From time to time I receive e-mails or comments from people who think that talking about female perpetrated sexual abuse is an attempt to portray women in a negative way. Others have commented that there is some anti-female agenda behind all this. Even though the About Uspage clearly spells out that this is not the case.
But this has happened to others in the past that have talked about this issue. For example in 1992 some people were not pleased about the conference that Kidscape was holding about female sexual offenders.
So I wanted to make this post as a follow up to the previous post titled Female Sex Offenders – Why talk about them?
There are still many people who automatically think “male” when the term sex offender or sexual abuse is used. While it is true that the majority of cases of sexual abuse are done by men (the percentage varies depending on the situation) that does not mean that we should totally ignore female sex offenders.
By ignoring the issue of female perpetrated sexual abuse we are able to be only partially successful when talking about sexual abuse, or abuse in general for that matter, because we only focus on part of the problem. By ignoring it we make adults, teens and children more vulnerable to female offenders and less protected.
Historically (and currently) there have been quite a few professionals and lay people alike who think that sexual abuse by a female is not possible or is extremely rare. In a 1972 article on child sexual abuse it was reported that case of female pedophiles were so rare as to be of little significance.[i] In 1984 another article stated, “Pedophilia either does not exist at all in women, or is extremely rare.”[ii] And in 1994 Alix Kirsta noted in her book that many believe women’s physiology renders them incapable of abusive acts.[iii] Kathryn Jennings stated:
Viewing females as perpetrators of sexual abuse challenges traditional cultural stereotypes. Females are thought of as mothers, nurturers, those who provide care for others; not as people who harm or abuse them. Since, historically, females have been viewed as non-initiators, limit-setters, and anatomically the receivers of sexuality, it is difficult for some to imagine a female sexually abusing others.[iv]
Another problem is that even when it is known that sexual abuse by a female is or has occurred it is often seen as harmless or less serious than sexual abuse by a male. To graphically demonstrate this point we can look at this statement:
“that she might seduce a child into sex play is unthinkable and even if she did so what harm could she do without a penis?”[v]
A study in 1994 described law enforcement officers unable to appreciate that boys could suffer from sexual abuse from an older woman. [vi] This has also played out over the recent years in the various cases with female teachers being caught and going to court for sexually abusing their students. Some of the judges and attorneys in these cases seem to have little understanding or appreciation that the students would suffer from this. And it does not only apply to boys. For example this case from Texas in which a 39-year-old female junior high school teacher and coach sexually abused a 14-year-old female student. Her defense attorney said:
“but unfortunately, fell into this situation with a victim who was not only a participant, an active participant, but was actually an instigator for the sexual contact.”
“She’s not 100% responsible for what happened, she’s serving a 100% of the sentence and that’s where I think we as a society have somewhat failed.”[vii]
In another Texas case we there was this (offender age 30, victim age 13):
“Winfield told jurors that if given probation, Cosgrove would not be a risk, and that the boy enjoyed the attentions of an older woman and was not traumatized.
“It’s different with boys and girls,” she said. “I don’t believe he’s going to be scarred for life.”[viii]
In a 2004 study Myriam Denov also found that “emerging studies have revealed that the general public and professionals working in the area of child welfare perceive sexual abuse by women as relatively harmless as compared to sexual abuse by men.”[ix]
Denov’s 2001research explored psychiatrists’ and police perspectives on female sex offending. The study found that both professional groups viewed sexual abuse by women as less harmful than sexual abuse by men. Moreover, efforts were made by psychiatrists and police officers, either consciously or unconsciously, to transform the female sex offender and her offense, realigning them with more culturally acceptable notions of female behavior. This ultimately led to a denial of the problem.[x]
So we have denial, minimization of harm and a double standard based on gender of the offender. Other studies such as the ones done by Hetherton,[xi][xii] and Eisenberg[xiii] are just a few more examples of studies over the decades that have reached the same conclusions.
