June 26, 2007
Are girls today are more depressed, alienated, fearful, mean, and materialistic?
Are girls are more addicted, using alcohol, tobacco, and dangerous drugs at younger ages?
Are girls are suffering more body image problems, getting more cosmetic surgery, and taking greater risks with sex at younger ages?
Are girls are more violent and criminal today?
Are girls today are more in danger of violence, especially sexual violence, than previous generations?
Are younger women are more traditional and apathetic, reversing decades of feminist gains by older generations?
NO to all the above. What is it about teenage girls that terrifies Americans into gibbering lunacy?
And not just threatened male traditionalists or 1980s evangelical women organized against the Equal Rights Amendment, but modern academic authorities, liberals, even radical feminists. This analysis examines popular claims that modern American girls and young women are more troubled, mean, violent, criminal, narcissistic, addicted, materialistic, and otherwise disturbed, concluding that authors and other critics are scapegoating girls to avoid facing the implications of their own personal and older-generation crises.
Everyone concedes girls’ remarkable advances into larger society over the last generation, as indicated for education in Table 1. While, in their mothers’ generation and before, girls were more likely to drop out of school and fail to attend college than boys, the last 35 years has seen a dramatic reversal to the point that girls now dominate higher education. A majority of new lawyers and, within coming decades, a majority of physicians and other professionals will be women—can Congress and other seats of political power be far behind?
|Table 1. Young women are taking over education, especially college|
|Percent age 16-24 who dropped out of high school*||Percent age 18-24 in college|
|*Dropouts are 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and who have not completed a high school program regardless of when they left school.
Source: Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Tables 105, 172.
However, from left to right, feminist to traditionalist, fearful cries echo that the rapid advance of girls and young women in American education, employment, independence, and cultural influence has a “dark side.” Sure, the ascendance of young women is beneficial, critics briefly concede… before launching book- and video-long manifestos about how girls’ success combined with misogynist media imagery has also spawned rising violence, materialism, body image disorders, eating disorders, depression, suicide, “hooking up,” binge drinking, drug abuse, destructive competition, even gun violence. These culture critics—right-wing, moderate, and progressive alike—paint modern girls very much like that of fundamentalist preachers battling women’s suffrage a century ago: young females are flighty, shallow, and fragile, temperamentally unequipped to handle the stresses of liberation and vulgar influences, reversing decades of feminist progress.
The troubling reality is exactly the opposite: middle-aged women of 1960s and ‘70s vintage, more than any previous generation, are caught up in a wave of drug abuse, crime, family instability, obesity and other body image crises, wealth concentration and materialism, and moralistic, reactionary political attitudes, as we’ll see in measure after measure. In most of the above devolutions, middle-aged men are even worse. In fact, girls and young women face ferocious attack today to shield older generations from facing their own failings.
|Table 2. Young women getting safer, middle-aged women now most at risk|
|Female violent deaths/100,000 population|
|Age group||1980||2004||Change, 2004 vs. 1980|
|Sources: WISQARS, National Center for Health Statistics, 1970-2004|
Am I unfair to call many of today’ authors and commentators girlphobes? Listen to their own descriptions of girls: “Confused,” “insecure,” “lashing out,” “totally obnoxious,” “moody,” “cruel,” “sneaky,” characterized by “competition with” and “judgment of each other,” ruled by “social hierarchies” that are “painfully reinforced,” “lying,” “mean,” “exclusive,” and “catty”—those are the words Rachel Wiseman (who claims to like girls) applies them in the first 15 pages of Girl Wars.
Mary Pipher is just as negative: girls are characterized by “eating disorders, school phobias, self-inflicted injuries… great unhappiness… anxiety… a total focus on looks.” They are “moody, demanding, and distant… elusive… easily offended… slow to trust… sullen and secretive… depressed… overwhelmed… symptomatic… anorexic… alcoholic… in a dangerous place… traumatized,” “bristle when touched,” “saplings in a hurricane”—and we’re not even halfway through the first chapter of Reviving Ophelia.
The “I’m disordered, you’re disordered” authors balloon individual troubles into generation-wide mass pathology. “The sheer volume of celebrity illegality, and the specifically female faces behind the mug shots, is indicative of the new normalcy of addiction for young women—of all classes, cultures, and locales—in this country,” Courtney Martinwrites in Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. The woes of a few pop stars, herself, and her acquaintances and some mangled, secondhand statistics form the evidence for her claims of “the dwindling state of young women’s mental health” and that “we are more diseased and more addicted than any generation of young women that has come before… succumbing to dangerous emotional numbs—eating disorders, binge drinking, and even harder drugs.”
Authors repeatedly project their own miseries and dismal attitudes on those of all girls. “Many of us hated our adolescent years,” Pipher says of growing up in the 1960s, “yet for the most part we weren’t suicidal and we didn’t develop eating disorders, cut ourselves, or run away from home.” Like other authors, Pipher’s negative attitude toward girls stems from her own troubles: (a) she “hated” her own adolescence (which a large majority of girls don’t); (b) she doesn’t “remember” girls having big problems in her youth (actually, girls had far worse problems 35 years ago than today); and (c) the girls she “sees in her practice” are messed up (which is not true of girls who aren’t seeing psychologists). These authors seem to think their heads contain the sum of the universe.
