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What Contribution have feminists made to our understanding of victimisation? Essay

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In answering this question it would be useful to first discuss very briefly, the feminist contribution to the study of criminology in general to help and aid understanding of the feminist perspective on victimisation. The feminist contribution to victimisation shall be outlined, along with evidence to back up any arguments that are put forwards, any responses made by the government or any other such organisation as a result of feminist writings, and also the advantages that feminism has provided in victimisation in general shall be included.

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There shall however, also be a critical approach, from both outside, and within the feminist strain of thought, as there are different types of feminist, and these often criticise each other, for example, black feminists criticise all other groups of feminists for not taking account for a woman’s race (Bagihole, 1992,)

As mentioned before there are a variety of different feminisms, although these are united together by their common desire for sexual justice and a concern for women’s welfare. Feminism can be divided into four broad categories; Liberal, Radical, Marxist/Socialist and Post modern feminism (Taylor – 1997). Feminist contribution to criminology has enriched the discipline in four main ways. Firstly it attempts to show that much of the previous criminological theorising has neglected the offending of women entirely, it was simply assumed that when discussing offenders, it was a male being discussed. Secondly, feminists have brought attention to the treatment of women within the criminal justice system and believe that chivalry plays huge role in the lenient treatment of women.

Thirdly, focus is placed on the fact that crime is highly gendered, and asks the question of why women commit so few offences and males so many (Smith – 1995) For example a report carried out by the Home Office in 2001, showed that in 2000 81% of all known offenders were male, and that this proportion has remained stable over the last -. Fourthly, and the main focus of this essay is their contribution to the study of victimisation, they discuss the previously “hidden” crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault and rape of women and children within the supposed safety of the home, and attempt to research and explain the “dark figure” of crime against these groups, the dark figure being a the percentage of these crimes that go unreported, they also raise question about how girls and women can be protected from male violence, and how victims can best be supported (Smith – 1993).

It is radical feminists that emphasise the violent/sexual assault, women’s oppression and control through the avenue of victim studies, although the term “survivor” is preferred as opposed to “victim” due to the belief that it gives a more positive active role for women in their daily lives. The term “victim” suggests powerlessness and passivity of those women who have been victims of crime (Rafter and Heidensohn – 1995).

From a feminist perspective, women are more likely than men to be the victims of sexual assaults, such as rape, violence in the home and theft from the person. Although it has been argued that young men are the most at risk to experience violent victimisation, the Home Office’s summary of the statistical data on female victimisation provides a starting point for the feminist argument. The proportion of female victims of violence known to the police rose from 27% in 1984 to 33% in 1989, a rise of 5% in 5 years (Smith – 1995).

This increase, in a feminists eyes, is due to the increased willingness to report such crimes, and an increase in the willingness of police to record them, an uncovering of a “hidden” crime, not a mere increase in these incidents.

Women are more likely than men to be attacked in the home, and around half of these acts of violence are committed by male partners. Of the 226 cases of women as the victims of murder in 1990, 43% were killed by someone they had been emotionally involved with, either current, or ex-partners, 19% by another family member, and a mere 11% by strangers(Smith – 1995). It was found the perpetrators of offences against both males and females are predominantly male.

In the case of rape, the feminist view of the victim or “survivor” has led to some improvement in their position. Firstly they are theoretically allowed anonymity and protection from having their character tested, although in practice the victim was only actually protected following pressure from feminist groups and the Youth and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. This act allowed the exclusion of information on a complainant’s previous sexual history (Taylor 1997). Secondly, by setting up more sympathetic units in police stations for the victim to attend (rape suits) and generally altering the police response to a rape victim. These changes have encouraged some improvement in reporting, although the incidence of rape is still though to be higher than is officially recorded (Williams 2001).

