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Blog, Policy briefing | 17 August 2022

On being a 'good woman’: Stigma, relationships and desistance’

A special guest blog written for Working Chance by Úna Barr and Natalie Rutter

Úna Barr is a Lecturer in Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University and Natalie Rutter is a Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Trinity University.

TRIGGER WARNING: this blog post deals with themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse and trauma that some people may find upsetting.

Desistance from crime means any moves away from offending. Research on desistance from crime has informed criminal justice policy and practice in Britain and beyond. Early desistance studies focused on the experiences of white men and linked changes in offending behaviour with getting older, maturity, employment, and getting married (especially to a ‘good woman’). Research also found links with changes in patterns of thinking, including around hope and changes in how criminalised men saw themselves. [BU1] Recently, research has now started to consider the desistance experiences of women. Feminist research has considered the role of gender on desistance experiences.

Our research focussed on women’s desistance, relationships, and probation service delivery. We found that within both research on desistance, and the stories women told about themselves, were references to an idea of the ‘good woman’. The male-focussed desistance research references ‘good women’ who support, practically and emotionally, their male partner’s desistance. Some of the women in our research supported male partner’s desistance whilst managing their own desistance from crime. In women’s own stories, the ‘good woman’ was also a good partner, a ‘perfect mum’ (Anna) or a good worker.

When desistance research focuses mainly on the experiences of white men, it overlooks inequalities in society. This puts the responsibility for individuals to change entirely on themselves, or their partners, without considering how gender, class, or race inequalities can effect both criminal justice and desistance experiences.

The women we interviewed experienced harm including domestic violence, poverty, loss of children, bereavement and trauma. The shame and stigma they experienced was related both to their criminalisation (offence and contact with the criminal justice system) and their victimisation (experiences as victims of crime and harm). It also affected their relationships. Overall, this meant that desistance was harder. Yet, we also found that desistance could occur under very harmful circumstances, for example where domestic violence continued.

Becoming a good woman’:

Karen contrasted her difficulties in desisting from crime and being a 'normal woman’ who wanted to ‘get married… go shopping, live a normal life, do things that normal women do’. The concept of a ‘good women’ can restrict criminalised women’s prospects of desistance from crime and harm.

Karen also associated her victimhood with choice:

My kids…I feel like I’ve lost them through the domestic violence. I wasn’t strong enough to make a choice you know…. I just got involved with bad things, I felt like to punish myself, I felt I deserved it. I felt like I let my kids down…It was hard work, and then with him on top. So for years you know I was, you know, family orientated and then when it all crumbled, I just went back to what I was like.


Intersectional feminist research (which does consider gender, as well as race and class and other inequalities) [BU1] argues that in capitalist societies, which place emphasis on the individual, women, when faced with (gendered) violence, ‘choose’ to be a victim or survivor. This false choice in Karen’s experience was reflected in other criminalised women’s stories. Without practical support, this could restrict women’s abilities to desist from crime and harm.

Shame, stigma and criminalisation

The shame and stigma women felt was gendered – i.e. criminalised women were stigmatised twice – for being both ‘an offender’ and a ‘female offender’, demonstrating the importance of societal inequalities in shaping stigma[BU2] .

In Jess’ case her inability to live up to the ideal ‘good woman’ and the shame she felt, including presenting the ‘perfect family’ resulted in distrust and toxicity in her relationship with her partner.

But then he hurt me for hurting him and he said that he will hurt me more than I ever hurt him. Something that he is continuing to do because I ruined our family…he said you ruined our perfect family, we had it all.


Shame, stigma and victimisation

Women often talked about the abuse they faced. This affected the start or continuation of offending, and also resulted in women being wary of relationships with others.

It was the violence and the abuse I faced off [her daughter’s] dad in that seven years was every kind of abuse; so we’re talking like he’d rape me in my sleep you know and stuff like that, he’d beat me and be drunk and cause so many problems, and he did it the first time I left my daughter with him for three hours and he done it to her as well, she had a big handprint, and that were the end of it then... I’ve never had a relationship since, ever, and not let anybody close like that, because in my eyes, everybody, even my own family have let me down.


Whilst desistance research on men places emphasis on the importance of relationships, the reality for women who are in contact with the criminal justice system is often abusive relationships. It is important to consider the conditions that may affect women’s lack of supportive relationships, including ongoing and past victimisation.

Relational networks

Other women experienced positive relationships that helped challenge and resist stigma and shame.

Jenny’s lovely, my probation officer has been amazing, she’s firm but she’s fair, she gives me a good kick up the backside when I need it. But I still feel like I’ve failed and I can’t take back that time. You know I’ve got childhood memories of good parents and never went out drinking or never did anything like that and my dad worked… normal life. And I’m quite ashamed… I’m gutted that I never got to give them that. It’s the choices I’ve made, the reality of it.


For Karen, the positive relationship with her probation officer was not enough to help her towards desistance from crime. There was a lack of real practical support to help the move away from crime and harmful experiences.

Our research shows that there is a knowledge gap between the established male desistance literature and the realities of women’s lives[BU1] . There must be an understanding of how gender, class, race and other inequalities inform our understandings of what a ‘good woman’ is. These ideas should be challenged in theory and in practice. Positive relationships which challenge feelings of shame and stigma are essential to women’s desistance both from crime and harm. This can be achieved through trust, being respected, not being judged, showing understanding and the importance of time[BU2] . Rather than desistance research and practice based on individualised responsibility, we repeat Hart’s (2017) call for critical desistance strategies, which reflect the reality of women’s experiences and are based on compassion, love and support. [BU3]

[BU1]Barr, U. (2019) Desisting Sisters: Gender, Power and Desistance in the Criminal (In)Justice System. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Barr, U. and Christian, N. (2019) A qualitative investigation into the impact of domestic abuse on women’s desistance. Probation Journal 66: 416–433.
[BU2]Rutter, N. (2019) The Golden Thread: service user narratives on desistance, the role of relationships and opportunities for co-produced rehabilitation. Doctoral Thesis, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.
[BU3]Hart, E.L. (2017) Prisoners post release: the need for a critical desistance. In: Hart, EL, van Ginneken, EFJC (eds) New Perspectives on Desistance: Theoretical and Empirical Developments. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 267–288.