Not only do girlphobes bury real-life stresses affecting girls—led by severe poverty, violent and abusive families, and coping with their parents’ rising drug abuse and disarray—under an avalanche of yuppie frettings over fictional cultural images, many play on stereotypes of girls that were never true. That some girls (and women, though women are rarely mentioned) can be mean, violent, catty, self-destructive, cliquish, and aggressive is not an invention of the modern era, but has been the case throughout history. (“The girl of 14 is the problem of today,” read a BostonSunday newspaper headline in 1925, one of many berating the supposedly rampant drinking, delinquency, and “freedom of intercourse” among 1920s girls.) In fact, while their moms and dads have suffered skyrocketing crises in the modern era, girls are doing better than ever.
Thank god for our culture’s future that girls as a generation in no way resemble the vicious, joyless cabal depicted by the Piphers, Wisemans, Martins, and other authors who misappropriate girls’ voices to their own dismal agendas. While these authors repeatedly invoke the editorial “we” (when claiming entitlement to speak for) and “they” (when claiming entitlement to characterize) all girls, they no more represent an entire gender and generation that a Kissinger or Chomsky could claim to speak for all Jews, or all men.
What, then, are authentic girls’ voices? To locate them, we have to move beyond the misery ideologues such as Pipher and Martin, as well as those who might be Pollyanna ideologues, such as me. Were I to base a book on my interviews and work with girls and young women as students, coworkers, and in programs, my positive experiences with them as generally happy, optimistic, responsible, and capable might lead to downplaying problems. Adult opinions of youth are notoriously suspect.
The best shot at understanding girls as a generation lies in combining the long-term, consistent surveys compiled by non-ideological sources with health outcome measures that reveal whether girls’ self-expressed attitudes are reflected in real-world behaviors. The gist of these measures shows that, yes, issues such as body image concerns, disorders, depression, violence, difficult relationships with men and each other, and other ills are problems, as they have been for eons. But, far from shattering a generation, today’s girls and young women are handling their problems better than past generations as they move into increasingly powerful and prominent roles. Contrary to the crusade against girls that has built to panicked levels in books and the press, there is little evidence that girls are any more criminal, materialistic, sick, mean, or threatened than they ever were—and a lot of evidence that they’re less so.
Worse than the fragile-troubled-girl fretters are the violent-criminal-girl mythmakers. “Today, more girls are entering the juvenile justice system because they have committed a violent crime, and they are doing so at younger ages,” announce Harvard University’s Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Howard Spivak in Sugar and Spice and No Longer Nice. “As guns become more permissible and available to girls, that will unleash more aggression in them… this may already be happening” James Garbarino adds in See Jane Hit. The press is endlessly worshipful of this malarkey—CBS News and other outlets breathlessly recycle years-old footage of girl scuffles and manufacture endless girl crises—no matter how evidence-light and silly. Prothrow-Stith and Spivak blame “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider” and “Kill Bill” for spurring ever-more traumatized girls to “engage in more violent behavior for fun or status or power.” Garbarino cites Harry Potter’s Hermione and Powerpuff Girls. As we’ll see, this is truly dumb stuff, a quest for easy scapegoats that reflects America’s ongoing trivialization of serious violence.
Any notion that the vast majority of America’s young women are healthy, sane, happy, and enjoying unprecedented successes in education and jobs are a threat to the grim ideologies of culture warriors on the left and right. Culture warriors translate their deep moral offense at what they see as sleazy, gory, materialistic trends in mass media and popular culture into a crusading imperative founded in the dogma that children and adolescents (especially girls, who many of them see as weak and vulnerable) must be more screwed up than ever.
Myth #1: Girls today are more depressed, alienated, fearful, mean, and materialistic.
Older generations’ self-flatteries and self-interests aside, how would we know whether girls are more pathological today? It’s hard to characterize what 20 million people are thinking. The best and long-term surveys of teens,Monitoring the Future and The American Freshman, have asked consistent questions of large samples of thousands of girls for several decades without ideological purpose. We can first see trends in what girls say about themselves, then compare their self reports to real-life measures of crime, violent deaths, and other measures to see if attitudes reflect behaviors. However flawed these measures might be, they are far superior to the biased memories, biased selections of girls to profile, and ideological appropriations of the girlphobe authors.
“Why are girls having more trouble now than my friends and I had when we were adolescents?” Pipher asks, claiming that girls of her generation were happier and more connected. But is this true? As Table 3 shows, teenaged girls in the first Monitoring the Future survey (1975) were slightly less happy with themselves and their lives, less satisfied with peers and parents, and less civic minded.
|Table 3. But don’t girls say they’re more depressed,
scared, peer-tortured, alienated, and selfish today? NO!
