Sticky Fingers, Male and Female
By RACHEL SHTEIR
Published: October 22, 2011
Rachel Shteir is the author of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.”
WHEN I began my research on the cultural history of shoplifting, I set out looking for women. After all, ever since the first wave of shoplifters was recorded in late 17th-century London, the guilty were presumed to be female. The idea seemed to be that petty crimes like stealing from stores and pickpocketing were the provenance of the “lesser” gender, while men indulged in more violent crimes like highway robbery and manslaughter. Even today, many of the shoplifting cases we read about involve female celebrities — Winona Ryder, Lindsay Lohan.
But instead, I kept finding men.
They ranged from a Wall Streeter who regularly swiped Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated from the newsstand to a 20-something in Portland, Ore., whose shoplifting reminded me of Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book,” in which theft is a political statement — he nabbed books from Barnes & Noble (“a conglomerate,” he sniffed), but not organic groceries from the food co-op. The sales executive who stole silk neckties from Saks was both particular and generous. “I never took ties that were worth less than $90,” he said, adding that he used to give some of his gorgeous heist away.
In other words, I learned that shoplifters aren’t all bored, lonely women or people who steal because they’re broke. In fact, a large study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2008 found that men shoplifted more than women.
But the old stereotypes are powerful, thanks in part to the 19th century, when kleptomania was first classified as a mental illness. It was believed to be connected to repressed female sexuality and psychic injuries women suffered as children. Freudians read erotic signals in stolen gloves, purses and handkerchiefs.
Now that psychopharmacology has replaced psychoanalysis as the therapy du jour, researchers have tried to locate the origin of the urge to steal in order to chemically quiet it. Kleptomania is grouped with other compulsive disorders like gambling, drinking and sex addiction. So far, only Naltrexone, best known for helping alcoholics stop drinking, has been found to be significantly helpful in reducing the urge to shoplift.
But despite high-tech treatments and many studies on shoplifting — including one released this month by the Retail Industry Leaders Association, showing a recent big jump in shoplifting — most researchers have failed to explore the question of who is doing the lifting, and why.
It’s a difficult question to answer, but in my research, a clear, if symbolic, pattern emerged: the items people stole provided enormous, almost embarrassing insights into their deepest wounds and desires.
A high-flying I.T. consultant with a tumultuous family story told me she had spent decades shoplifting household items — lavender, hand towels, sage. A divorced former flight attendant working hard to start over stole a heavy doorstop shaped like a monkey, as if she hoped the hot item would anchor her in place. A young director who lived in Hollywood shoplifted a DVD player. Even the more mundane stories were revealing. One housewife, who had shoplifted for over three decades, told me she took “almost anything,” including Advil and steak — which happen to be two of the most commonly stolen items.
For some, stealing was a way to inhabit a more generous persona. Many shoplifters gave their heist to a beloved. A writer bragged that when he was a grad student, he’d filched 400-thread-count Egyptian sheets to please a lover. A nurse gave her son, a policeman, a shower curtain she’d lifted from Macy’s.
And I learned that although men’s fingers were stickier than women’s, there was a difference in what they took and where they took it from.
A 2005 study, conducted by Joshua Bamfield at the Center for Retail Research in Nottingham, England, may be the only one to show that men and women steal different things. While women took clothes, groceries and perfume, men grabbed TVs, household appliances and power tools. According to Mr. Bamfield, men tended to hide their power tools in backpacks, while women were more likely to smuggle the perfume out in strollers. Men also saw shoplifting as a transitional crime, a pit stop to more profitable criminal pursuits, whereas women sometimes shoplifted for years — though many stopped after marriage.
Not surprisingly, the men and women I spoke to also talked differently about shoplifting. The men sounded as if they saw themselves as heroes in video games; one described the excitement of racing through the aisles of Target, outwitting the sales staff, security people and cameras. On the other hand, the women I spoke to sounded more like Emma Bovary, if she had fallen, not for Rodolphe, but for purloined salt and pepper shakers.
Still, we’re a long way from identifying what prompts men or women to shoplift. The source of this apparently primal urge remains elusive. I believe that it may be more poetic than scientific, that behind a seemingly simple, petty crime, lurks a mysterious world of hidden desires and obscure longings.