In 1995 Kaufman showed that there were similar rates of violence in female and male perpetrated sexual abuse[xiv] and in 1996 Saradjian revealed that fourteen of the thirty-six women they studied admitted to gaining sexual arousal from the children’s pain.[xv]
There is something else to consider as well. Three studies from 1979, 1984 and 1993 found that there is an alarmingly high rate of sexual abuse by females in the backgrounds of rapists, sex offenders and sexually aggressive men – 66%[xvi], 59%[xvii], and 80%.[xviii]
Lastly I wanted to quote Denov one more time. She further stated “that professional minimization or disbelief of victims’ allegations of female perpetrated sexual abuse may actually exacerbate the negative effects of the sexual abuse, ultimately inciting secondary victimization.”
All of these reasons are why we need to talk about this. This is just some of the reasons and there are more. Ultimately it boils down to the fact that no one who is abused should be discounted, overlooked, denied services, re-victimized, and worse based only on gender. Statistics do not really matter to someone who has been hurt; who is hurting and looking for help. And this problem will continue as long as we only address one piece of the abuse issue. One final quip from Denov:
29% reported having sexually abused children at some point in their lives. The men were charged and convicted. The sexual abuse by the women was never reported.[xix]
[i] Mathis, J L. (1972). Clear Thinking about Sexual Deviations : A New Look at an Old Problem.Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
[ii] Freund, K., Heasman, G., Racansky, I. G., & Glancy, G. (1984). Pedophilia and heterosexuality vs. homosexuality. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 10(3), 193-200.
[iii] Kirsta, A. (1994). Deadlier Than The Male: Violence and Aggression in Women. New York: Harper Collins.
[iv] Jennings, K. T. (1994). Female child molesters: A review of the literature. In M. Elliott (Ed.), Female Sexual Abuse of Children, (pp. 219-234). New York: The Guilford Press.
[v] Mathis, J L. (1972). Clear Thinking about Sexual Deviations : A New Look at an Old Problem. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
[vi] Nelson, E. D. (1994). Females who sexually abuse children: A discussion of gender stereotypes and symbolic assailants. Qualitative Sociology, 17(1), 63-88.
[ix] Denov, M. S. (2004). The Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse by Female Perpetrators: A Qualitative Study of Male and Female Victims. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19(10), 1137-1156.
[x] Denov, M. S. (2001). A culture of denial: Exploring professional perspectives on female sex offending. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43(3), 303-329.
[xi] Hetherton, J. & Beardsall, L. (1988). Decisions and attitudes concerning child sexual abuse: Does the gender of the perpetrator make a difference to child protection professionals? Child Abuse & Neglect, 22(12), 1265-1283.
[xii] Hetherton, J. (1999). The idealization of women: Its role in the minimization of child sexual abuse by females. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23, 161-174.
[xiii] Eisenberg, N., Owens, R. G., & Dewey, M. E. (1987). Attitudes of health professionals to child sexual abuse and incest. Child Abuse & Neglect, 11(1), 109-116.
[xiv] Kaufman, K. L., Wallace, A. M., Johnson, C. F., & Reeder, M. L. (1995). Comparing female and male perpetrators’ modus operandi: Victims’ reports of sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 10(3), 322-333.
[xv] Saradjian, J. (1996). Women Who Sexually Abuse Children: From Research to Clinical Practice. London: John Wiley & Sons.
[xvi] Groth, A. N. (1979). Sexual Trauma in the Life Histories of Rapists and Child Molesters. Victimology, 4(1), 10-16
[xvii] Petrovich, M. & Templer, D. I. (1984). Heterosexual molestation of children who later become rapists. Psychological Reports, 54, 810.
[xviii] Brire, J. and Smiljanich, K. (1993). Childhood Sexual Abuse and Subsequent Sexual Aggression Against Adult Women. Paper presented at the 101st annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Ontario.
[xix] Denov, M. S. (2004). The Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse by Female Perpetrators: A Qualitative Study of Male and Female Victims. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19(10), 1137-1156.