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.