Sugar ‘n’ Spice…or dangerously sexual?

Picture the scene: it’s the 19th century, and people are terrified of a dark threat that is lurking the streets and casting a shadow over households. That threat was not Jack the Ripper, but rather the women he stalked. Women who were seen to possess a ‘dangerous sexuality’ that they must be protected from, for their own good and that of others. If unleashed, it threatened to destroy everything that society held dear – family, morality and reputation.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and whilst we are a long way from the ‘moral crusading’ of yesteryear, there’s little doubt that as a society, we are still influenced by gender stereotypes. This in turn affects how we respond to females, especially in the capacity of victims and young offenders.

This was the subject of ‘Sugar ‘n’ Spice: Are we ‘morally policing’ girls and young women?’ which took place on November 18. Hosted by the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice, as part of the School of Social Work and Social Policy 2014-2015 Seminar Series, it asked whether the decisions that are made regarding young people displaying offending behaviour are affected by gender prejudices and stereotypes. Are we locking girls up for different reasons to boys, and what effect is this having on their future?

Michele Burman, Professor of Criminology and Deputy Head, School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, and founding co-director of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR), was an eloquent speaker on this subject – one that’s close to her heart. Her PhD was on the legal construction of female sexuality in sexual offence trials, and since then her research interests have focused on the areas of gender, crime and criminal justice, with a particular interest in young women and girls at risk of being drawn into the criminal justice system.

Professor Burman was joined by a panel of experts. Dr Susan Batchelor, who is also based in SCCJR, is an experienced youth researcher; Anne Carpenter MacKechnie brought a psychologist’s perspective based on her extensive work with offenders; and Carole Dearie is on secondment to CYCJ from her post as Depute Director of the Good Shepherd Care Centre. CYCJ Director’s Claire Lightowler chaired.

“Historical evidence reveals the existence of a dual image of girls and young woman,” Professor Burman began by saying. Traditionally, females have been viewed as either the innocent, pure good girl, who needs to be protected from everything in life or the bad girl, whose promiscuity and ‘dangerous sexual proclivities’ are very definite threats to herself and others. For a long time, any middle ground was simply not acknowledged to exist.

Take the construction of female sexuality in the court room. A woman makes a complaint about a sexual assault, which is brought to court. The defence team will do everything they can in using witnesses and evidence to construct a picture of someone who is not credible, immoral and in all probability, lying about the sexual assault.

“A woman’s sexuality is central to how she is judged in everyday life. To speak of a woman’s reputation is to invoke her sexual behaviour; but a man’s reputation reflects his standing in society.” Professor Burman’s words show that girls are definitely subject to more scrutiny and social regulation, and more at risk as a result. Whether a female is a victim or an offender, she is ‘placed’ in a certain role, and if she doesn’t fit this role, we resent her for it.

Turning to girls and young women with offending behaviour, Professor Burman talked about the ‘myths, muddles and misconceptions’ that surround society’s perceptions of offending girls. In the 1990s, there was a moral panic about the rise of the ladette culture and alcohol fuelled violence. “Offending girls break not only the law but also gender expectations.”

The reality is this: girls are committing fewer and less serious offences than boys, and yet we just don’t see it that way. The concern over this perceived ‘threat’ contributes to increasing punitiveness in the measures that are taken to ‘control’ them. Socio-political and religious expectations play a large role in this – raising concerns about girls’ sexuality and their independence, their ‘passionate and wilful’ behaviour.

A good example is violent crime. Only a small number of girls commit violent crime, yet the current perception is of a bigger problem. This is symptomatic of yet another concern about girls’ morality – indeed, it can be seen as a threat to the social order. If the girls are not behaving as we expect them to, either as a victim or offender, then what does that say about the societal norm? Again, gender expectations are being challenged. We want our female criminals to fit the role of either passive victim, or passive offender, drawn in by forces beyond her control. When females don’t act like this, they are seen as being “intractable and awkward”.

Professor Burman concluded that there’s a messy conflation between girls’ and young women’s vulnerability and risk, protection and control. This can lead to placing those so labelled in an unfair position; through a combination of gendered welfarism, increasing criminalisation and increased intervention, it means they are subject to contradictory policies and practices – none of which are particularly effective in supporting a decrease in recidivism.

There were plenty of issues for the panel and audience to pick up on, which led to some lively discussion. Questions were raised about academic discourse and its separation from the young females it purports to understand – shouldn’t they have a voice in this? Relationships are very important to young females, so why are their support networks so transient? What constitutes normative sexual behaviour for young people, and do we need a clearer understanding of this?

Self-harming was also discussed – are young girls who display this behaviour being locked up because we fear self-harming and don’t understand the motives behind it? Many see it as a release but don’t display any suicidal intentions. With that in mind, is locking them up more detrimental than supportive?

It’s clear that there’s a lot of ambiguity, history and societal prejudice surrounding this issue. Attitudes towards females have come a long way since the days of the 19th century. Yet there’s a long way still to go, and if we are to truly change things, then a fundamental shift in our thinking needs to take place.

One thing’s for sure, the conversation is at early stages but with discourses like this, we’re sure to be on the right path to getting it right for the girls.

Download Professor Michele Burman’s presentation.

Picture: The Outcast by Richard Redgrave, 1851.

About our blogger

Charlotte Bozic is Knowledge Exchange Officer for CYCJ. Read more.

Leave a Reply

Contact Us

Children's and Young People's Centre for Justice
University of Strathclyde
Lord Hope Building, Level 6
141 St. James Road Glasgow G4 0LT

(0141) 444 8622

Stay informed

Subscribe to our e-newsletter and get all the latest advice and news.

Latest Discussion

Follow us on Twitter >>

Connect with us