As briefly mentioned above, feminist works on victimisation have contributed a great deal towards the study of domestic violence, and the view that here, there is also a “hidden” number of female victims of domestic violence. Feminist work in this field in this field in Britain has had a greater impact than any other works. In a survey of literature recorded on major databases, more feminist contributions were found; this shows the extent of the feminist contribution in this particular area of victimology. Not only is its volume notable but it has had a significant impact on criminal justice policy in Britain. It is for their impact on policy that feminist activities are most noted for. The greatest success has been in public awareness;

“Feminists have achieved a good deal of success in terms of heightening public awareness, an subsequently shaping support services, for women and children in the context of men’s violence……policy makers in health and social services, housing, the police and the criminal justice system more generally have responded to the demands made by feminists” (Rafter and Heidensohn 1995 page 71)

To highlight such responses, in the case of domestic violence there have been more than a few improvements. There are now special provisions set out to protect women and children against this type of behaviour. The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceeding Act 1976 and the Domestic Proceedings and Magistrate Court Act 1978 (Williams 2001).

The former (1976) act restricted molestation of children and spouse, gave the right to exclude the offender from the matrimonial home, requiring permission of other party to enter any part of the matrimonial home. The latter (1978) act, attempted to protect married women from physical violence by husbands, it enables an exclusion order to be brought about, which is legal exclusion of the offender from the matrimonial home, if the victim could prove violence had been exerted on either themselves or any child within the household. Financial support was also made available to any spouse who was a victim of, of had a child who was a victim of domestic violence (www.sociologyonline.co.uk).

More recently, the position of women who have fallen victim to domestic violence may have been improved by new programmes that are designed to force men to manage and control their aggression. These are welcomed and positive responses in the eyes of a feminist, but they are also patchy and do not respond effectively to the needs of ethnic minority victims, which will be discussed later when criticising the feminist contributions.

In a feminists eyes, the extent of domestic violence is hard to determine as women may be afraid to report it, women may believe that it would be useless for them to do so also, because of the view held by some that a husband has the right to punish his wife if she steps out of line (Taylor 1997) For example, a Scottish judge was once cited;

“Reasonable chastisement should be the duty of every husband if his wife misbehaves” (Smith – 1995 – page 125)

Household based crime surveys are also useless in understanding the extent of such crimes and uncovering the “dark figure” of such crimes, maybe due to the fact that the victim is often with the perpetrator at the time, and there is no doubt that the British Crime Survey underestimates these crimes. There can be no reliable estimate of the extent of domestic violence, but there is a “hidden figure” to which needs to be addressed (Taylor – 1997)

In the case of victimisation, the feminist approach also pays particular attention the sexual abuse of children, and sexual abuse within the family, in fact it was feminists that first highlighted this problem. Feminist writers believe it is males who are the main perpetrators of such crimes, and blame a males desire to exert power over women and children. As mentioned before this type of crime is also believed to occur far more than commonly assumed. Research suggests that between 20 and 40% of females experience some kind of sexual abuse (which they are willing to disclose) before the age of 18, and the figure for males appears to be a little under 10% (Smith- 1995).

Feminist research and its contribution to criminology and victimisation has opened out new territory in the study of crime and it gives challenges and opportunities to social workers. The previously hidden or under-regarded crimes of domestic violence, sexual abuse of children and rape have been highlighted, and attempts have been made to overcome these. Feminist studies in victimology call for a new form of co-operation with other agencies and social workers and call for the right of women for protection from abusive relationships (Rafter and Heiensohn – 1995).

Feminists argue that the main factor to blame for the high incidence of sexual abuse and domestic violence within the household is due to patriarchy, which has been defined as;

“A social system in which the father is the head of the family and men have authority over women and children…..A family, community, or society based on this system or governed by men. ” (http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=patriarchy).

Men are viewed as intelligent, rational, objective, competitive, and stronger and women are viewed as the direct opposite. They are seen as weak, vulnerable, unintelligent and too subjective and emotional. Feminists believe this is the basic assumption carried by most men. To men, they are biologically superior and therefore have the right to dominate and control women, be this with sexual abuse, violence or other means. Wife assault is seen to be the systematic domination of women by men. All men can use violence as a means of subordinating women (Adkins – 1995).

