The Myth of the “new” Violent Girl 

 

Randall G. Shelden

 

Every once in a while the news media runs amok with exaggerated anecdotes about something it believes is going on, when in fact nothing much is happening.  Sometimes, unfortunately, it is fed misinformation by those who pass themselves off as “experts,” including some of my fellow academics.  Recently this has occurred with regard to the alleged increase in violence among girls.

 

Among some recent headlines are these:

 

“Reaching violent girls” (Boston Globe, April 28) – reporting on a few recent stabbings in Boston and then claiming that these attacks “are part of a disturbing trend of girls committing more violent acts.”  The story is also citing a recent book by two well-known researchers, Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Howard Spivak in a book with a far too cutesy and misleading title of “Sugar and Spice and No Longer Nice.” (Another book with the same theme is called “See Jane Hit” by James Garabino.  See the review by Mike Males on my web site: http://www.sheldensays.com/review_of_see_jane_hit.htm).

 

“Taming wild girls” (Time Magazine on line, April 24) – another misleading story using the Prothrow-Stith and Spivak book as “evidence.”

 

“Confessions of Violent Girls” (WPIX TV in Pittsburgh, February 27) – stating that “Girl violence – it transcends racial and economic boundaries.  It’s in the cities and the suburbs, and it’s on the rise.”

 

These are just a few samples, but it is nothing new.

 

Back 1993 Newsweek had story called “Girls will be Girls” which noted that “some girls now carry guns.  Others hide razor blades in their mouths.” Explaining this trend, the article noted that “The plague of teen violence is an equal-opportunity scourge.  Crime by girls is on the rise, or so various jurisdictions report.”  The New York Times in 1991 carried a front page story entitled “For Gold Earrings and Protection, More Girls Take the Road to Violence.” In 1992 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story subtitled, “Troubled Girls, Troubling Violence.”  Finally, in 1998 the Boston Globe had a front page story in their Sunday Magazine called “BAD GIRLS.”

 

This is an unwarranted “panic” that has no basis in fact.  All of the major indices of crime – the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the National Crime Victimization Survey, University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future and the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – show significant declines in every category of girls’ violence.

For example, the FBI shows that from 1995 to 2004 girls’ arrests for violent crimes went down by 32%.  The National Crime Victimization Survey shows a 64% drop in violent crime among girls between 12 and 19.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics annual Indicators of School Crime and Safety, the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future and the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance all show major drops in violence involving girls over the last 10 to 12 years.  Compared to a decade ago, girls are getting into fewer fights (including a 38% drop in fights at school), while less than 1% of girls report being the victim of a serious violent crime. The Monitoring the Future Survey shows dramatic declines in girls reporting being in fights, threatened or injured with a weapon or victimizing others.

What is happening here?  How do we account for these recent reports of “violent girls”?  Mainly it comes from a misreading of statistics that are being reported, plus reporters and even researchers (who should know better) using little more than anecdotal evidence to buttress their claims of the “violent girl.”  As for the statistics, the leading culprit is found in one of the most common offenses categories in the FBI’s annual report: “other assaults.”  Juvenile court statistics use the term “simple assault.”  In both cases, these are misdemeanors, usually ordinary fights among youngsters and fights with parents – things we adults used to do all the time when we were teenagers – with no serious injuries and no weapons used.  Unfortunately, in this era of “zero tolerance” such behaviors are resulting in formal processing via an arrest and a referral to juvenile court.  During the past decade, girls arrest rate for “other assaults” rose by about 40%, while for boys it actually declined slightly.

 

In short, girls are not more violent than in the past.  Reporters and some researchers, perhaps desperate for a story, are engaged in a rather pathetic search for the most outrageous examples of the rare “violent girl.”  Like someone meticulously searching for any speck of dirt on a carpet, they find just enough cases and then report them as if they are “dangerous trends.”  It is all a big hoax, but it has been doing irreparable damage to young girls, needlessly labeling them and slapping them with a “record” as a “juvenile delinquent.”

 

What needs to be asked is: Why?  Why do respected and trained academics and other experts continue with such a hoax?  Why do the media keep repeating the same old stories?  This is a complex issue, requiring complex answers, far beyond the reach of a single commentary such as this one.  I will, however, make an attempt to provide at least some suggestions.

 

First, there is the issue of power differences.  In this case girls are not only powerless in terms of their gender (males have the power and, not accidentally, own the media and dominate the academic world), but also in terms of age: adults hold the power over youth in this culture.  Few take the perspective of youth and fewer still take the perspective of girls.  As a result there is not a consistent voice representing these two sub-groups of our society.  In short, the voices of both youth and girls are not allowed within the major media.

 

Second, as for academia, in a world of “publish or perish” many academics face a constant pressure to produce.  Conducting detailed surveys is costly and time consuming.  It is far easier to take the easy route to academic success by engaging in the “case study” method of locating a few, non-representative samples of a subject matter.  It is also easy for academics to become captivated by lurid news stories about some particular issue.  Also, it is easy to become “embedded” into the criminal justice subculture (i.e., uncritically take the perspective of the police, judges, prosecutors, etc.).  Therefore, like a journalist whose “beat” is the police department, your view of the world becomes a bit distorted and shaped by those who are feeding you information.

 

Third, even it this is the case, it is still no excuse, since academics are supposed to be well trained in some elementary statistics and data collection.  Do they not read the Uniform Crime Reports?  Are they unaware of victimization and self-report surveys like Monitoring the Future? Do they ever question some of the most common crime categories (e.g., “other assaults”)?  Are they aware that trends in arrest statistics may be more a reflection of changes in policies rather than actual behavior itself? (Every beginning criminology student learns this!) 

 

Mike Males, Meda Chesney-Lind and I have put together a special commentary and submitted it to the New York Times. It remains to be seen whether or not they will print it; and if they print it, I wonder if the authors of the above-referenced books and articles will respond to us.  Perhaps in their response we will find some reasons behind their blindness as to what is going on.

 

© 2006, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.