Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/April 1876/The Relations of Sex to Crime

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591330Popular Science Monthly Volume 8 April 1876 — The Relations of Sex to Crime1876Ely Van de Warker



SEXUAL cerebration may here and there be seen coming to the surface, amid the complex array of circumstance and causes which affects woman's criminal career. If I am correct in the use of the term, and it surely has the merit of expressing the idea designed to be conveyed by it, we may perceive two forms of sexual mental action, one normal and the other abnormal. Its action in the normal phase may be seen in favoring or obstructing her career in crime, in relation to particular offenses; while its abnormal manifestations may be perceived in certain crimes, existing as a direct outcome of its presence. It must be observed that sexual cerebration in its relation to crime is not confined in its operation to the female sex. Its influence on men may be observed in many of the crimes in which they exceed their usual ratio of excess over women. Man's tendency to belligerency evidently accounts in a measure for his great excess in the crimes of murder and assassination. Attempts have been made to explain this by the frequency of drunkenness, and the street brawls which it leads to among men; but, when we take into consideration the fact that the ratio of the sexes for drunkenness in England is, 1 woman to 1.49 men (Quetelet), we perceive that this cause can but act to a very limited extent. The sexual mental tendency of man to the wager of battle, his physical strength, the almost unlimited opportunities afforded by the greater range of his activities, enable man to exceed his usual ratio of excess over woman in these two crimes. Crimes against property, such as robbery from the person or highway robbery, also offer evidence of the innate cerebral traits of the male. In this offense man stands almost alone. It requires for its successful perpetration bravery and daring. These are qualities belonging peculiarly to men. In view of the intensity of feeling which attends all discussion of matters in which women are concerned, either socially or sexually, I think it better to qualify the last sentence, by calling the attention of the reader to the very proper distinction between moral and physical courage. The first exists as the result of intellectual qualities, education, and moral training; the last is purely a phase of sexual cerebration. Some of the most beautiful examples of moral courage are constantly offered by women. It is the possession of physical courage which is requisite to the commission of the crime alluded to, and not its higher prototype, moral courage. This form of sexual cerebration in the male is the coefficient of belligerency in the perpetration of many crimes, and united to physical strength is, aside from opportunity, capable of explaining many of the circumstances attending man's excess over woman as a criminal.

The action of sexual cerebration in its normal expression, as affecting the relation of men to crime, has been traced far enough to demonstrate its important influence. Its operation in men is more easily detected than in women. Man's career as a criminal is attended by fewer complicating conditions. By the broader field of his activities, he is directly exposed to criminal influences, while woman is hedged in by the circumstances of her position. She lives in an atmosphere of restraining influences, each one of which tends to obscure the effect of the subtile yet potent sexual mental traits which characterize her as a woman. The extent to which woman conforms to a common mental type may be more surely measured by contrasting her as a criminal with man in his relation to crime, than by studying her alone in her usual social relations. Crime reveals to us some of the primeval tendencies of society. By crime, notwithstanding all the varied results of civilization—a scion, as it were, grafted upon the parent trunk—humanity is wedded to its original savagism. Certain sociologists of the religious school teach that crime is the outcome of civilization, that it increases or decreases in proportion to the extent and quality of religious teaching; but an examination of the criminal returns of various peoples shows that crime exists at nearly a fixed ratio without regard to religion, be it what it may. Some forms of crime are, beyond doubt, increased by the artificial needs of society in its civilized form, infanticide and abortion, for example; yet even these crimes prevail universally among the most primitive races. Civilization has not modified the crime, it has simply changed the motive. With the tendency to crime existing at the ultimate fibres of man's psychical life, the expression of sexual cerebration in the criminal conduct of women assumes a naturalism called forth by no other social relation. As I have separately examined the matter of sexual mental types in a former article, all that is necessary here is, to apply the conclusions there reached to woman's tendency to crime.