|Percentages of high school senior females telling Monitoring the Future:|
|I’m “very happy”||21%||18%||18%||23%||23%|
|Satisfied with life as a whole||63%||66%||65%||64%||66%|
|Enjoys fast pace and changes of today’s world||45%||42%||58%||56%||50%|
|Daily participation in active sports/excercising||36%||38%||34%||35%||36%|
|Are you satisfied with (percent agreeing)…|
|Your material possessions?||75%||75%||71%||73%||75%|
|Your personal safety?||68%||67%||66%||69%||71%|
|Feels “I can do things as well as most people”||89%||92%||89%||89%||87%|
|Values (percent agreeing)|
|Important to be a leader in my community||19%||20%||33%||40%||46%|
|Important to make a contribution to society||55%||52%||62%||65%||70%|
|Important to have latest music, etc. fashions||77%||78%||70%||59%||51%|
|Important to have latest-style clothes||42%||47%||57%||42%||39%|
|Wants to have lots of money||35%||41%||63%||57%||59%|
|Wants job with status and prestige||52%||60%||69%||65%||67%|
|Wants job which provides lots of money||84%||89%||86%||86%||86%|
|Wants job with opportunity to help others||92%||91%||92%||88%||90%|
|Women should have equal job opportunity||82%||88%||96%||97%||95%|
|Wants to correct social/economic inequality||37%||35%||44%||39%||39%|
|Dissatisfied with self||12%||10%||13%||10%||12%|
|Sometimes thinks “I am no good at all”||28%||27%||28%||25%||24%|
|I’m “not too happy”||13%||17%||12%||14%||13%|
|Feels I am “not a person of worth”||5%||5%||6%||7%||8%|
|Often feels “left out of things”||33%||34%||36%||34%||29%|
|Feels there’s usually no one I can talk to||6%||5%||6%||6%||5%|
|Feels “I can’t do anything right”||10%||11%||12%||14%||14%|
|Wishes “I had more good friends”||50%||46%||50%||52%||44%|
|Not having fun||19%||13%||16%||20%||17%|
|Can’t get ahead because others stop me||22%||21%||26%||26%||20%|
|Thinks “things change too quickly” today||54%||56%||44%||44%||46%|
|Thinks “times ahead of me will be tougher”||47%||54%||45%||42%||41%|
|Feels “people like me don’t have a chance”||6%||5%||5%||5%||5%|
|*Source: Monitoring the Future,1975-2005.|
Compared to girls of past decades, girls today are somewhat happier, less likely to feel no good, less likely to feel left out or in need of more friends, happier with a fast-changing society, much happier with school and jobs, feeling safer, and more optimistic about the future. They are more likely to value leadership, being financially well off, and contributing positively to society. While the percentage of unhappy girls has stayed about the same when various measures are combined, those reporting more optimistic, healthier attitudes are reflected in the increasing numbers who graduate and go to college.
Here, the University of California, Los Angeles’s, Higher Education Research Institute has surveyed hundreds of thousands of first-year students for The American Freshman, finding girls’ rates of depression have fallen sharply and steadily from their peak 20 years ago (Table 4). However, the percentage “feeling overwhelmed by all I have to do” rose to the late 1990s and leveled off. Part of this may be due to the fact that college women are extending their education at the same time their student loan debts are rising and more are working while going to school—trends forced on them by declining public funding of higher education.
|Table 4. Percent of first-year college women saying they feel:|
|Years||Frequently depressed||Overwhelmed by all I have to do|
|Source: The American Freshman, annual survey, 1985-2006. UCLA: Higher Education Research Institute.|
Girls feeling happier, safer, more included, less suicidal, and less alienated must be disastrous news for the girlphobes, because they go to incredible lengths to make them seem more miserable. They also fail to mention that the generally sunnier views of girls themselves are validated by solid outcome measures showing that most of the problems we would expect to be rising and widespread if girls were deeply troubled today are, in fact, declining and rare. And where there are problems, they are often imposed by adults via conditions such as poverty, abusive families, and grownup bullying, not just by mean peers and misogynist media.
Myth #2: Girls are more addicted, using alcohol, tobacco, and dangerous drugs at younger ages.
This argument is absurd, manufactured by culture-war zealots to buttress their attack (otherwise worthwhile) on tobacco, alcohol, and fashion industries and offensive images. In fact, virtually all surveys show girls use intoxicating substances less today, and those who do begin at older ages.
|Table 2. But aren’t today’s girls smoking, drinking,
and using dangerous drugs at younger ages? NO!
|Percentages of high school senior females telling Monitoring the Future:|
|Drug use (began with 1977 survey)||1977||1980||1990||2000||2005|
|Smoked cigarettes daily||45%||41%||30%||32%||20%|
|Smoked daily before 9th grade||12%||17%||10%||13%||4%|
|Drank alcohol (more than a few sips)||91%||92%||89%||78%||74%|
|Drank alcohol before 9th grade||21%||24%||32%||28%||19%|
|By physician’s prescription||15%||11%||5%||6%||5%|
|Without a prescription||22%||25%||13%||11%||9%|
|Used amphetamines before 9th grade||1.0%||1.0%||2.6%||1.2%||0.6%|
|Used marijuana/LSD/other psychedelics*||60%||64%||44%||58%||45%|
|Used heroin/other narcotics/cocaine*||11%||14%||8%||13%||11%|
|*Treats those who used more than one drug as a single user of each drug.
Source: Monitoring the Future, 1975-2005.
Use of various drugs peaked at various times, but for nearly all, girls use alcohol, tobacco, legal prescriptions, and illicit drugs much less today than in the past. Nor does any measure substantiate popular claims that college women are now smoking and drinking more than in the past or than men; both show declines.
|Table 10. Percentages of college first-years students who say they…|
|Drank beer in the last year||56%||57%||42%|
|Smoked cigarettes in the last year||12%||8%||5%|
|Source: The American Freshman, 1966-2006.|
Are these self-reports accurate? One measure would be drunken driving crashes. While claims by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University (a lobby headed by hard-core drug-war ideologue Joseph Califano, Jr., with a history of wildly exaggerated statements) have been eagerly copied by girlphobes such as Martin to slander young women as “more diseased and addicted” and driving drunk more today, these alarms don’t hold up to scrutiny:
- Women drivers, despite driving more today, are far safer from drunken driving crashes. From 1977 to 2000 (the time period cited by CASA), the number of females licensed to drive rose by 49% (1.7 times faster than for men, more evidence of female advancement into larger society). However, the number of fatal crashes involving female drivers rose only 38%, and the number of fatal alcohol-related crashes involving female drivers rose only 13%,
- The proportion of fatal crashes involving women drivers in which alcohol was a factor plummeted, from 27% in 1977 to 15% today—a drop much faster than recorded by men (44% in 1977, 28% in 2004).