Now that the main characteristics of feminist victiminolgy, its merits and impacts have been discussed, it would be useful to briefly, take a more critical approach to the feminist view, and there is no shortage of these views. Feminist victimology has been criticised from a number of groups for a variety of reasons. This essay will focus on critiques based on who feminist theorists exclude, from black feminists and its apparent disregard for ethnic minority groups of females, the feminists disregard for domestic violence within gay couples, and finally, the feminists disregard for violence and/or sexual assault exerted on men and children from wives and mothers.

From a black feminists perspective to feminism in general, be it feminist criminology or victimology, it does not deal adequately with questions relating to race and ethnicity when discussing females, ie, the female offender and the female victim. Yet as various studies show, the “race” of a person is a crucial factor in terms of overall representation of some groups within the criminal justice system. The exclusion of women of ethnic minority groups has been identified as a contributing factor to the shortage of race/ethnic minority perspectives in theory building on domestic violence (Freedman K – 2001).

Similarly, lesbian theorists question the feminists exclusion of gay couples, and its views on patriarchy, and its influence of domestic violence. The prevalence of violence in homosexual relationships, which also appear to go through abuse cycles is hard to explain in terms of men dominating women. A survey carried out on 1099 lesbians found that 52% had been a victim of violence and that 50% had used violence against their partner, and 30% said they had used violence against a non-violent female partner. Lesbian relationships tend to be more violent than gay relationships, and in a similar survey it was found that 56% of lesbian relationships were violent compared to 25% of gay relationships (White and Holmes 2001).

This evidence brings into question the patriarchy theory, and lesbian theorists ask the question of, how can domestic violence be about patriarchy when it still occurs, at a high level, in same sex relationships? Perhaps there are other explanations that can be put forwards in terms of domestic violence, which do not focus primarily on patriarchy as the cause.

Finally, the feminist theory is seen to ignore violence and sexual assault where, the female is the perpetrator, and the husband or children the victim. The focus in feminist works on victimology is on the male transgressor, however, as study carried out by Bland and Orn in 1986 showed that 73.4% of women, stated that within violent relationships, they usually were the first to use physical violence. They state that from their studies they found that women sexually abuse their children more than men do, and that, only minor differences exist between male and female aggression (http://www.batteredmen.com/dutfull.htm).

The critiques given here are all valid reasons for questioning the feminist theory, but the theory should not be regarded as completely invalid in explaining female victimolgy. Feminists have made a great deal of contributions in areas such as domestic violence, sexual abuse of women and children, and rape. This is evident in the policy responses to the feminist theories, and the greater recognition in general of the prevalence of these types of crime, an uncovering of the “dark figure” of these crimes.

The main flaw to the feminist contribution is that it tends to exclude certain groups, such as, women from ethnic minorities, gay couples, and men and children who are victims of violence, where the female is the perpetrator or instigator. Feminists need to put more focus on, and contribute more to victimolgy in relation to such groups. There is too much focus on heterosexual white females, for the feminist contribution to be more valid and generalisable to the population on the whole focus needs to be placed on other groups in society.


Adkins, L Gendered work; sexuality, family and the labour market, 1995,

Buckingham Open University Press

Freedman K, Feminism, 2001, Open University Press




K.S Williams, Textbook on Criminology, Oxford University Press 2001

Mawby and Walklate, Critical Victimology, London: sage, 1994

McShane and Williams, Radical Victimology: a critique of the concept of victim in traditional victimology, 1992

Rafter and Heidensohn, International Feminist Perspectives in Criminology, Open University Press, 1995

Smith, Criminology for Social Work Macmillan Press, 1995

Taylor et al, Sociology in Focus, The Bath Press, 1997

Walklate, Understanding Criminology: Current theoretical debates, Open University Press, 2003

White and Holmes, Crime and criminology an Introduction, 2001, Oxford University Press

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