Quote: A study by criminologist Susan Batchelor, of the University of Glasgow contradicts previous thinking that unlike in men, for women it's a spontaneous lack of control for which they afterwards felt ashamed. Her report suggests female displays of aggression have a function within a group. "Such violence was considered deeply meaningful; it served to maintain group solidarity, reinforce friendships, affirm allegiances, and enhance personal status within the group."
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BBC News Magazine
5 May 2008
Why are girls fighting like boys?
By Tom Geoghegan
The sight of two girls having a post-pub fight still has the power to shock, although it often happens between men. Why are women doing it and why are we so offended by it?
"I've beaten a boy up with a stiletto high heel and left him unconscious, " says one 17-year-old.
"I got locked up last year for putting a woman in a coma and she nearly died because I tried to throw her in front of a car," says another. "Then in October I got out from a sentence for nearly running a woman over."
That these words are uttered by teenage girls is somehow more shocking than if they were said by young men.
According to the annual statistics of the Youth Justice Board, the number of violent offences committed by girls aged 10 to 17 has nearly doubled in three years.
In 2002/3, there were 8,702 girls convicted of violence against another person, a figure that rose to 15,525 in 2005/6. During that period the number committed by boys rose 50% to 39,136.
There have been some high-profile examples. In 2005, there was widespread disgust during the trial of four youths who kicked to death a barman on London's South Bank.
The court was told that Chelsea O'Mahoney, 15 at the time, had filmed the attack on her phone and delivered the last kick "like a football" to Mr Morley's head.
The following year Claire Marsh, 18, became one of the youngest women to be convicted of rape, after pinning down another woman and encouraging a gang to participate in the assault in west London.
In a scrap
These reports still jolt society in a post-feminist age, partly because they are so rare and partly because women are not expected to be aggressive.
For a group of teenage girls in south London aged 16 to 18, interviewed by Radio 1Xtra, violence is a part of everyday life.
"Girl on girl fighting, scrapping, it's become the norm now," says one.
It's usually based on territory, they say, and happens between their all-female group and other groups of girls from different estates, often preceded by verbal sparring, rumour and gossip.
They usually just use fists, but have known bottles, knives and even pieces of wood to be brandished. Binge drinking and drugs are the main reasons they give for getting physical.
One teenager with 20 violent offences to her name says: "It's only when I've had a drink and I think I'm on top of the world and I think I can take on everybody. I know I shouldn't but I can't help myself when I've had a drink."
A police report last week suggests that the number of women arrested for being drunk and disorderly has increased by more than 50% in parts of the UK in the past five years.
Offenders at New Hall female prison in West Yorkshire say they used to get into fights to impress older boys. And one talks about the adrenaline release of fighting: "Even when I get hit myself I get a rush from it."
But Victim Support says the main underlying reason for this aggression is people growing up in violent homes or suffering abuse at the hands of a partner.
A study by criminologist Susan Batchelor, of the University of Glasgow contradicts previous thinking that unlike in men, for women it's a spontaneous lack of control for which they afterwards felt ashamed.
Her report suggests female displays of aggression have a function within a group.
"Such violence was considered deeply meaningful; it served to maintain group solidarity, reinforce friendships, affirm allegiances, and enhance personal status within the group."
The peer group always plays a large part in it, says consultant clinical psychologist Elie Godsi, author of Violence and Society: Making Sense of Madness and Badness.
"There's a lot more of a 'ladette' culture where young women are aping and mimicking the traditional behaviour young men engage in.
"So there's a small element of that, although I wouldn't put too much [importance] on it."
Many young people feel alienated from their family and community, he says, so the
peer group plays a big part in gang culture, causing behaviour that the individual on her own would not contemplate.
But it's important to remember that overall, women only commit 10% of violent crimes, he says.
They are innately less aggressive, whether by nature or nurture, which is why society reacts so strongly to it.
"Women are defined in terms of relationships - as mothers, daughters, wives - and men are defined as individuals, in terms of achievements or work status or what they do, rather than how they relate to each other.
"So violent women are perceived in far worst terms and it takes more for them to be violent.
"But you only have to look at how Myra Hindley was treated as an icon. A lot more men are far more violent than her and given far lighter sentences. Generally we perceive women who don't fit into traditional roles in extreme terms."
Mr Godsi believes the increase in female violence merely reflects the general rise in violence since the mid-80s.
And the reasons for it - more destructive households and more alcohol abuse - are not peculiar to women.
So we shouldn't necessarily be looking for reasons behind female aggression, he says, but asking why society as a whole seems to be tacitly encouraging violence.