Violence by Teenage Girls: Trends and Context

Print More

Girls Study Group/U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Available at

Despite widespread media reports that today’s girls have gone “wild” and are engaged in a race to overtake the number of crimes – particularly violent crimes – committed by boys, data show that while arrests of girls have increased, the number and types of crimes they commit have changed little over the past two decades.

Researchers from the Girls Study Group, an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners assembled by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, used three well-known longitudinal data sources to examine girls’ arrest and crime trends:

1. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which draws data from thousands of local police reports, shows that while girls are charged with a smaller portion of juvenile crime, and juvenile arrests generally decreased for both girls and boys from 1996 to 2005, the declines have been smaller for girls. In addition, simple assault arrests for girls increased 24 percent during that time, while they dropped 4 percent for boys.

But there has been no corresponding rise in girls’ arrests for aggravated assaults, homicides or robberies. According to the researchers, these statistics underscore the fact that girls’ violence is generally of a less serious nature than boys’ violence.

2. Monitoring the Future, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, annually surveys approximately 50,000 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students on risk behaviors, including self-reported acts of delinquency.

Using data from 1980 to 2003, researchers found “marked stability” between the trends for assault crimes committed by boys and those committed by girls during the period, regardless of how high or low the rate of juvenile assaults was.

3. Finally, the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Crime Victimization Survey annually surveys individuals ages 12 and older in a nationally representative sample of more than 50,000 households on the detailed characteristics of any crimes committed against them.

Again using data from 1980 to 2003, researchers found that “the rates of violence among adolescent females relative to rates among adolescent males have changed very little during this period.” This held true for violent offenses in general and for assaults specifically.

Both the Monitoring the Future and the National Crime Victimization Survey data showed girls’ and boys’ rates of assaults dropping significantly in recent years, while Uniform Crime Reports data showed that assault arrests have declined only for boys. The researchers conclude that “policy shifts and changes in [law] enforcement” have had a greater impact on rising arrest rates for girls than have changes in girls’ behaviors.

They suggest that lower thresholds for reporting and classifying assaults, heightened sensitivities to and mandatory arrests for domestic violence, and schools’ zero-tolerance policies for youth have contributed to rising arrest rates for girls.

The researchers also review existing literature that sheds light on the context of girls’ violence in several situations, including:

• Peer violence – to gain status, defend their sexual reputation and in self-defense against sexual harassment.

• Family violence – to strike back against an overly controlling structure, or as a defense against or expression of anger stemming from abuse.

• School violence – as a result of teacher labeling, in self-defense, or out of a general sense of hopelessness.

• Neighborhood violence – due to an increased risk of victimization, parental inability to counteract negative community influences, or a lack of opportunity for success.

The researchers also discuss gang membership by girls, finding that the most violent girls are associated with gangs that are primarily male.

The study group calls for more research on police and court practices, evaluations of domestic violence and zero-tolerance policies, and the consequences for girls of increased involvement in the juvenile justice system.