There are a number of reasons why getting accurate numbers is difficult. Some of the reasons are obvious such as how questions are worded and asked, how things such as sexual abuse are defined, sexual abuse is under-reported, etc.
Other reasons are not always so obvious. For instance if you are looking at crime report data this only looks at cases that were officially reported. However this can be misleading because, even now, some states and agencies make it impossible for a female to be in the category of “Rape” because of how they define it. Older data (and studies) can be influenced by this as well as states may not have updated their definitions back then.
Under reporting of sexual abuse is common and sexual abuse committed by a female is probably the most under reported of them all. For example one study by Denov found this:
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.
In the documentary When Girls Do It they stated that out of roughly 1,000 men who state they were sexually abused by a female only 4 ever officially reported it. That is less than 1/2 of one percent. Rosencran’s (1997) study of female perpetrated sexual abuse found that only 3% of the female victims and 0% of the male victims told anyone about the sexual abuse during their childhood, even though 100% of them reported it was damaging. Another study by Johnson and Shrier’s (1987) found that even though the male victims experienced the abuse as highly traumatic, none of them reported it to a mental health, social service, or criminal justice agency. These are but a few of the studies that all have the same results.
Another factor is that there are lay people and professionals alike that did not believe it possible for a female to sexually abuse a child and if it did happen there would be little to no harm done. In 1994 Alix Kirsta noted in her book that many believe women’s physiology renders them incapable of abusive acts. Kathryn Jennings in her work 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.
Lets look at one statement made by J, Mathis who stated:
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?
In 1984 another study stated, “Pedophilia either does not exist at all in women, or is extremely rare.”
If you don’t look for a problem you won’t find a problem. If you don’t believe there is a problem why look for it? The easiest person in the world to deceive is ourselves and this applies to researchers as well.
There was an article in published in the UK around the time of the Vanessa George case that stated this:
Women suspected of committing sexual offences have traditionally been treated differently by the criminal justice system, often being referred on to social services or welfare agencies for treatment. While male paedophiles tend to be viewed as predators, female paedophiles have in the past been regarded as mentally ill.
When cases involving women offenders do go to court, they are often referred to family court for trial and are not reported because of confidentiality restrictions.
What has also led us to assume that women abusers are a rarity is that there is less reporting of sexual abuse by women. In their role as caregivers, women, like George, are the least suspected and the most hidden. Sexual abuses occur most typically against their own children, relatives, or with other children in their care. Many of the children are too young to be able to know what is being done to them, much less to complain about it. Older children may feel too guilty, ashamed, or, in the case of boys, emasculated to report it.
Research suggests that the incidence of mother-son incest is far greater than we imagine it to be. Again, there are various reasons why it does not get discovered: if the mother is a single parent, it is less likely to be spotted by a fellow adult. Then there is the nature of the behaviour – say, bathing an 11-year-old child. This would be considered abusive if carried out by a father, but merely eccentric or abnormal if done by a mother. And whatever the precise nature of the abuse, if it started at an early age it is likely to be regarded as ‘normal’ by the child.
Another article from Canada had this:
The instance is probably higher, since researchers are certain that many cases of child sexual abuse never come to light. “A lot of people have difficulty believing women are capable of sexually abusing children,” said social worker Angela Hovey, whose doctoral thesis deals with a topic related to this theme.
Even victims of such abuse, looking back at it as adults, have a hard time talking about it.
In her past employment in federal prisons, she would ask inmates about any sexual abuse in their past. “Many men had been abused by women.” The problem, she said, was “they often had more difficulty identifying it as abuse.”
“Do I think it happens a lot more than we hear about? Absolutely,” said Bill Bevan, executive director of the Windsor-Essex Children’s Aid Society — which sees two or three such cases each year.
Most don’t end up in prosecutions because the young victims aren’t capable of testifying. “It could be a teacher. It could be a sister. It could be a babysitter. It could be a mother with her child.”
Society kids that teenage boys abused by women are somehow “lucky” and females, by nature, are too nurturing to commit such an offence. In any case of child sexual abuse, there’s “kind of gender bias” that automatically excludes women from suspicion, Bevan said.