- Bottom line: the average female driver today is 25% less likely to be involved in a fatal alcohol-related crash than one in 1977.
“Female drivers not only are less frequently drunk than males but also show a greater reduction in alcohol involvement in fatal crashes from 1982 to 2000,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported. NHTSA, Alcohol Involvement in Fatal Crashes, 2000. This is especially true for young women. Today, 40-year-old men alone kill more people in drunken driving wrecks than all teenage girls under age 20 put together. This is why it’s crucial that writers about youth not rely on second-hand sources for facts.
Women get into numerically more traffic accidents today because they are driving many more miles every year than they used to. Women are more out in the world, displacing men to a more significant degree than in the past, and so women’s exposure to the risks of the larger world (such as traffic wrecks) has risen as well. That women are more exposed to risk today makes the decline in the per-capita rate of traffic crashes among women drivers over the last 30 years even more impressive.
Myth #3: Girls are suffering more body image problems, getting more cosmetic surgery, and taking greater risks with sex at younger ages.
If girls today suffer “a more dangerous, sexualized, and media-saturated culture,” as Pipher insists, we would expect more real-life casualties—that is, more deaths, more violence, more pregnancies, more sexually transmitted infections, more plastic surgery. As we have seen, violent deaths have dropped for young women in recent decades, and violence will be discussed in the next section. As for pregnancies, girls and young women today have substantially lower rates of pregnancy than past generations (Table 5). In fact, the birth rate alone among teens in the 1950s was higher than the total pregnancy rate in the 2000s.
|Table 5. But aren’t teens getting pregnant and having
babies and abortions at younger ages today? NO!
|Pregnancies per 1,000 teenage females|
|Change, 2002 v 1976||-61%||-25%||-46%||-20%||-37%||-30%|
|*Indicates no data are available for that year. Miscarriage rates were higher in earlier years, and illegal abortions were estimated by public health authorities at 750,000 to 2 million per year prior to legalization in 1972.
Source: National Center for Health Statistics, Birth Data.
Nor are girls getting more sexually transmitted infections, as we would expect of younger females are becoming more promiscuous, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s surveillance, the only long term measure of STIs (Table 6). Girls’ infections peaked in the late 1970s and, even with improved data collection in recent years, have dropped by more than 50% since then. Note that girls’ infection rates are higher than for boys because girls typically are infected by older male partners (or assailants).
|Table 6. Teen sexually transmitted infections, 1960-2005|
|Average||STI infections per 100,000 population by sex, age|
|Annual:||Male||Female||age 10-14||age 15-19|
|Source: Centers for Disease Control, STI Surveillance and Statistics.|
Finally, are girls suffering mass body image crises and getting cosmetic surgeries in record numbers? Not even nearly. Teens, in fact, account for just 2% of cosmetic procedures today, a number that is declining. Meanwhile, those age 35 and older comprise three-fourths of cosmetic procedures and surgery, a number that is skyrocketing (Table 7). Once again, fretting over teens obscures the much greater body image insecurities rising among older age groups.
|Table 7. Teens aren’t the ones getting surgical makeovers
Cosmetic procedures, 2001 Cosmetic procedures, 2005
Age group number percent | number percent top surgical procedure
under 19 298,000 4% | 175,000 2% Rhinoplasty
19-34 1,870,000 22% | 2,700,000 24% Breast Augmentation
35-50 3,740,000 44% | 5,300,000 47% Liposuction
51-64 2,100,000 25% | 2,700,000 23% Eyelid Surgery
65+ 425,000 5% | 530,000 4% Eyelid Surgery
Total 8,500,000 | 11,500,000
Source: Plastic Surgery Research.Info. Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Research, Statistics and Trends for 2001 – 2005
When critics aren’t complaining girls are too vain and thin, they’re complaining that girls are too unhealthy and fat. While Americans of all ages are fatter, yet again, older generations are leading the charge toward greater obesity (Table 8). Over the last 40 years, obesity grew twice as fast among older age groups (23.5% of the non-obese female population age 45-64 in 1960 became obese by 2000) from 1960 to 2000 as among female teens and children (11%). Note that for under-20 and senior age groups, obesity increased faster among males than among females over the period. Among middle-aged women, four in 10 are obese today. Given the example of their parents of both sexes, the wonder is that girls aren’t even fatter.
|Table 8. Obesity increasing fastest among older generations|
|Age group||Percent obese||Increase*
2000 vs. 1960
|*Percent obese in 2000 minus percent obese in 1960, divided by percent not obese in 1960 (risk ratio). Source: Centers for Disease Control. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.|
Myth #4: Girls are more violent and criminal today.
Every generation gets an earful of this fiction. Pick your era. The sacred 1950s? Crime has exploded among “our delinquent daughters,” who “start by stealing lipstick and finish with a slaying,” a series of government documentaries warned in the 1940s and 1950s. Lest you think they were exaggerating, note late 1960s and early 1970s FBI statistics that—even in an era in which many girl offenses were classed simply as “incorrigibility” or “ungovernable”—showed girls’ arrest rates for serious felonies, robbery, and homicide were considerably higher than they are today.