The crime of poisoning, with its remarkable ratio, has been used a few pages back to illustrate the influence of the physical factor. It was called the weapon of weakness. This weakness is twofold, physical and mental. Women possess moral courage, but not physical. Timidity, a shrinking from bodily danger, a fear of combat, each an analogue of the other, appear as mental traits in the average woman. Here is an offense gauged to woman's mental and physical aptitudes. By means of poison, a fatal blow may be given by the weakest arm without the fear of combat, or of physical hurt. To a mind with criminal tendencies, hampered by the reflex consciousness of weakness, the security, the secrecy, are charming. The result is that, as a poisoner, woman nearly equals man. This equality among the lists of crime nowhere else appears except in offenses against the currency, a crime also remarkable for its secrecy, and freedom from personal encounter during its perpetration. If a further extension of the statistics of crime against the currency confirms the ratio of the sexes deducible from Mr. Nelson's tables, it will amount to nearly a demonstration of the fact here shadowed forth, that woman tends to equal man as a criminal in those crimes which require neither physical courage nor strength as conditions of their perpetration. The crime of vagrancy is the only exception that offers itself, and which loses its force as an exception under the law of criminal analogies. From the crime of poisoning, the climax of the criminal tendency, downward through the lighter shades of offense, this phase of sexual cerebration may be detected. If it were possible to give to woman the physical strength of man with this mental trait existing in its present force as a sexual characteristic, I doubt if it would alter essentially the known ratio of the sexes for murder and the wounding of strangers—9 to 100. I venture this prediction merely for the purpose of illustrating the potency of this mental factor touching woman's criminal relations. In robbery from the person, although the enormous disproportion in the ratio is in a measure explained by differences in physical strength, yet there remains much of this excess of men to be explained by other means. That which remains to be explained by means other than that of sexual differences of physical strength may be stated in this way: The ratio of the strength of the two sexes being fixed at 16 to 26, and the ratio for crimes in general against property being 26 to 100, we nevertheless find that for the crime mentioned the ratio is reduced to 8 in 100. Here is a difference in ratio between two classes of the same division of crime of 18 to 100. Evidently, it is too largely in excess of the ratio of strength of the sexes, to be entirely accounted for by that alone. This phase of sexual cerebration, together with woman's social conditions, is competent to explain the differences remaining unaccounted for. The crime of self-murder also brings out quite distinctly the action of this mental trait in women. An examination of the methods of self-destruction reveals sexual peculiarities. Men prefer cutting instruments and fire-arms, while women select poison, and hanging and drowning (Quetelet). A collection of nearly five thousand cases of suicide, by M. Brierre de Boismont,[2] reveals the fact that hanging occurs more frequently among women than men, by a large percentage. It will be noticed that women select those modes of suicidal death which take the matter out of their own hands. They offer a surety for their fainting spirits by closing the avenue of escape behind them. However painful may be the death they seek, after the fatal draught, the fall, or the plunge, all voluntary power of escape is beyond their reach. Is it not from the consciousness that lack of physical courage, or timidity, would involuntarily cause them to escape from the pangs of death, that they select a method of destruction which after the painless first step renders such a return impossible? Cortes, who knew the temper of his men, burned his ships upon the shore; and in the same way women assure themselves of the impossibility of return ere they attempt suicide.

