Chivalry: its distorting role in criminal sentencing

As we reach 100 years since the writing of Ernest Belfort Bax’ seminal work on sexism in legal practices,[1][2] we see that the problem of chivalry in criminal sentencing continues unabated.[3] Chivalric attitudes in the criminal justice system continue to result in disparities of sentencing in which women are treated more leniently than men, and men treated more severely than women, a practice that has been recognised by impartial legal minds for hundreds of years.

Here are a few more recent studies highlighting the ongoing chivalry problem:

In 1983 Christy A. Visher studied the extent of preferential treatment toward female offenders during arrest, a neglected topic in research on female criminality. The article uses data collected in 1977 during police-suspect encounters with 785 males and females to explore the existence of chivalrous treatment of female offenders in the initial stages of criminal processing. These data indicate that chivalry exists at the stage of arrest for those women who display appropriate gender behaviors and characteristics. In general, the findings suggest that female suspects who deviate from stereotypic gender expectations lose the advantage that may be extended to female offenders. Specifically, older, white, female suspects are less likely to be arrested than their younger, black or hostile sisters.[4]

In 1989 Roger Hood studied a sample of two thousand eight hundred and eighty-four male and four hundred and thirty-three female defendants in crown courts. He compared the sentencing of males and females, controlling for variables which he found affected the sentencing of men, and found that both black and white women are more likely to be cautioned than prosecuted, and were given custodial sentences 34 to 38 percent less often than men in similar cases. As an explanation for this disparity Hood points to the chivalry thesis of criminal sentencing which argues that most police, judges and magistrates are men and men are socialised to be chivalrous to women.[5]

In 2001 Victoria Castleman evaluated gender differences in media portrayals of teachers that are accused of committing sex offenses with minor students. Findings show that gender does play an important role in the media treatment of offenders; females receive more news coverage than male sex offenders, female offenders are treated as mentally ill lovers as compared to a male “predator” portrayal, and females are treated more leniently than male teachers who commit sex offenses with minor students. These findings support the chivalry hypothesis of female deviance which purports that because women are viewed as weak and vulnerable, they are treated in a more patriarchal lenient manner. In addition to contributing to the current literature, this study addresses how societal perceptions of sex offenders are being shaped by media and the consequential implications on victim reporting practices and the criminal justice system.[6] Similar finding were concluded by researchers Randa Embry and Phillip M. Lyons, Jr. in thier 2012 study of male and female sex offenders which finds men receive longer sentences for sex offenses than women.[7]

To show just how little the problem of chivalry has altered, one could cite the recent proposal by the UK justice taskforce that all women’s prison’s should close down, and in their place female criminals should be offered healthcare services, housing, and drug abuse treatment rather than holding them to the same standards of punishment to which the legal system holds men.[8] Clearly there is much work to do before society reaches the conclusion that men’s rights are human rights, and that women must be held fully accountable for their actions.



[1] Ernest Belfort Bax, The Legal Subjection of Men, New age Press, 1908
[2] Ernest Belfort Bax, ‘The Fraud of Feminism’, Grant Richards Publisher, 1913
[3] Warren Farrell, ‘the Myth of Male Power’, Random House, 1994
— Chapter 11. How The System Protects Women, Or… Two Different Laws We Live In
— Chapter 12. Women Who Kill Too Much and the Courts That Free Them: The Twelve “Female-Only” Defenses
[4] C.A. Visher,‘Gender, Police Arrest Decisions, and Notions of Chivalry’, in Journal of Criminology, Vol-21, Issue 1, 1983
[5] Roger Hood, ‘Race and Sentencing: A Study in the Crown Court’, Oxford University Press, 1993
[6] Victoria Castleman, Chivalry Isn’t Dead: Gender Differences in the Media Treatment of Teacher Sex Offenders 2001
[7] Randa Embry and Phillip M. Lyons, Jr., Sex-Based Sentencing: Sentencing Discrepancies Between Male and Female Sex Offenders 2012
[8] Women’s prisons should close, says justice taskforce, 2011