Not only are alarms of more violent girls standard in every era, they are shrillest when older groups are suffering increasing crises that can’t be admitted. That’s the case today, as Table 9’s comparison of trends in girls’ crime to that of a similarly-sized population of adults of the most likely age to be their parents (which, for girls ages 10-17, would be 40-49) shows. While books, institutions, and the press are abuzz with “the epidemic of youth violence” among girls (Prothrow-Stith & Spivak), NONE have asked what was going on with the grownups around them. When you examine the latter, you begin to suspect this ignorance is deliberate.
|Table 9. But aren’t girls more violent and criminal today,
while their mothers and fathers are less so? Just the opposite!
|Rate of felony violent and felony Part I offenses* per 100,000 population|
|Girls ages 10-17||Women ages 40-49||Men ages 40-49|
|Year||Violent||All felony||Violent||All felony||Violent||All felony|
|*As designated by the FBI, felony violent offenses are murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault; felony Part I offenses include these violent offenses plus felony burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.
Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 1985-2005. Each year’s arrest totals for each population group are adjusted for the proportion of the national population covered by the report and are divided by the population of that group for the year to produce rates. Arrests for these populations first became available in the 1980s.
First, in terms of crime rates, girls show a major increase in violent and other serious crime from 1985 to 1995, followed by large declines from 1995 to the present. Women in their 40s—the moms—likewise shows large increases in both violence and non-violent felonies from 1985 to 1995, followed by lesser increases in crime over the last decade. Forty-aged men show trends similar to that of girls, except the dads’ violence rates are much higher than those of the females and their decline over the last decade is considerably milder.
Interestingly, then, girls’ violence rates, which were 2.1 times higher than their mothers’ rates 20 years ago, fell to just 1.4 times higher by 2005. Girls’ violence levels stayed stable with respect to their fathers’ rates, at 0.3. Sounds like the hysterical press should have focused on the moms and dads, not the daughters!
Second, the absolute changes in violence arrests—the actual change in the number of persons arrested, expressed as a proportion of the group’s total population—delineate the impact of changes in criminal arrest more clearly. For every 100,000 girls, 40 more girls were arrested for violent felonies in 2005 than in 1985, versus 45 more arrests among their moms and 66 more among their dads.
Adjusted for population increases, violence rates among middle-agers–the parents, the grownups who are supposed to be stable and mature–doubled over the last quarter century. That’s far more alarming than anything going on among teens, boys or girls. Worse, and unlike for young people, women Prothrow-Stith’s age continue to show rising violent crime arrest rates over the last decade (up 16% from 1995 to 2005)—as well as massive increases in property and drug offenses. In her own Boston, middle-aged crime has exploded—1,700 arrested for serious felonies in 2005, a 27% jump in violence and 43% spike in property crimes among adults 40 an older since 2001 alone.
The generational trends are sobering. In 1975, California teen girls were three times more likely to be arrested for violent felonies than their middle-aged (ages 30-69) mothers. Today (2005), after violence soared among middle-agers, the violence arrest rates of teenaged girls and middle-aged women are equal. Isn’t that astounding, how much better girls are doing today—when you apply a detail called context?
Third, when we look at the kinds of serious crime perpetrated by many times more people and therefore are better measures of trends in offending among the larger population, we find a remarkable result: girls are becoming less criminal as their parents are getting cuffed more. In 2005, and impressive 128 fewer girls were arrested for serious felonies than in 1985, versus 115 more of their mothers and 237 more dads. By 2005, a remarkable result had emerged: girls were no more likely to get arrested for felonies than their supposedly staid, post-crime-age fathers.
Further, by the early 2000s, girls’ arrests for homicide had dropped to their lowest levels in 35 years: 0.8 per 100,000 girls ages 10-17, 30% below the level (1.1) in 1970 (Table 10). If girls’ behaviors have changed, it is toward their becoming less murderous.
|Table 10. The supposed increase in girls’ violence and
crime consists of only one type of arrest: assault
|Annual average arrest rates per 100,000 girls ages 10-17|
|All Part I||Part I violent crime||Property|
|Felony crime||All violent||Homicide||Robbery||Assault||crime|
|Source: FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 1970-2005.|
What could explain this pattern of girls’ arrests for murder, robbery, and other serious crime declining—while the only offense to increase is assault? If girls truly are becoming more criminal and violent, we would expect all types of violent crime by girls to increase. And if girls’ assaults really are rising so dramatically, we would expect homicide to increase as well (or, at least not to decrease), simply as a result of a few more attacks causing deaths.
Another mystery: It is true that the ratio of females-to-males arrested for violent offenses has risen over time—for all ages. In 1975, females made up 12% of all violence arrests among all ages (including both felony and misdemeanor assault, as the authors apparently do); compared to 14% in 1990, and 23% in 2005. Thus, the female share of violence arrests in America has doubled in 30 years. This is a trend well worth studying. Does it reflect a real increase in female crime relative to men?
Even more mystifying, the biggest increase in arrests of girls (and women) is not for the worst crime, but for the least serious offense: simple (misdemeanor) assault, which, coincidentally is also the one most vulnerable to changes in policing. Yet again, simple assault rates rose much faster for adult women, especially middle-agers, than for girls.
