Why do some women commit crimes?

In the last two posts (Part I, Part II), I explain the evolutionary psychological logic behind male criminality, why men in polygynous societies are compelled to engage in interpersonal violence and property crimes in order to gain reproductive access to women. While an overwhelming majority of criminals in every human society are men, there are some exceptions; some women do commit crimes. Given the evolutionary psychological logic, however, why would any woman commit crimes at all?

The evolutionary psychologist who has done most to explain female criminality is Professor Anne Campbell of the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. She offers the “staying alive” theory of female criminality, which answers the question of why any woman would commit crimes. Her theory begins with the fundamental observation that offspring’s survival and thus reproductive success depends more heavily on maternal than paternal care and investment. It is therefore imperative for mothers rather than fathers to survive long enough to take physical care of their offspring to ensure their survival to sexual maturity. This, Campbell argues, is why females are more risk-averse than males. The potential benefit of taking risks -- by engaging in physical competition for resources and mates, for instance -- simply does not justify the potential cost (the very survival of their offspring, which heavily hinges on the mother’s own survival). A woman’s primary goal is therefore to stay alive for the sake of her children.

Campbell goes on to point out, however, that females do occasionally need to compete for resources and mates, especially when these are scarce. This is why women sometimes compete for a “few good men,” and occasionally resort to violence and theft to achieve their goals, even though, consistent with their primary goal to stay alive, their tactics of competition are usually low-risk (larceny rather than robbery) and indirect (spreading negative gossip and rumors about a romantic rival behind her back rather than direct physical confrontation with her).

In her most recent work, Campbell goes even further toward theoretical integration of male and female criminality. She argues that men and women do not differ in the benefits of aggression: high-status men who are winners of male competition may get access to mates and thus more opportunities for sex, but high-status women who are winners of female competition may get priority access to resources and greater protection afforded by high-status males. In other words, Campbell argues, women must compete for high-quality mates just as much as men do. It is therefore only the costs of aggression that distinguish men and women, and explain the far lower incidence of aggression among women.

Campbell points out that “theft by women is usually tied to economic needs and occurs as part of their domestic responsibilities for their children,” whereas “robbery is the quintessential male crime, in which violence is used both to extract resources and to gain status.” Apart from their tendency and inclination to avoid physical risks and danger altogether, this is another reason that women commit fewer crimes than men. Women only steal what they need for them and their children to survive, whereas men steal to show off and gain status as well as resources. In other words, women steal less than men for exactly the same reason as they earn less than men. Women generally earn less than men do because they tend to make only what they need and usually have better things to do than earn money, whereas men are motivated to earn far more than they need to survive in order to use the money to attract women. Similarly, women steal less than men do because they tend to steal what they need to survive and do not use crime for other purposes, like showing off and gaining status.

I will conclude this series with the next post by relating a personal anecdote which perfectly illustrates Campbell’s point.

About the Author

Satoshi Kanazawa

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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