The influence of the excess of the emotional life in women over men, upon their criminal career, is not so marked as that of the psychical traits just considered. I stated in a former chapter that there was evidence which rendered it probable that those emotions or passions which serve as the incentives to crime approached in intensity the same mental conditions in man. In that portion of these contributions devoted to "Sexual Cerebration," emphasis was given to the fact that the emotional life of woman exceeded that of man. At this point in the study we can give this practical significance. The emotions offer vulnerable places in woman's moral armor. These mental sexual attributes which give such grace and beauty to woman's character cannot exist except at the expense of rigidity and sternness of mind. Through all Nature may be found analogies which give probability to this. Nature, in her forms of fixity and power, is massive and rugged in her outlines; it is only in her phases of changing, transient life, that she assumes lines of beauty, delicacy of shape, and clothes her proportions in the subtile harmonies of color. I do not deny woman firmness of character; but surely, whatever firmness she possesses, it is not by reason of her emotions that it exists. Nor do I wish to be understood as saying that any excess of emotion woman may possess over man is necessarily the cause of inherent weakness of character; but, the idea I intend to convey is, that excessive development of the emotions affords a way of approach to the firmer characteristics of her mind of those exciting causes of crime, which, without these avenues, must act with less force as criminal factors. The evidence of this lies in the tendency of woman to exceed in a marked manner her ratio to crimes in general against the person when exposed to the action of causes which act more or less directly upon her emotional life. Women perpetrate crimes, involving human life, more frequently within the circle of their domestic relations than men (Quetelet). In view of this fact, let us inquire as to the probable motives which cause women to exceed men in crimes against persons within this restricted area. If we were to explain it as the result simply of the great opportunity women have of perpetrating crime in the family, it leads to the conclusion that women's criminal tendencies exceed those of men under favorable opportunities, and which men in the same relation possess to an equal extent. This we know is a wrong conclusion; therefore, while we must allow the great facilities afforded to women a certain value as a factor in this excess, yet it is not adequate to explain the fact. It is in the family that woman finds a field for the free action of her emotional life. It is as an outcome from these emotions that the family exists; it is through these emotions that the most deadly wounds may be inflicted upon her morality and self-respect. In the majority of cases, if through her error, or that of others, the family is a failure, the woman of the family is a failure also. In this can be found the strongest argument for encouraging woman to become expert in some form of labor, so as to enlarge the field of her self-dependence, that she may be able to secure safety for herself in the trying hour of domestic misfortune. While the family is called into existence by reason of the most potent sexual mental traits, and finds its strength and permanency in a temperate use and even balance of the emotions, it may become the source of the most active criminal impulses. Conjugal incontinence, jealousy, a misplaced love, may create the most deadly strife in the family circle. Especially is this true if the criminal tendency exists latent, as an inherited taint, in the members of the family, and ready to be kindled into life by emotions which, in others, free from inherited vice, would not pass beyond the control of the moral faculties. Man, whose activities are less confined within the area of domestic life, is more able than woman to resist the action of the emotions. Another cause, which comparatively releases man from the criminal tendencies which grow out of a violated emotional life, is the weaker hold these emotions have upon his conscious life. These are my reasons for concluding that this excess over men, as a criminal against persons, within these limits, is the result of the more active development of the emotions in women.