In fact, increased “arrest statistics are not always related to an increase in crime,” warned the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In a 2006 report, OJJDP took direct aim at those who claim girls are simply getting more violent:
If juvenile females had simply become more violent, the female proportion of juvenile arrests would be expected to have increased for each violent crime. This did not occur. For example, the female proportion of juvenile arrests remained relatively constant between 1980 and 2003 for robbery (7% to 9%). The change that caused the Violent Crime Index proportion to occur between 1980 and 2003 was the increase in the female proportion of juvenile arrests for aggravated assault (from 15% to 24%). Similarly, a large increase was seen in the female proportion of juvenile arrests for simple assault (from 21% to 32%). To understand the relative increase in female arrests for violence, it is necessary to look for factors related primarily to assault.
One possible explanation for this pattern could be the changing response of law enforcement to domestic violence incidents. Domestic assaults comprise a larger proportion of female violence than male violence. For example, analysis of the 2001 NIBRS data finds that 18% of aggravated assaults known to law enforcement committed by juvenile males were against family members or intimate partners, compared to 33% of aggravated assaults committed by juvenile females. Mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence, coupled with an increased willingness to report these crimes to authorities, would yield a greater increase in female than male arrests for assault, while having no effect on other violent crimes. Thus, policy and social changes may be a stimulus for the increased proportion of juvenile female arrests. (Juvenile Victims and Offenders, 2006, pages 128-29)
While OJJDP’s 2006 and 1999 reports note that the female proportion of offenders for several non-violent crimes also rose, it concludes that these increases may result from increase arrests for offenses “that in past years may have been classified as status offenses (e.g., incorrigibility)” but “can now result in an assault arrest.” Also, the increase in the proportion of females arrested resulted not from increasing arrests of females, but from rapidly declining arrests of males. This is the problem with using arrests (especially proportions of arrests) as one’s gauge of crime.
The best evidence indicates that much of the rise in arrests of females of all ages for simple assault results from tougher policing of domestic violence, not a real increase in violent behavior. However, even if we put aside these reasonable cautions and accept arrests as reflecting real violence, is the girls’ increase recent, as Prothrow-Stith and Spivak declare? No. According to the figures in FBI Uniform Crime Reports (Table 40) and the census, the rate of serious violent crime by girls dropped by 30% over the last decade (1995 to 2005), with murder and robbery now at 30-year lows. The increase in arrests they’re talking about occurred from 10 to 20 years ago and is not a new phenomenon.
It is also useful to compare female violence arrests to violence victimization rates (the numbers and rates of murder and of hospital treatment for violent injuries, available from the California Center for Health Statistics from 1991 through 2004) with those of boys, and by race and age. Assault injuries are understated, since some assaults do not result in hospital treatment. Once again, a curious pattern emerges (Table 11).
|Table 11. Girls’ vs., boys’ rates of murder and assault injury and arrest,California, 1991-2004|
|Injuries/100,000 population||Arrests/100,000 population|
|Girls age 10-17|
|Boys age 10-17|
|Source: EPIC California Injury Data Online, 1991-2004; California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, 1991-2005.|
If the increase in girls’ assault arrests relative to boys’ arrests meant girls were more violent, and girls primarily victimize other girls, as the girlphobes content, we would expect to see a rise in girls’ injuries from violence, perhaps even murder, relative to boys’. This is not the case. Over the 1991-2004/05 period, we see an identical drop in girls’ and boys’ assault victimizations, but arrest patterns diverged considerably:
- In 1991, girls made up 13% of juvenile assault injuries, and 20% of juvenile assault arrests.
- In 2004/05, girls made up the same 13% of juvenile assault injuries, but their share of violence arrests had risen to 28%.
Making the girls’ assault arrest increase even more anomalous, murder victimization and arrest rates fell sharply for both sexes. Yet again, it appears that the increase in girls’ arrests is not due to increased violence, but to changing law enforcement policies toward girls. There is no indication from homicide or available assault injury statistics that girls live in a more violent world than their mother. More accurately, since most injuries and nearly all murders inflicted on women are by men close to their age, there is no evidence that younger boys are more violent toward young females than older males are toward older females.
Further, contrary to inflammatory expert statements and media stories, self-reports also suggest girls don’t get in more fights today (Table 12).
|Table 12. But don’t girls get into more fights today?|
|Percentages of high school senior females telling Monitoring the Future:|
|Girls (high school seniors) reporting at least one incident in previous 12 months|
|Got into serious fight at work or school||10%||11%||13%||8%||9%|
|Got into a group fight||12%||11%||15%||15%||16%|
|Hurt someone enough for bandages/doctor||3%||3%||4%||4%||6%|
|Used weapon to commit robbery||1%||1%||1%||1%||1%|
|Injured by someone with weapon||2%||2%||2%||2%||4%|
|Injured by someone without weapon||12%||13%||17%||11%||15%|
|Boys (high school seniors) reporting at least one incident in previous 12 months|
|Got into serious fight at work or school||20%||21%||24%||16%||13%|
|Got into a group fight||23%||24%||27%||25%||22%|
|Hurt someone enough for bandages/doctor||18%||21%||20%||20%||18%|
|Used weapon to commit robbery||5%||5%||5%||5%||5%|
|Injured by someone with weapon||8%||7%||9%||7%||7%|
|Injured by someone without weapon||17%||16%||17%||18%||17%|
|*Source: Monitoring the Future, 1975-2005.|
Suppose, however, we were determined to focus on girls for a reason better than just the cowardly denial displayed by youth-bashing authors—say, because we’ve written off their wayward parents as hopeless cases and want to deter the young from emulating them. Even in that case, our book on girls’ crime would be very different than the mean-girl escapism issued by Prothrow-Stith, Spivak, Garbarino, Delasegga, Wiseman, et al.
