Under the rather dramatic headline Ladettes lead upsurge in female crime, Tuesday's (27 January 2009) Sydney Morning Herald had a rather interesting piece by Geesche Jacobsen, the paper's Crime Editor, on increasing crime rates among young women.
THE number of women found guilty of crimes has jumped dramatically, partly as a result of alcohol-fuelled young "ladettes" trying to emulate young males.
After this dramatic start, the story is balanced reporting, pointing to some of the issues (statistical and other) that affect the apparent rapid increase in female crime rates as compared to male.
As a social observer, I found the story especially interesting because the responses quoted in the paper actually say a fair bit about differing social attitudes in Australia today.
Paul Dillon, director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, suggested that minor offences were often linked to alcohol.
The behaviour of such ladettes was the result of a societal change around alcohol, which had gone from frowning on women drinking in public to a time in which women were drinking as much, or more, than their male counterparts, he said.
"The whole idea of gangs of young women committing offences was something that was most probably not really heard of 10 years ago."
Sounds reasonable? Well, yes and no.
It is certainly true that young women drink more than they used too. It is also true that there has been some merging of male and female behaviour patterns. However, his comments have to be treated with a degree of caution for they sit at the centre of two overlapping social trends in Australia.
The first is the rise of the special interest group dedicated to the resolution of particular social problems or the promotion of particular causes. According to an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) introduction:
Paul Dillon has worked in the drug education field for almost 25 years. Through his own company Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA), he has been contracted to provide information on a range of drug issues to many different audiences. For the past 13 years he has worked as the Information Manager at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.
The DARTA web site itself describes its role in this way:
Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) aims to provide high quality research assistance as well as training expertise on a wide range of alcohol and other drug issues.
So Mr Dillon is undoubtedly knowledgeable, - his December 2007 ABC piece shows this clearly - but writes from a particular perspective. This does not make him wrong, although in this case I think that he has gone a bit over the top.
The second trend is what, for want of better words, I call the rise of social behavioural control. See behavioural problem, fix behavioural problem. Just at present, excessive drinking especially among young people has become a major social issue of great concern to Mr Rudd as Australia's headmaster. This interacts with the rise of special interest groups; the two feed each other.
Is there a problem with alcohol consumption? Yes there is. However, in looking at this we have to be careful to distinguish between the problem and the way the problem is perceived and responded too.
To illustrate this further, Eva Cox is the next person quoted in the story. Eva Cox is head of the Women's Electoral Lobby and one of Australia's long standing feminists. She has a very different take.
Like Paul Dillon. she accepts that there is a problem. However, her stance is different. According to article, Dr Cox said that rising crime rates was "one of the consequences of equality" which happened as women had greater opportunities to offend than in the past.
"The hard-drinking, hard-driving larrikin lout is still being seen as the model of how to impress society," she said.
"For women looking for equal status, sometimes by being equal to inappropriate male culture is the only way to go."
A very different take indeed. Dr Cox also noted that female crime rates were still only 19 per cent of male rates.
"There are no ravaging hordes of women about to attack men," Dr Cox said.
Demographer Bernard Salt, Australia's best known private sector demographer, had a somewhat similar take. To him, the problem seemed to be "one of the bizarre negative aspects of equalisation", such as rising rates of heart disease and smoking among women.
Mmm. The problem of unforeseen side effects such as the way the Australian Government's alcopops tax may well have increased alcohol consumption among the young is always there. But bizarre?
University of NSW law academic Chris Cunneen moved in a different direction. As a lawyer, he noted that while some argued women were becoming more violent, others believed the courts were more prepared to criminalise women. He concluded:
"The truth is probably somewhere in between," he said.
Professor Cunneen's comment links to another change in Australia that I have talked, the effect of changing attitudes to the use of the criminal justice system.
Andrew McCallum, the head of the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies (another special interest group), took this line of thought further. To him, it (the problem) also reflected the developing punitive culture which stressed punishment above rehabilitation.
"You need to have more carrot than stick," he said.
To some degree at least, I am sure that the various responses reflect the way in which Geesche Jacobsen phrased the questions she asked.
Do we know any more at the end about the opening issue, girls acting like boys? Not really. However, the story is an interesting snap shot of different streams of Australian thought.
Note to readers
This post is one of a series on social and cultural change in Australia that began with A note on Australia Day and related matters.