In common social scientific usage the term ‘gender’ refers to the qualities and characteristics (real or imagined) associated with persons on the basis of their sex. Whereas as sexual distinctions (male/female) are based upon biological and physiological features, gender traits are cultural constructions mapped onto those physical features. Thus gender will comprise the various ways in which societies, groups and individuals imagine masculinity and femininity, often in stereotypical ways, e.g. ‘men are tough’, ‘women are emotional’, and so on. Constructions of gender tend to naturalise such understandings, such that they are presented as the natural and inevitable consequences of biology, rather than being viewed as culturally contingent and changeable. Historically speaking, patriarchal (male-dominated) societies have
drawn clear gender distinctions that almost invariably present males as superior to females. In Western societies characteristics associated with ‘maleness’ have included rationality, physical strength, emotional self-control, dynamism and aggression, while ‘femininity’ has been deemed to entail emotionality, irrationality, physical weakness, nurturing and passivity. These supposed traits have been used to enforce and justify male authority and to restrict women’s role and participation in the public arenas of politics, economics, science and the arts. It was only with the emergence of feminism in the twentieth century that such gender stereotypes were brought into question. Through most of its existence the discipline of criminology has
drawn upon wider gender stereotypes in its explanations of crime and deviance. Thus for example biological criminologists such as Lombroso viewed female offenders as ‘abnormal’, since they were supposedly acting against their ‘natural’ instincts as carers and nurturers. Similarly, male offending has been understood as an expression of men’s supposedly inbuilt aggressive urges. For example, biologists such as Thornhill and Palmer (2000) have argued that rape is the result of reproductive imperatives ‘programmed’ into men at the genetic level through evolution. The persistence of such views demonstrates the continued hold that discriminatory constructions of gender have over criminology. However, recent decades have seen a significant impact of feminist
analysis upon the discipline. Feminist criminologists have challenged the discipline’s reliance upon gender stereotypes, and explored the ways in which they lead to discrimination against women within the
criminal justice system. Critical criminologists have also examined the complex relationship between masculinity and crime. Far from suggesting a natural basis for male offending, criminologists such as Messerschmidt (1993) have argued that dominant constructions of masculinity (what it means in our culture to be seen as a ‘real man’) contribute to men’s engagement in often violent crime.