We’d note that girls’ increases in violence and other serious crime are not recent but occurred from 10 to 20 years ago, followed by major improvements over the last decade. Thus, we would look for causal factors occurring in the late 1980s and early 1990s—not the post-1995 Lara Croft kickboxing, Powerpuff poundings, Hermione slap in Harry Potter, and other idiocies blamed by the above girlphobes that actually occurred during rapidly improving young-female behaviors.
If we conducted a realistic analysis, we would find that the increase in girls’ violence arrests in the 1980s and early 1990s directly parallels that of their mothers and fathers. Rather than writing off the parents—or, worse, pretending the adults are just bewildered innocents, as the girlphobes do—we would explore whether whatever factors increased girls’ arrests from 1985 to 1995 might also have contributed to burgeoning arrests among their mothers and fathers. Might parents’ difficulties might have contributed to girls’ problems? Does staggering differences in arrest rates and victimizations among poorer girls and women merit consideration?
Why, then, do these authors pick on girls and their “toxic culture” while dodging worse violence issues among his own older age groups? Obviously, young girls are easier to stigmatize, and commentators exploit their powerlessness. It’s a lot easier, much more comfortable for popular authors to rant against the “epidemic of youth violence” and blame fictional straw-targets like television, video games, music, and mean-girl-culture than to undertake painful introspection of very real violence and values infecting our own powerful, sacred, older age groups. A truly mature, responsible adult society doesn’t smugly shovel blame and stigma onto our kids—it frankly evaluates our own adult behaviors first. These authors’ evident eagerness to attack girls instead strikes me as a cowardly abdication of adulthood—and they are far from alone.
Unfortunately, girls suffering abusive, addicted, disarrayed parents and adults around them don’t have the luxury these privileged academic authors enjoy to simply ignore the severe troubles older generations display, nor to retreat into comfortable pop-culture evasions. The real mystery is: how have girls managed to resist the big increases in violence affecting their mothers’ generation? This disgraceful book and the acclaim it has received are just more examples of how troubled and escapist today’s aging Baby Boomers (and craven experts soothing us that it’s just kids causing all the problems) have become.
The entire argument that girls are more violent rests on the decade-old increase in girls’ assault arrests, from 6,300 in 1981 to a peak of 16,800 in 1995. However, girls’ assault arrests have since dropped sharply, to 14,700 in 2005, a 22% decline in per-capita rates.
The girlphobes also fail to point out that the few statistics they cite are bloated by the problems afflicting impoverished girls. Black girls’ violence and murder arrest rates are four to seven times higher than whites’, for example. Yet, virtually all of the girlphobes, like other youth-bashers, are narrowly concerned only with upper-middle- to upper-class teens, nearly all white. The authors then pretend that the statistics and trends of poorer girls apply to all girls—especially the more privileged youth they write about.
California, one of the few states that provides detailed, consistent statistics on crime by race, Latino ethnicity, sex, and age over the last three decades (Table 13). California arrest trends for girls and women are similar to those nationally. They show just how escapist and irresponsible the girlphobes who fixate on irrelevancies like Powerpuff Girls and Hermione are to ignore very real dysfluences like poverty.
|Table 13. California female arrests for violence by race and age, 1975-2005|
|Average annual violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, assault) arrests per 100,000 population|
|Girls ages 10-17||Women ages 30-69|
|*Source: Criminal Justice Statistics Center, Crime and Delinquency in California, 1975-2005, Table 36. Age groups follow those used by the Center.|
California, like the nation as a whole, experienced a substantial increase in girls’ violence arrests from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, then a decline. But notice how radically the picture changes when we examine three vital contexts—a full picture of arrest rates and trends over the last 30 years (not just the years girlphobes select), the large differences in arrest by race/ethnicity, and a comparison to adult women of ages to be their mothers (30-69).
The trends are astonishing. First, arrest rates among African-American girls are six times higher than for Latina, seven times higher than for white, and 14 times higher than for Asian girls. The violence trends by race are also quite different: Latina and Asian girls actually show declines, blacks show modest increases, and older white women show the largest rise by far of any group. These disparities show the senselessness of talking about girl crime, or crime in general, without talking about poverty and racial issues.
Second, the trends among adult, 30-aged and middle-aged women, are of far more concern than those of girls. For whites, Latinas, Asians, and females as a group, violence arrest rates were considerably higher among girls than among their mothers 30 years ago—but today, after massive growth in violence arrests among adult women, it is now the mothers’ age groups that have higher rates. The only exception is African Americans.
Third, if the whole 30-year period for which statistics are available—rather than just some brief sub-period chosen to prove a point—is examined, girls are no more violent today than girls of the previous generation. It is older adult women who are driving the surge in female violence arrests.
Myth #5: Girls today are more in danger from violence and rape than previous generations.
