Women have made huge gains in recent years in fields once dominated by men -- from business to sports to law and medicine. But studies suggest they are gaining on men in a more unwelcome way as well: growing numbers of girls are now engaging in physical aggression. It is a problem seen everywhere from minor school fights to headline crime stories, and psychologist and best-selling author James Garbarino explores the causes and possible solutions in his new book, See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It (The Penguin Press).
Until now, James Garbarino has been best known for his research into the challenges facing young American males. His 1999 best seller was called Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. But after that book appeared, he began hearing reports -- and statistics -- that suggested girls are now confronting some of the same challenges that plague troubled boys.
"Where a generation ago there were ten boys arrested for every one girl for assault, now it's more like four boys for every one girl. I think of equal interest is the research on the effects of televised violence on children's aggressive behavior. They used to find in those studies in the 1960s that boys showed a very clear effect: the more violent TV they watched, the more aggressive they were in real life. But girls were immune to that effect. But starting in the 1980s, they began to find the same effect for girls that they had been finding for boys."
See Jane Hit includes first-hand accounts of how physical aggression shapes the outlook of today's young girls, such as the 15-year-old student athlete who recalled the hostility of an opposing girls' tennis team. "She said they were so mean to us, they were making nasty remarks and talking behind our backs," James Garbarino recalls. "And she said, 'I wish it had been soccer, because in soccer I could have just hit them.'"
The author also spoke with a college student who grew up hanging posters of heroines from violent movies like The Matrix on her wall. "They represented the kind of woman she wanted to be - strong and powerful and sexy. It sounded exactly like what I've heard from boys about putting Rambo and Terminator posters up on their walls. And it spoke to me about how this new American girl is wrestling with the same issues the American boy has been."
James Garbarino maintains that almost all children are capable of aggression early in life. "At 17 months of age you have 90 percent of boys and over 80 percent of girls being physically aggressive. There is some tendency among boys to rough-and-tumble play, which is greater than girls. And it becomes magnified over time because of culture and experience."
Girls have traditionally channeled their aggressive impulses into what is called relational aggression, Dr. Garbarino says, using words or manipulating feelings to cause pain. But he adds that girls today are growing up in a culture that encourages them to be assertive and self-reliant --positive developments that can have negative consequences.
The old message was that girls do not hit. "And now, that message is completely changed. If you say to a girl, girls don't hit, she can say 'But that's not true. Turn on your TV, turn on your video game or go to the movies.' In the third Harry Potter movie, it's the girl character, Hermione, who punches the bully Malfoy and knocks him down, to the cheers of everyone in the theater and in the film. And the message is very clear. Good girls hit. Heroines hit."
Girls are also taking part in more contact sports like hockey, soccer, boxing, and martial arts -- all healthy outlets that encourage physical aggression. "You play lacrosse, you hit with a stick," James Garbarino says. "You play hockey, you push a stick around. Soccer, you're tackling people. Some of the research shows that if you get involved in competitive sports, it raises your testosterone level, whether you're a boy or a girl."
And growing numbers of girls are turning those aggressive impulses back on themselves. Dr. Candace Young, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Portland, Oregon, says that people tend not to bring young girls who are physically aggressive for treatment. "So what I see in my office instead is a fairly alarming increase in young women's violence towards themselves -- self-mutilation, cutting, eating disorders. There is a much higher incidence of that that I hear about than I did ten years ago."
And Dr. Young points to another root cause of physical aggression, whether it is directed outward or inward. "I think that often young women who are aggressive towards themselves or towards someone else have been subject to some kind of violence, whether it's sexual abuse or molestation or actual physical abuse at home."
Violence among girls is rising even as it is falling among boys, says James Garbarino. He quotes figures showing that between 1990 and 1999, the rate of aggravated assault among girls under 18 increased by 57 percent, while it dropped 5 percent for boys. He attributes the trend at least in part to programs aimed at curbing male violence. Now, similar efforts involving girls are starting to spring up around the United States. The Ophelia Project, a non-profit group based in Erie, Pennsylvania, works to curb relational aggression among boys and girls. CEO Mary Baird calls social and physical aggression two points on the same continuum.
"By about sixth and seventh grade, boys and girls are using relational aggression equally." Ms. Baird says. But boys tend to use physical aggression more than girls, although clearly girls are catching up and getting more and more physical. But boys are catching up in the world of relational aggression. We've normalized so much of our behavior based on what we see on television and in our movies and in our songs. It's been trivialized too."
The Ophelia Project has launched a nationwide program to create safer schools. Older students work with younger ones, using storytelling, role-playing, small-group interaction and other activities. Mary Baird says the programs are already proving successful in changing the behavior of the most aggressive young people, as well as setting a lower tolerance level for that kind of behavior. It is the sort of effort James Garbarino believes must now extend from schools to sports playing fields to homes.
"I think we need to take better collective responsibility for the messages kids are getting about what you do when you're fearful or angry," he says. "And then I think too there is certainly a need to support programmatic efforts, whether it's to help troubled and hurt kids, boys and girls, or at the preventive level to do character education more thoroughly across the whole school system."
The first step, says James Garbarino, is to acknowledge the problem. Girls can and do hit, and just like boys, they need to grow up being taught to control their aggression.