Considering that, in the purely sexual relations of men and women, the male is the active and the female the passive one, the ratio between the sexes for the crime of adultery offers additional confirmation of the foregoing. For this purpose I shall select the statistics of M. de Marsangy, than whom none can be selected more favorably disposed to women. This author places the ratio for men at 528, and women at 472 to 1,000.[3] As these were cases which came under the notice of the public prosecutor, it is reasonable to suppose that the circumstances attending them were in both sexes of a flagrant character, so that possibly the usual attitude of the sexes toward each other in this offense was reversed. These ratios render the assumption safe that it is in crimes which grow out of the acute and excessive emotional life of women that they tend to equal men as criminals. If it were any tendency to crime, growing out of sexual mental traits possessed more equally in common than the emotions, which causes the tendency to equality above referred to, it would be reasonable to expect to find the sexes occasionally approaching a common ratio in crimes against property, and which could be traced to the same mental traits. But a careful survey of the field shows this not to be so. Woman's delicacy and keenness of emotional life, when their undue exercise or unbalanced proportions seek expression in the criminal act, lead to crimes against persons, not against property. Even incendiarism, so commonly practised by men from motives of revenge, is but seldom attempted by women. The enmities of women are never general. They are roused by particular persons and special acts; hence their revenge takes-an individual direction, not against the property, but against the person of the enemy. The wounding of parents, and parricide, exceeding by so large a ratio all other acts of violence against the person, I believe can be explained in no other way. Admitting, as I have already done, that the great opportunity afforded of making attempts upon the persons of parents has some value as a factor, yet we must bear in mind that, from the nature of their domestic life, women have opportunities equally as great of inflicting injury upon others. It follows that opportunity as it affects parents must be given exceptional value, in order to account for their being the objects of criminal attempts on the part of daughters, over that of other persons holding a domestic relation. The ratio of crimes against parents also makes it very probable that the purely sexual emotions are not particularly important as factors in the grave class of crime now under consideration. So far as it relates to parents, these emotions may be excluded. Other emotions must in parricide be called into action. But, in poisoning and crimes affecting others beyond parental relation, I believe the purely sexual emotion is the main ingredient in the motive. M. Quetelet states that adultery, domestic quarrels, and jealousy, cause nearly an equal number of poisoning in both sexes; but in murder the number of women by the husbands exceeds the number of husbands by the wives. In poisoning, with the ratio of 91 to 100, for all motives and against unspecified persons, we perceive that when the crime is brought within the domestic circle and against persons bearing a very close relation to women and narrowed down to these motives, all differences between the sexes disappear. This is brought out in order to make clear the fact that women are not worse than men, but that under conditions favorable to their more restricted sphere of activities, and from motives operating in the direction of their peculiar psychical traits, they will equal men in the perpetration of those crimes suited to their strength. Crime, as it relates to men and is perpetrated by them, conforms in an equal manner to their physical and mental characteristics, and exists in a ratio with the sphere of their activities. While a difference of morality may exist between the sexes, it is not equal to explain the constantly varying ratios of the sexes, to crime. Whatever the differences of morality may be, it is not sufficient to create any difference in the tendency to crime, when the crime conforms to the conditions just stated. The abnormal action of mental sexual traits is more often met with among women than among men. M. Prosper Despine assigns great importance to the moral perversions which accompany the hysterical tendency in women, and regards it as one of the marked characteristics of sex in crime. Hysteria in its myriad forms, when it disturbs cerebral function, appears to be a perversion of the emotional faculties. An offense committed during an attack of hysterical insanity is not of course a crime, as I am here studying it; but it is a grave question, to what extent may the criminal habit grow out of the perversion of morals which may attend the hysterical state of mind? In the course of two years' acquaintance with criminal female convicts, I became impressed with the fact that nearly every one of them gave evidence of possessing hysterical tendencies. In connection with this tendency, another significant fact was observed the power to control the expression of the feelings and emotions was much less in them than in the average woman. Women who are liable to attacks of hysterical perversion of the emotions are usually under the direct influence of the diseased action but a short time, so that the possibility of criminal attempts at such times is comparatively limited. It is not therefore the presence of an actual attack of hysteria which promotes the tendency to crime; but the impaired control over the desires and emotions which coexists with the hysterical temperament may lead to this. Which is the cause, and which the effect, it is difficult to assert. From the prevalence of hysteria among prostitutes—a class who habitually permit the desires and emotions to pass beyond healthy control of the will—I infer that this precedes the actual attack of the disease. In some cases, however, hysteria results from organic derangement, usually of the sexual organs, and then the lack of emotional control may be a secondary instead of primary condition. The criminal resultant, in my experience, is confined to crimes against property, false accusation, and infanticide. It rarely leads to the more serious crimes against persons, for the reason that the wrongs of the hysterical are fancied rather than real, which disappear with the usually prompt return of judgment.

The following history of a false accusation reveals the defective control over the feelings and the perversion of the sexual emotions which coexist with the hysterical tendency: Esther was a young convict, about twenty years old, committed for a term of years to the Onondaga penitentiary for a second offense of stealing. She married very young, and lived with her husband but a short time. Her occupation was that of a domestic, and when not employed always went to her home, which was respectable. She gave considerable trouble in the shops, by her moody and disobedient ways, and would often refuse her food, and was then taciturn and desponding. Her cell was situated near the centre of the block, on the second gallery, and was lined with pictures cut from the illustrated newspapers. The collection was remarkable from being made up of the pictures of men and women, some of them neatly framed with straws. A cross, made of the thin shavings of wood used to light cigars with, was prominent among the decorations. She gave me considerable trouble with her great variety of fancied ailments, and I believe the girl actually believed in her diseases. The keepers believed her to be a "beat," a most unfortunate reputation for one to earn while under the discipline of a penitentiary. Esther startled the prison officials one morning, by charging the night-watch—a most estimable young man—with visiting her cell at night. From the method of locking the cells, this appeared to the officers nearly an impossible thing for the watchman to do. A careful examination of the inmates of the adjoining cells failed to elicit any confirming evidence; yet Esther persisted in her charge, to the great distress of the young man. As Leander nightly buffeted with the waves of the Hellespont for the love of Hero, it was thought possible that love might contend not less successfully with patent locks and prison-bars. It was therefore considered the safest course to remove the young man. When Esther was informed of the effect of her charge, she at once retracted. Now, the motive of this accusation constitutes the essence of the story. Esther loved the night-watch. She had for months fed her passion on the sight of the young man. The class of people to whom this woman belonged do not possess imaginations sufficiently acute to invest love with any charm. Their relation with an object of love is emotional; their only gratification is possession. As possession was impossible, there was yet a way to establish a link between herself and wished-for lover. She brought a false charge against a man who had never spoken a word to her in his life. She took pride in the fact that his name was associated with hers in a manner most congenial to her emotions. It was the nearest approach to possession possible. This girl was very properly placed upon bread and water for her offense; but I am quite confident that such a false accusation, except for purposes of revenge, is only possible in a woman of hysterical tendencies, and in whom the emotions have passed beyond the inhibitory power of the moral sense. A false accusation of this nature is not a very rare one for women to make, and it is usually accompanied by two noteworthy circumstances—the woman is generally very young, and the man in some way nearly unattainable by the accuser.