Are girls in more danger of violence and death today, as the girlphobes (led by Pipher) insist? No. Matching girls’ self reports of feeling safer and happier, the suicide and lethal self-destructiveness rate among teenage girls is not only the lowest of any age or either gender (except preteen children), it has dropped sharply over the years and now stands at just one-fourth the rate of middle-aged women (Table 14).
|Table 14. Female suicides and self-destructive deaths* per 100,000 population, 1980-2004|
|*Self-destructive deaths are accidental deaths by self-poisoning, firearms, and hanging, and deaths of undetermined intent. Source: Centers for Disease Control, WISQARS.|
Further, the National Crime Victimization Survey finds rape has declined sharply among young women ages 12-24. In fact, by the early 2000s, rape reports were so rare among the sample of 10,000 or so young women surveyed that estimates were based on very few cases.
|Table 15. Rape victimization has declined dramatically among young women|
|Rapes/attempted rapes per 1,000 females ages:|
|*Survey changes in 1993 expanded definition of rape. Adjusted for female proportions of total rapes, 1993-2005. Source: National Crime Victimization Survey, 1973-2005.|
In 1993, the NCVS expanded to survey other sex crimes, including both rape and sexual assault, whether completed, attempted, or threatened. Likewise, these have declined rapidly among young women through 2005 (Table 16). Note than by 2005, the rate of all sexual assaults was lower than the rate of rape alone prior to 1985. Not one major interest group, and certainly none of the girlphobes, has cited this remarkable trend; regrettably, they seem bent on lending exactly the opposite impression.
|Table 16. All sex crimes against young women declining rapidly|
|Rapes and sexual assaults* per 1,000 females|
|*Includes all rapes and other sexual assaults, whether completed, attempted, and threatened. Source: National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993-2005.|
Across the board, then, girls are generally safer today than in past generations, but there are some nuances. Girls’ self-destructive risks, at least of the lethal kind, have fallen rather sharply over the last four decades, reflected in the drop in fatal accidents. Self-inflicted deaths among girls, including suicides and accidents such as by poisoning or firearms, peaked around 1975 and have since fallen to record lows by the early 2000s—though there was a rise in 2004. The fact that traffic fatalities have fallen much faster among boys than among girls—both are down since 1965, with boys’ rates falling by 45% and girls’ by 10%–indicates more driving by girls due to their rising social status. Finally, murders of girls more than doubled from 1965 to 1980, leveled off in the 1990s, then fell back to pre-1970 levels by the 2000s. The dangers have shifted, but today’s is not a more, but a less, dangerous world for girls.
Their mothers and fathers—the ones Pipher insists were raised in more settled times—have set new records for middle-aged drug abuse, serious felony arrest, imprisonment, HIV infection, and family breakup. None of the girlphobe authors address this crucial issue; all pretend it doesn’t exist. The overwhelming impression lent by their writings is that it is not real hazards to real girls than concern them most, but the repugnance authors feel for modern society and popular culture. They seem not to recognize that “popular culture” is very diverse, and girls are stronger and more capable of choosing affirming images than their worriers admit.
Myth #6: Younger women are more traditional and apathetic, reversing decades of feminist gains by older generations.
Yet again, the opposite is evidenced: Baby Boom and older Generation X women have become more conservative. In 2004, nearly half voted for George W. Bush, quite possibly the conservative president in American history, who has taken stances diametrically opposed to feminist positions.
What has happened to the 1960s and ‘70s generation, now around ages 30 to 70—the one that launched the feminist revolution? In 2004, they abandoned women’s traditional support for Democrats and split evenly between Bush and Democrat John Kerry, while women over age 75 and under age 30 voted solidly for Democrats (Table 17). Older men were much more conservative, but younger men were more liberal, than Baby Boom women.
|Table 17. Voting in 2004 election by gender, age|
|Age group||Republican||Democrat||Percent voting*|
|*Percent voting of total citizen population eligible to vote. Sources: Edison-Mitofsky Exit Poll, 2004, author’s derivation of voting by age from totals for states. US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November 2004.See also www.civicyouth.org.|
In 2004, 6.2 million women ages 18-24 voted, a percentage (45%) equivalent to men in their early 30s (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November 2004). It is true that younger people vote less than older ones (just as poorer groups vote less than richer ones), but the percent of Americans under age 30 voting was at its highest level in 2004 since 1972.
Conclusion: girls and young women have instigated and experienced overwhelmingly positive trends toward increasing education, leadership, mental health, and safety.
That their numerous detractors insist on misrepresenting the fraction of troubled girls as typical of all girls tells us more about the girlphobes than girls themselves. Table 18 puts the troubled fraction in perspective.
|Table 18. But what about the fraction of girls who ARE troubled?|
|Percentages of high school senior females telling Monitoring the Future:|
|Are you DISSATISFIED with… (percent answering “completely or mostly dissatisfied”)|
|Your material possessions?||6%||5%||8%||7%||5%|
|Your personal safety?||8%||7%||9%||7%||5%|
|Your life as a whole?||7%||7%||7%||8%||7%|
|Source: Monitoring the Future, 1975-2005.|
Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports 7% of girls are bullied at school, and other surveys and outcome measures find that depending on the issue, one in 20 to one in 10 girls might be described as troubled, many due to histories of abuse, a proportion that has probably fallen in recent decades.
Certainly, books, programs, and other services intended to help those girls who are distressed provide valuable resources. But it is disturbing that authors feel they must create a generation-wide crisis, exposing young women to increasing stigma and fear at the very time girls are under intense political attack by politicians, interest groups, and the news media. Measures and initiatives to restrict or prevent girls from obtaining contraception or abortions, to channel more girls into the criminal justice system and related behavior-changing programs, to impose constant supervision and restrictions on public and private behaviors, to force girls back into abusive families and relationships, and other oppressive policies are based on the widespread belief that young women today are more dangerous, endangered, self-destructive, and incompetent. By contributing to those myths, girlphobe authors must bear responsibility for the poisonous climate they are helping to create.