From Cosmopolitan - September 2002

Why Women Get the Urge to Steal

Chronic shoplifting is a predominantly female problem. Here, Cosmo explains why some chicks can't seem to keep their sticky fingers under control. By Russell Scott Smith

When Winona Ryder was arrested for allegedly stealing more than $6,000 in clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills last December, everyone wondered why a woman who has tons of money would need to snag stuff on the sly. But in fact, experts say most habitual shoplifters can afford to buy the items they pilfer. They steal because it either gives them a rush of excitement, soothes their anxieties, or "fulfills a desire to possess something forbidden," says Marcus J. Goldman, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University and author of Kleptomania: The Compulsion to Steal. Turns out, it’s mostly women who use theft as an outlet----80 percent of kleptomaniacs arc female. And their numbers could be on the rise. "We're living in increasingly stressful times," explains Dr. Goldman. "As life becomes more complex, kleptomania is one way people cope." Here, Cosmo takes a look at the psychology of snatching

how it begins
According to Shoplifters Alternative, a nonprof1ted'lcational organization, three out of five adult shoplifters say they started stealing when they were teenagers. Whi1e pinching a candy bar from a newsstand or eyeliner from a makeup counter is almost an adolescent rite of passage, most girls grow out of such behavior. But a minority of more vulnerable women develop an irresistible urge to continue because, according to experts, stealing provides a thrill and a subconscious way to compensate for deep psychological pain. "These are people with a lot of anger," says Terry Shulman, a social worker who founded a shoplifters support group in Detroit. "They usually feel that life has been unfair to them. Maybe they come from a family where there's addiction or where one parent has abandoned the household. In any case, their resentment level builds up, and shoplifting becomes a way to get something back f()r themselves." Lisa*, a 32-year-old executive assistant, says she used to escape job and family stress by going shopping and then, ultimately, by shoplifting. "It was a way to reward myself and make myself feel better," she says.

from bad to worse
Whatever the initial reason for shoplifting, it can soon become profoundly addictive, not only psychologically but probably also physically, as the shoplifter begins to crave the adrenaline rush. "The first time a kleptomaniac steals is the hook," says Dr. Goldman. "But once she notices a response-psychological, physiological, or both-she wants to do it all the time," And like many addictions, the problem often escalates. Jennifer is a 22-year-old college student who has been shoplifting since grade school four years ago, a bad breakup with her boyfriend catapulting her into a stealing binge that ended only when she was caught taking $500 worth of clothes that didn't even fit her. After being arrested on felony charges, she now faces 90 days in jail if convicted.

coming clean
Most people who steal never get caught, so they aren't forced to take a hard look
at their bad habit. But for Jennifer, her arrest has actually helped her get out of her robbing rut. "For the first time, I'm really scared about the consequences of my actions," she says. Jennifer has begun seeing a therapist to get to the root of her troubles, started taking antidepressants, and joined a support group-all recommended treatments for chronic shoplifters. (Doctors also sometimes prescribe naltrexone, a drug that blocks the chemicals in the brain that create physical highs.) Jennifer is also studying for a psychology degree and working as an intern at a drug and alcohol counseling center. "I'm doing okay, but I have to be constantly self-aware or else I could slip hack," she says. "And I'm not going to let this ruin my life)"

* names have been changed.