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The word “victim” is often associated with women. And the perpetrator is commonly thought of as a HE, a man, who evolutionary is programmed to hunt, conquer and be violent. However, women also commit violent acts and take advantage of the stereotype that presumes their innocence. In this article, Joanna Stojer-Polańska, Ph.D., forensic scientist from SWPS University examines the dark side of women.

There are several thousands of domestic violence cases reported in Poland every year. In 2015, men were the perpetrators in over 70,000 of these cases, while women in over 5,000 cases. Women were charged with abuse of other women, men, children or elderly parents. So much for the statistics. In reality, domestic violence belongs to the category of “dark (or hidden) figure of crime”, i.e. crimes or misdemeanors that have never been reported due to fear, shame or lack of awareness.

Additionally, there are pathological families, where violence and abuse are part and parcel of social heredity. It means that members of such families accept the behaviors they observe at home, because for them this is the norm. Violence is normal for them, therefore no one reports it. Even when neighbors report the incident, it is difficult for the Police to conduct the investigation, if the victim does not see himself or herself as a victim and the perpetrator does not feel responsible for doing something wrong. In such cases no one cooperates with the Police and the courts.

No one will believe me

There are families where women abuse, threaten and blackmail others. It is difficult for an abused man to ask for help, because the shame might be worst than abuse. “Maybe I deserve it? Maybe she will change? Or she will report that I beat HER. I will never see my children again, because the Police will believe her and not me.” It is hard to imagine the situation, when a grown man walks into the police station and reports that his wife beats him. In the majority of such cases the phenomenon called secondary victimization occurs, when the Police ask embarrassing questions. They might smile mockingly or make suggestive comments that the victim is a sissy and should man up.

Physical abuse may not necessarily be the cause. Women may engage in psychological abuse. For example, they may isolate the partner from his friends and family, keep checking his mobile phone or visit him unexpectedly at the workplace. At the same time, the women may take on the role of a victim. If this happens, it is really difficult for a man to find a reason to punish the woman, even if he finally decides to stand up to her or do something about the abuse.

Women also engage in sexual abuse. They can rape other women or men. It is extremely difficult for a victim of such crime to report it to the Police. Children may fall victim of this crime too. People automatically associate the phenomenon of pedophilia with men as perpetrators. But women can also be pedophiles. They spend more time with children and have more opportunities. They can victimize their own children or children of other people, whom they take care of. And no one would even think twice that a woman could be a pedophile. Could a nice young woman or a sweet older lady do something so terrible?

The Polish Penal Code does not mention the gender of an abuser. Formally, gender does not matter, but will the court assign the custody of children to the man in case of a divorce? In Poland, it happens very rarely, even if the man fiercely fights for his children. An influencing factor may be the gender of the judge. Female judges often preside over custody cases.

During divorce proceedings, the parties involved report all kinds of crimes or misdemeanors that have never happened. Women accuse men of sexual abuse of children or physical abuse of the whole family. It is not always true. If there is no proof, then it is a case of “he said, she said”. Who would you believe? Abuse can be very tricky. The masters of abuse manipulate their victims in such a way so that they do not even realize that they are becoming a victim. And once everything is done, the victim is left with nothing: no children, no home, no car and no friends.

There are numerous theories that attempt to explain why women commit fewer crimes than men. Perhaps they are inherently good? Perhaps they have too much to lose (the family)? Perhaps they are cunning and they manage to avoid capture? Perhaps the courts do not punish women with incarceration? Perhaps men do not report incidents, when they become victims of crimes committed by women? Probably all of these reasons play a role in these statistics.

Blurred line between perpetraror and victim

Sometimes the line between the perpetrator and the victim is blurred. It is hard to tell who is who. The victim needs a perpetrator and the perpetrator needs a victim. Sometimes, they change places, like in a good movie. Or they take on both roles. One person is usually better than the other in playing one of the roles. Especially in evoking empathy in others.

Sometimes women kill. The reasons may vary and include not only self-defense, but also cold calculation. Some of the motives may include an inheritance, a new partner and the desire to build a new life with him. In such cases, the new partner may become an accomplice. A woman who is madly in love and who was betrayed by her lover, can kill. Her love is toxic. She loves too much and her partner does not appreciate it. A woman may kill, because she can no longer bear the abuse. Her partner has been drinking and abusing her for forty years and one day she snaps and stabs her partner once with a deadly force. Is she the perpetrator or the victim or maybe both? In cases like this, the courts have a problem, because the woman admits to committing the act: “yes, I had a knife”, but does not admit her guild “I did not want to kill him”. Should she be tried for murder or a manslaughter?

