teenage girls are on an everyday basis.

    You mention that it’s worse for black families. Probably because of the subtle messages people receive that are all around us in our prejudiced culture, right? Same goes for gender discrimination.

    I’m not sure why you’re bringing up the Pearls. Their method has nothing to do with how violent men are versus how violent women are. Violence towards children is a different subject, unless you’re implying that vastly more women use the Pearl method than men. In general, men are much, much more dangerous towards children than women are. That doesn’t mean no woman is dangerous to children.

    My personal experiences don’t exactly match up with the overall social trends that studies find, either. Many individuals’ lives don’t match up with them. It doesn’t mean that the trends aren’t true. This post is addressing why, in general, men face harsher sentences and police treatment than women. Not whether each gender can be violent. Any human alive can be violent under the right circumstances.

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  4. I was actually raised in a very conservative household, as far as gender roles. I spent a lot of time thinking about not wanting to be constrained to a box that that representing what a woman should be.
    When I had a son, I started looking at life differently. My children both attended an elementary school that had a higher percentage of children from minority backgrounds and from backgrounds of poverty than most of the other elementary schools in the districts. To say that all of the males coming out of this school are going to live the life of the “entitled” male is just not so. I’d consider lack of equity in education as a bigger contributor to crime for the male classmates of my children than any supposed entitlement.
    What do you mean by teenage boys get away with more than teenage girls? Crime? Infractions in school? To the extent that our junior high and high school have had a police presence they are definitely focused on males. Go to a football game and see mostly male school administrators ready to jump on high school boys for any possible infraction.
    I still can’t get excited about manspreading. My dad was 6’5″ and most of the world was not designed for people of his height, especially airplane seats. No one talks about issues like that. I don’t like to sit with my legs crossed for very long because it will make my legs fall asleep.

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  5. I’m not talking about getting personally worked up about manspreading. I’m explaining how it can contribute to men being given longer sentences.

    We’re not gonna convince each other on this. Agree to disagree.

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