Can You Tame Wild Women?

Recently, The Washington Post published an article about a spate of violent crimes involving college co-eds. In one incident, a female college student stabbed another following a dispute at an off-campus party. In another incident, a college student cut the throat of her roommate. Off campus, another high-profile crime involved a female employee of a local yoga shop who stabbed her co-worker multiple times. Are women actually committing more violent crimes lately, or are crimes committed by women just getting more media attention?

In fact, women rarely commit violent crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, men are 10 times more likely to commit murder than women. From 2006 to 2010, per capita homicide rates overall have decreased by about 15%, and murders committed by women have followed that trend. Of the 3,000 people currently on death row, only 62 are women. Violent offenses on college campuses are also relatively rare, compared to non-campus offenses. On average, there are only about two or three campus killings per year. Thus, a campus murder committed by a co-ed is doubly unusual. These factsmay explain why murders committed by college co-eds are particularly newsworthy.

Besides the rarity of the event, violence by women is psychologically jarring. Women are stereotypically thought of as warm, nurturing, and collaborative. They are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. A PubMed search using the terms “violence” and “women” yields 34,000 hits, almost all related to studies of women as victims of violence. Excluding the terms “domestic violence” and “rape” will reduce the number of studies to about 200.

Because there is relatively little known about female murderers, media portrayals of violent women tend to be far from reality. They are often portrayed as victims of circumstances beyond their control, and their crimes are mitigated by their status as victim. In the film Thelma and Louise, two women go on a cross-country crime spree after a rape. The story follows their transformation from victims to buddy-rebels. In reality, women rarely are spree killers and they usually don’t kill strangers. They tend to commit acts of violence against their children or other family members, as in the case of Andrea Yates, who killed her children during a psychotic episode. In film, even women who kill multiple victims are portrayed as being otherwise kindly, lovable, or quirky, for example, the elderly murderesses of the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace or the suburban housewife-killer of John Waters’ Serial Mom. Aileen Wuornos, one real-life female serial killer, was a far less sympathetic character. She killed seven men in Florida and was eventually executed.

Fiction and reality may be merging, however. The HBO series “The Wire” set a new standard for fictional female psychopathy when the show featured actress Felicia Pearson as “Snoop,” a creepily callous, androgynous contract killer employed by a Baltimore drug ring. This series accurately portrayed gang-related violence and the increasing role of violent girls in these organizations.

In my experience, women also commit acts of violence for the same reasons as men: jealousy, rage, poor problem-solving skills, and substance abuse. Regardless of the cause, the response to violence and mental health interventions should not be gender-specific or exclusive. Violent women may be getting more attention lately, but violence prevention must also include attention to the mental health needs of men.

—Annette Hanson, M.D.

Dr. Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson’s employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Division of Correction