To the liability of insanity to accompany the hereditary transmission of crime, I have already made sufficient reference; but the class described above are not insane, they simply lack the normal equipoise between the different faculties of mind. As to how far this may affect the relations of women to the different classes of crime we have no means of forming an opinion. As it is a mental characteristic more frequently observed in women than men, it is reasonable to suppose that it has some influence. Its effect upon the votaries of the social evil is, however, very great, and careful study will be made of it in the chapter devoted to woman's crime against her sex.

Particular stress has been laid by other authors upon the fact that the great excess of men over women in certain crimes against the person, as murder and assassination, was the result of intoxication and brawling to which men are addicted. If this is one of the factors of such excess, it will be interesting to know it. If this is any explanation, it follows that one sex must so greatly exceed the other in the matter of intoxication and disorderly conduct, as it is termed by the police courts, as not only to include the ratio between the sexes for crimes mentioned, but also to include the chances of no such result following, as but a small percentage of debauches and brawls results in either murder or assassination. As it is in great cities that men addicted to disorderly conduct are mostly to be found, and as there also they are more liable to terminate in crimes against the person, I shall select statistics from cities touching upon this matter, bearing in mind, however, that a perfect contrast between the sexes cannot be secured, as the offenses under analysis include drunkenness and fighting in the male, and both those, with the addition of prostitution, in the female. The ratios are based upon the statistics furnished by the report of the Commissioners of Public Charities and Correction. For the period covered by the reports, 90 per centum of those arrested for disorderly conduct and intoxication were women.[4] It becomes evident at once that the excess of men over women, in crimes against the person, cannot to any extent be accounted for by the proneness of men to intoxication and disorderly conduct, and which we perceive does not so greatly exceed that of women. Instead of searching among accidental qualities for the causes of this difference, rather ought we to examine the mental and physical qualities which exist inherently in man. From the same source we may gain an idea which bears in another direction upon this matter. The ratio of drunkenness and disorderly conduct to total crime, for the sexes separately, furnishes nearly positive proof that it has but a restricted influence upon the tendency to crime in general. Thus, these offenses furnish 41 per centum of the total crime committed by men; while, of the total crime committed by women, 80 per centum is of the same nature. While the number of drunk and disorderly among men is larger by a small excess than the number of women so addicted, yet women considered by themselves exhibit twice the tendency to these offenses that men do. Here, the sex which affords the least measure of total crime gives the largest ratio, relatively to her own sex, of those offenses which are so generally supposed to underlie the criminal tendency. The explanation I would offer of this rather unexpected result is, that intoxication and disorderly conduct are offenses closely allied to vagrancy and its analogue, prostitution; that this class represents the effete among men and women who gravitate into vice from total lack of vitality and energy to keep themselves up to the level of the average. The active criminal requires mental and physical energy in order to pursue his course. Any of the conditions of life which depress the physical powers and deplete mental energy tend to remove those with criminal tendencies from the order of active criminals, and place them among those addicted to the minor degrees of crime. While habitual intoxication and disorderly conduct lead to the lighter offenses against property, the more serious crimes against property and persons are comparatively unaffected by these causes, either among men or women.

  1. Argument continued from January Monthly.
  2. "Recherches Medico-Légale sur Suicide," Paris, 1860.
  3. Loc. cit., table, p. 147.
  4. "Reports of the Prison Association of New York," Tables "C," "D," "E," "F," 1867, and Tables "C," "D," "E," "F," "G," "H," 1871 and 1873.