Penn State Berks professor and alumna co-edit book on female offenders

Written by Lisa R. Baldi, Director of Strategic Communications at Penn State Berks.

Brenda Russell, professor of psychology at Penn State Berks, met Celia Torres when Torres was an applied psychology major at Penn State Berks. During that time, they developed a mutual respect for one another and began a long-standing research collaboration that continues today.

They continued to work together after Torres graduated from Berks in 2019, while she pursued a master’s degree in forensic psychology at George Washington University, and after she graduated in 2022 and began her career. Most recently, they co-edited a two-volume book, “Perceptions of Female Offenders: How Stereotypes and Social Norms Affect Criminal Justice Responses,” published by SpringerLink in late 2023.

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“During my time in the applied psychology program, Brenda was kind enough to allow me to help her with expert witness testimony she was preparing,” Torres said. “She liked my writing enough that she asked me to work with her on some other projects.”

“Celia helped me when I was working on a murder case, and I noticed that she was really good writer and editor, so I asked her to help me out on a book I was writing, ‘Intimate Partner Violence and the LGBTQ+ Community’ (Springer 2020),” Russell said. “We continued to work together; she is a fantastic editor. In fact, Celia was so instrumental to the recent publication that I insisted that she be listed as ‘co-editor.’”

“It’s been a lot of fun; it was a labor of love,” Torres said, while laughing. “I’m a bit of a nerd so I enjoy the editing and research.”

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From April 2019 through August 2021, Torres worked in clinical research and participated in studies ranging from uterine fibroids to heart failure to COVID vaccine administration. Today, she holds a research position for an organization that focuses on targeted violence prevention.

A shared love of psychology and criminal justice

Torres and Russell share a passion for psychology and criminal justice.

Russell began studying female victimization in the early 1990s when Anita Hill testified that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Hill’s testimony sparked Russell’s interest in studying issues such as sexual coercion, harassment and domestic violence.

In 2000, Russell began studying how stereotypes play a role in criminal justice decision-making. For instance, she found that if a woman has been a victim of abuse and kills her abuser in self-defense, the outcome of her trial often depends upon whether she fits the stereotype of a typical victim of abuse. According to Russell, the stereotype of a typical female victim of abuse is heterosexual with a small frame who displays attributes such as passivity and weakness and has no history of aggression. Those who do not fit the stereotype tend to receive harsher verdicts than a woman who does fit the victim stereotype.

While her earlier research focused on female victimization, Russell realized that females are often the perpetrators of the same crimes. In many cases, Russell said, heterosexual men and members of the LGBTQ+ community are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, but their victimization is often neglected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey for 2022, 47.3% of women and 44.2% of men experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Rates of victimization are similar or higher for those in the LGBTQ+ population, Russell said. Yet, these cases are less likely to gain attention than those related to female victimization.

So, she started asking: What happens when heterosexual men or individuals in the LGBTQ+ community don’t meet the stereotype of a victim?

After conducting over 20 studies on male and LGBTQ+ victimization, Russell found that heterosexual males and members of the LGBTQ+ community are treated differently in the criminal justice system and are typically more likely to be blamed for their own victimization compared to heterosexual females. For example, heterosexual men are more likely to be arrested for domestic violence compared to women, despite the fact that women are more likely to initiate violence in relationships. Russell said this is due to stereotypes about heterosexual men: that their size and strength allow them to commit more harm to women. This belief makes men more likely to be considered the perpetrator and not the victim. Men also receive harsher sentences than women across the board for perpetrating sexual and domestic abuse. They are blamed for their own victimization and considered less credible when they claim they have been abused, Russell said.

“Our society focuses primarily on female victims who have been abused by men, so we do not pay attention to men who are abused,” Russell said, noting that she and others have observed that men have been found guilty in cases of homicide, crimes of passion and duress even when they claim their act was in self-defense. “Many arrest laws also play a role in decisions. For example, in states that have primary aggressor laws, as opposed to discretionary arrest, the guidelines for arrest include size and strength of the perpetrator, and power and control, which are all vaguely defined.”

Russell also said that men are less likely to report abuse because of their masculinity, shame and fear that police will arrest them and, due to stereotyping, they are often correct in their beliefs. There are less likely to be arrests in same-sex relationships and, if there is an arrest, it tends to be a dual arrest.

“Also, masculinity and femininity play a role,” Russell said. “In one of my studies, I found the masculinity of the perpetrator influenced people’s perceptions of harm to the victim.”

The most recent book is the second edition of Russell’s 2013 book “Perceptions of Female Offenders.” It is a response to the publishers’ request that Russell write about what has changed over the last 10 years.

“Women have more unique experiences that lead them into criminal behavior that we need to consider, and a lot of people don’t realize that,” Russell said. “We still think of women as the ‘victims.’ Feminist media agrees that women are the ‘victims’ and blames the patriarchy. But women can and do perpetrate crimes as well. We need to treat all victims equally. We need to consider victimization not as a women’s issue; it’s a human issue. Until we do that, people will suffer and be neglected. I consistently find in my research incredible differences in the way men and members of the LGBTQ+ community and are treated by the criminal justice system in this regard.”

According to Russell, social media also plays a significant role in these perceptions. She cited the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard civil case as the first time, to her knowledge, that a male victim received a lot of support.

“While we observe a decline in incarceration rates among men, a concerning trend emerges with the rising rates among women,” Russell said, explaining that many complex issues can influence how people of different genders and sexual identities are judged in the criminal justice system, and recent legislation is shifting who is perceived as the victim or the aggressor. “It raises the question of what types of repercussions might we anticipate from recent legislation pertaining to abortion, the erosion of LGBTQ+ rights and other legislative measures that perpetuate gender and sexual identity disparities within the landscape of the criminal justice system.”

According to the publisher’s website, “this new edition is a nuanced exploration of female involvement in various crimes — from delinquency, domestic violence, sexual assault and homicide — that resonates with the pulse of contemporary society. In an age where many events are tweeted and debated online, this book delves into the intricate ways social media portrays female offenders and how this can distort public perceptions and affect legal outcomes.”

In addition to being co-editors, Russell and Torres authored two chapters titled “Introduction: Moving Beyond Perceptions: Unveiling the Complexities of Female Offenders in a Rapidly Changing World” and “Exposing Narratives and Gender Disparities in Female Offending: Challenging Stereotypes and Advancing Equity.” In addition, Jennifer Hillman, professor of psychology at Penn State Berks, authored a chapter titled “Predictors, Victimization, and Negative Health Outcomes Associated with Incarceration Among 9180 Trans Women from the US Transgender Survey.”

Russell has authored dozens of scholarly articles and authored and/or edited seven books, primarily focused on the intersection of psychology and law. In addition, she frequently offers her expertise in legal settings, providing critical testimony in homicide cases, and she serves as a consultant and program evaluator for various educational, law enforcement, justice and treatment programs at both federal and state levels. She has received the Penn State Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching, which is awarded to only one faculty member at a Commonwealth Campus each year. Her expert commentary has been sought by National Public Radio, Slate, CNN and USA Today, among others.

For more information, contact Russell at blr15@psu.edu.

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