There are drastic situations when a woman decides to kill herself and to kill her child at the same time. This is called an extended suicide. Professional literature indicates that if a man makes such a dramatic decision, he usually kills his partner and the children first, and then commits suicide at the end. Women usually kill the children and themselves, but not the partner. Research does not indicate why women spare their partners. Are women not able to kill their partner, because they are usually physically weaker than men or maybe they do not see the partner as part of the family? It is also difficult to know what tragic events might have brought a woman to make such a fateful decision.

Demonstrative auto-aggression

Annually, a few thousands of people commit suicide in Poland. In 2014, there were over 6,000 suicides, including over 5,000 suicides committed by men. Women more frequently than men attempt so called demonstrative suicides. They declare the intention of taking their own life and undertake actions such as swallowing medication or inflicting hesitation (tentative) wounds, which do not result in death. Because these women do not really want to die. Their act is a cry for help and attention.

Women can be very strong. Since they are better in showing emotions, they cope better with stress than men. Women also are better at recognizing their emotions and at talking about them. Despite this fact, it is not easy to explain why there is a significant difference between the number of suicides committed by men and women. In this aspect women are definitely a stronger sex.

Inherently good?

Criminal statistics indicate that only a few percent of convicts are women. The majority of prisoners are men. According to the report published by the Polish Ministry of Justice in 2015, the number of female convicts in Polish prisons amounts to less than 2,500, out of 70,000 prisoners in total. There are many reasons for this situation, but it does not mean that women do not commit crimes. They do, but the crimes committed by women vary from those committed by men.

Firstly, women rarely commit crimes that involve physical force, but if they do, sometimes they are more brutal than men. There is not enough data on psychological abuse, because it usually goes unreported regardless of the perpetrator’s and the victim’s gender. Secondly, if women commit crimes, especially crimes that go against the stereotype of the weaker and fairer sex, they are judged more severely than men for the same behaviors.

Women may commit crimes against property, such as fraud. Since they are perceived as gentle and good, it makes it easier for them to scam people. The only crime where gender makes a difference is neonaticide. The Polish criminal code defines neonaticide as killing of a newborn baby by a mother, as a direct result of giving birth. Neonaticide is usually treated as manslaughter, as opposed to murder, and it carries a lower sentence than a murder.

Women can also be charged with infanticide. It happens when a woman kills a child for other reasons than as the direct result of giving birth. For example, when drank parents harm a child, because the baby cries too much and interferes with the drinking party. A woman, who drinks heavily during pregnancy, may also be charged with endangering the life of a minor. For example when she gives birth, while being under the influence of alcohol. In such cases the baby may be born with the blood alcohol level amounting even to 0.3 percent.

Serial crimes that draw a lot of publicity, are less often committed by women. Perhaps it stems from the fact that their modus operandi is different. There have been cases of so called “black widows”, who kill their husbands for money or “angels of death / angels of mercy”, i.e. nurses or caregivers, who kill patients under their care. They can save a life and they can take it.

There are numerous theories that attempt to explain why women commit fewer crimes than men. Perhaps they are inherently good? Perhaps they have too much to lose (the family)? Perhaps they are cunning and they manage to avoid capture? Perhaps the courts do not punish women with incarceration? Perhaps men do not report incidents, when they become victims of crimes committed by women? Probably all of these reasons play a role in these statistics. Life proves time and time again, that we often do not know the real motives and circumstances that are crucial in a given case. Therefore, we often cannot assess the situation appropriately and we do not know how to help the victims, regardless of their gender.


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The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 1/17”.

joanna stojer

About the author

Joanna Stojer-Polańska, Ph.D. - Joanna Stojer-Polańska, Ph.D - legal expert and forensic scientist. Academic lecturer and educator in criminalistics, criminology and law enforcement. Her research interests include forensic medicine, profiling, suicides, and crime prevention. At SWPS University in Katowice, she lectures about the dark (or hidden) figure of crime, i.e. unreported crimes.