As a criminologist, Karen Heimer tries to better understand how violence and crime affect women, minority groups, and juveniles.
Heimer investigates gender and violence, juvenile delinquency, criminal punishment, and the causes of crime and violence. Her recent work includes research on violent victimization of women and minorities, gender differences in juvenile delinquency, and gender and race differences in incarceration in the United States and Britain.
The 36th annual UI Presidential Lecture will take place at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24, in the fourth-floor assembly hall in the UI Levitt Center for University Advancement. For more details, visit the UI Events Calendar.
Heimer joined the University of Iowa as an assistant professor in 1991 and is now a professor in the Departments of Sociology and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies. She also is a longtime affiliate of the UI Public Policy Center.
In 2018, Heimer served as president of the American Society of Criminology. She also received the Board of Regents Award for Faculty Excellence and became a collegiate fellow in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in recognition of her contributions to service, teaching, and research at the UI.
In addition, she was named the 2019 UI Presidential Lecturer.
“It was an exciting year,” she says. “And now this. I am so honored. ”
What does it mean to you to have been chosen to deliver the presidential lecture?
I was so surprised when I heard the news. It means so much to me, particularly as a social scientist, because quite often when we think “What are the great things the University of Iowa is doing?” we think about the medical school or the arts and humanities. I am so happy that we can highlight social science research as one of the UI’s major contributions as well. And, of course, it is a huge personal honor to have been invited to give the lecture.
What do you hope to convey during your lecture?
I titled the lecture “Violence Against Women: The Hidden Figures,” because women’s experiences with violent victimization are hidden in a few different ways. Violence against women is hidden in the sense that we tend to think more about men when we discuss and study serious violence. Headlines about violence tend to focus on male offenders and victims, for example. There also are forms of violence against women that are more hidden because they’re less public, such as domestic violence. In addition, there’s misperception about how much violence occurs in the United States; the actual statistics aren’t always well-publicized and communicated. And, to some extent, our responses to violence are hidden or less well known than they should be.
I want to pull back the veil and discuss why it’s important to bring women front and center in our conversations about violence.
I will talk about how violence against women in the United States reveals major patterns, and how these patterns have changed over time. I will discuss the factors related to increased risk for violence, and the consequences of violence for individuals, families, and communities. And, I will direct people’s attention to legislation, policies, and programs to reduce violence and support survivors of violence, and suggest how and why we need to build on that support base.
What inspired you to pursue this area of research?
Crime and violence have always fascinated me. When I was a kid, I often was distraught and confused when I saw someone being bullied at school or harmed in their families. I also was curious about the reasons that some kids hurt others. After college, I worked in the juvenile justice system and then at a state psychiatric institution, and became even more fascinated with understanding the sources of aggression and violence, as well as understanding how society responds to violence. So, I decided to go to graduate school to study the causes and consequences of violence, and I studied psychology, sociology, and criminology. I am still fascinated with better understanding violence.
What are some of the common misconceptions about violence against women?
I think the biggest misconception is that violence against women is less serious or less important than violence against men. In our recent work, we have shown that today women experience violence at higher rates than men, excluding murder. If you look back over time, that was not always the case. In the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, male rates of violent victimization were much higher than female rates. That gap has closed and that’s a pretty important change.
The other big misconception is that that most violence against women is domestic violence. This is an important part of the story of violence against women, and is especially worthy of discussion because we all expect our homes to be places of safety and support. Yet people often do not realize that women are more likely to be physically harmed by people outside of their families—by acquaintances, friends, and strangers. So, the picture of violence against women, and what we do to address it, is complex.
And, there are some other misconceptions about violence, such as that it mainly affects people in poor and disadvantaged communities. It is true that poverty is related to violence; however, violence affects people of all ages, all races, all social classes, all walks of life. And the ways that gender, poverty, race, ethnicity, age, and so on combine to explain who is at the highest risk for violence are complex. In the lecture, I will share what we are discovering about which particular groups are most vulnerable to violent victimization and under what circumstances.
What are some of the effects of violent victimization?
Experiencing violence is difficult for anyone. It affects you not just physically, but also psychologically. It affects your sense of safety and security, which has implications for all parts of life and daily activities. Survivors may experience fear in situations where they were not fearful before, a sense of insecurity or the lack of safety. I think that sometimes we don’t fully appreciate the extent to which violence can affect people, even far into the future. And, of course, this means that violence has lasting effects on our communities.
What is being done to counteract this violence?
There have been important changes over time in our attention to violence, and one of the sources of those changes was the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. This legislation has not only highlighted the problem of violence against women, but it has helped funnel funding to organizations that serve female victims of violence, particularly domestic violence. There are many state and local programs dedicated to helping survivors and research on the causes and patterns of violence against women continues to grow, with the ultimate goal of helping reduce the problem. We have to keep our eye on the ball, however, so that the funding for programs is maintained.
What has been most rewarding to you in your career?
I enjoy conducting research about how and why crime and violence occur. There is so much excellent research in criminology, and the field has grown greatly since I began my career. It has been rewarding and exciting to have the opportunity to work with amazing colleagues here at the UI and across the country on various research projects, trying to push forward what we know about crime, juvenile delinquency, imprisonment, and violence against women. I also enjoy using what we learn from research to provide information that might help shape public policy.
I love teaching undergraduate and graduate students in the classroom, as well as through collaborative research. There is nothing more exciting than watching students use what they learn to better understand their communities and worlds. One of my favorite things is communicating with or visiting with former undergraduate students and hearing that something from a course has been important for their careers, family lives, or further education. I also feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with wonderful graduate students over the years and to watch their careers take off as professors at other universities, in government, or in the private sector.
I also appreciate the opportunities I have had to work with others to build programs at the UI, such as our new criminology major. And I have found my work in leadership roles with the American Society of Criminology to be very rewarding. The best part of that work has been the chance to see firsthand the importance of national organizations for stimulating research as well as shaping public policy, and for bringing researchers and practitioners together to develop new programs and work toward positive change.