“It’s not the first place you look. It’s the father figure you look at first.”
Tracy Peter, a feminist researcher, stated this in a study titled “Exploring taboos: comparing male – and female-perpetrated sexual abuse“:
Girls were more likely to be victimized for both male- and female-perpetrated sexual violence and females tended to abuse younger children. The majority of children came from families with lower socioeconomic status although one in five victims of female-perpetrated sexual abuse came from middle-class homes. Referrals to child welfare agencies were more likely to be made by nonprofessionals when females abused.
Again the reference to cases being referred to child welfare agencies when females where the abuser.
We have seen recent cases in which the teachers, much like the Penn State case, were not reported even though others knew about it. For example in 2006 the New York Times ran an article titled A History of Sex With Students, Unchallenged. In it they had this:
Many in this gray, insular city are at a loss to explain why Diane Cherchio West was allowed to continue working in the public school system for two decades after she was caught in 1980 kissing and groping a 13-year-old student at an eighth-grade dance.
Why, after her promotion to guidance counselor at Bayonne High School, no one alerted social services, school officials or the police when she became pregnant by an 11th grader she supervised, Steven West, and married him upon his graduation in 1985.
Or why, when that baby, Steven Jr., grew to be a teenager, no one balked as his 15-year-old friend moved in with Ms. West, who then seduced the friend with Scooby-Doo boxer shorts and evening jaunts to sports bars and used her school authority to rearrange his classes around their secret trysts.
Add to this the fact that many still feel that sexual abuse by a female is relatively harmless. A study in 1994 described law enforcement officers unable to appreciate that boys could suffer from sexual abuse from an older woman. 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.”
Denov’s 2001 research 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.
This is from the 2004 Denov study:
Broussard, Wagner, and Kazelskis (1991) asked 180 female and 180 male undergraduates their perceptions of the effects of child sexual abuse on the victim. Participants tended to view the interaction of a male victim with a female perpetrator as less representative of child sexual abuse. They also believed that male victims of female offenders would experience less harm than if the victim was a woman or girl and the offender was a man. Similarly, Finkelhor (1984) found that his survey participants tended to view the sexual offenses of women as relatively insignificant. When he asked 521 parents about the seriousness of different types of sexual abuse, they rated adult female perpetrators’ actions with male and female victims as less abusive than those of adult male perpetrators with male or female victims.
Hetherton and Beardsall (1998) identified gender biases in the decisions of socialworkers and police working in child protection. The authors presented police officers and social workers with identical case vignettes of sexual abuse involving either a male or female perpetrator. Both professional groups considered that social service involvement and investigation were less warranted when the perpetrator was a woman. Case registration and imprisonment of the male perpetrator was considered more important by both professional groups.
These are just some of the reasons. Sadly this leads to things such as this:
65% of the survivors who tried to tell a therapist, doctor, teacher, or other professional were not believed the first time they disclosed. Overall, 86% of those who tried to tell anyone were not believed the first time they disclosed. – link
Moreover, 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. – link
Ultimately the numbers mean nothing to the person who is searching for help and can not find it. Sadly this is also the dark side of equality that many try to not think about. People are people and that means they are capable of both good and bad regardless of gender.
I stated previously that the easiest person to deceive is ourselves. One reason why we gather and put together in one place all the research we can find on this issue is so people can check for themselves and see if what is being said by various people is true, partially true, cherry picking the studies, etc. While female sex offenders are not a new thing, the research into them is still in its infancy. If you look at the Bibliography (by year) page you can how little research was done until very recently. So people often rely on the older research without comparing it to newer research. If you go back to the 1950’s child sexual abuse of any kind was considered to be one in a million which we now know not to be true but if you looked at the older studies you could easily make a case that it was/is true (and is another reason why the numbers vary).
In my opinion we need to step back from some of the ways we perceive things and tuck them into separate categories. Abuse in any form can cause long term harm and damage and any abused person should be able to get help. But because we have these separate areas they sometimes compete or ignore, and in some cases cause harm, rather than working toward a common goal. As some of my previous posts (here and here) have shown, this often causes harm to people. So long as we divide people, people will remain divisive.