Source: Photo by Prince Oamil on Unsplash
The statistics are stark, consistent, and largely unambiguous: Women commit far less crime than men and have lower rates of arrest and prosecution than men for all types of crime, apart from prostitution.
Not surprisingly, worldwide, the numbers of women in prison are small versus men, which may be why when females are accused and convicted of involvement in serious crime, their cases attract considerable coverage, commentary, and debate—often far more than equivalent examples of male offending, and even more so when the victims of female criminals are also female.
There are numerous instances where the perpetrator and victim are both female. Some of the most well-known are where mothers have killed and/or seriously assaulted female children and stepchildren, and where female carers (e.g., nurses and childminders) have murdered and/or assaulted female children in their care.
For example, in the U.K., Rosemary West was convicted in 1995 of killing her stepdaughter, and in 1993, nurse Beverley Allitt was convicted of murdering and attempting to murder female and male babies in her care. In the U.S., Andrea Yates confessed to drowning her five children, one of whom was female (although this murder conviction was later overturned). In 2004, Dena Schlosser amputated the arms of her daughter, who later died. Other examples include female suicide bombers and women who have played a significant role in terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, the Black Widows, and Hamas.
Perhaps one of the more contemporary examples of female criminality where victims are also females is the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. Human trafficking is a serious organised crime where people (women and men) are transported from one part of a country to another and/or from one country to another, using violence, threats of violence, deception, and coercion. Upon arrival, victims are then exploited for financial or personal gain, including sexual exploitation.
Worldwide, conviction rates for human trafficking are negligible, but the numbers of women convicted are at odds with the statistical trends of female offending. In 2012, the United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons highlighted that while a high number of trafficking victims were female, there was also a high rate of female offenders.
In Australia, for instance, between 2004 and 2017, there were only 20 convictions for human trafficking, nine of which were female. Worldwide, 38 percent of the suspected perpetrators of human trafficking are female, with women from central Europe and East Asia twice as likely to be suspected of human trafficking than men (68 percent versus 32 percent). In the U.K., the first person convicted under the modern slavery laws introduced in 2015 was female—she had trafficked females from Nigeria to Germany to work as sex slaves. Most recently, Ghislaine Maxwell has been charged with the enticement of minors and sex trafficking of young girls, apparently for her boyfriend Jeffrey Epstein and possibly for other adult men, although she denies the charges.
The known female prison population is low—for example, representing approximately 4 percent of the prison population in the U.K., and generally reducing worldwide. So, this apparently emerging trend of female protagonists in the trafficking of women has raised a series of psychological questions centred on coercion and control.
Are female perpetrators in similar circumstances to their victims, or are they are willing agents in this particular type of criminal activity? The answers to these questions are far from clear, but we know from other contexts just how insidious and effective psychological coercion and control can be. Research by the prison reform trust found that just under half of women prisoners reported having been coerced into committing offences to support someone else’s drug use. Many imprisoned female foreign nationals are known to have been coerced or trafficked into offending, and it is not unusual for women to state they had offended to “keep their man.”
However, victim representations of female offenders as powerless and controlled by men are challenged by many because this ignores that some women may see criminal activity as an easy way of improving their situation. Victim-offenders are offenders with a history of victimisation—and in the context of human trafficking, this concept goes some way towards helping to understand the victim/offender nexus. A critical time for a trafficked woman is when she has cleared any debt. At this point, some women are known to transition to offenders, choosing to stay and work in the sex trafficking industry, driven by a desire for improved economic opportunity and a better quality of life.
What is clear is that classifying female criminals as victims OR offenders ignores the victim-offender nexus and seems to underestimate the complexity of a lot of female criminality. In the U.K., progress has been made in cases of domestic violence. In the context of human trafficking, there appears little impetus to alter the victim OR offender dichotomy, which has implications for how female victim-offenders are perceived and judged by society and criminal justice systems, worldwide. It may be that these women are simply bad—sociopaths or psychopaths, perhaps. But perhaps they are being twice-punished.