Female offenders remain a relatively rare phenomenon in the research and clinical press on sexual abuse. Does this mean that women rarely offend? Increasingly it is being argued that female offending has remained a hidden but extensive problem. Social attitudes to male and female sexuality may be partly responsible for this lack of visibility.
The woman who initiates intercourse with a 14-year-old boy might be seen differently had she been a man. She might be seen as giving "a lesson in manhood" much desired by the boy. Another possibility is that the forms of sexual abuse by women are different. Sexual provocativeness and suggestiveness towards a boy may appear harmless compared with a molester fondling a girl's breasts, for example. But we have no knowledge of which is the more damaging other than our socially derived assumptions.
Kasl (1990) suggests that abusive acts by females upon boys may be "covert" or may involve sexually intrusive behaviour:
Many boys may remember these incidents as shameful or repulsive but some may not calculate such events as abuse. This may also be the case with girls. For example, Evans and Schaefer (1987) found that only after psychological therapy could women identify sexual abuse by other women. While treated and untreated women did not
differ in their recall of sexual abuse in childhood by men, a quarter of the treated group began to identify their abuse by women compared with none of the controls.
Most of the case histories of female offenders describe extremely disturbed individuals. A good example of this is Cooper et al.'s (1990) description of a female sex offender who exhibited several paraphilias:
No doubt, she would be regarded as dangerous were she a man. It is typical of the literature on female offenders that they are described as having been extensively abused as children. Miss K, for example, claimed that her uncle repeatedly assaulted her sexually when she was three -- it is documented that he was eventually sent to prison for sexually abusing one of his own children.
Miss K's brother initiated her into a number of sexual behaviours when he was 14 and he was 12 years of age. Mutual genital fondling, oral sex and penetrative intercourse were involved over a period of time. Conscious that this was abnormal, at the same time she took pleasure in the physical and emotional closeness involved.
Later , when she was 14, a different older brother engaged her in sexual activities of a far more aggressive nature; they engaged in bondage and other sadomasochistic fantasies. These she found "exhilarating" and her sexual fantasies became more violent and sadomasochistic in nature. After leaving home at 17 she was subjected to unwanted sexual advances by older men on two occasions. She has an extensive psychiatric history and since adolescence has complained of frequent depression and suicide thoughts, and had often attended crisis centres.
A deeper layer of perversity exists that does not appear in the above account:
Her sex hormone levels were normal but her laboratory sexual assessment using a vaginal photoplethysmograph revealed an unusually arousable woman. This enabled the measurement of her vaginal blood volume, vaginal pulse rate and vaginal pulse amplitude in response to explicit slides of girls, boys, women, men, adult heterosexual sex, adult sadomasochism, adult-child sadomasochism, adult lesbian and adult heterosexual oral sex. There was relatively little difference among the slides. Confirming the extremity of her response, it was noted that:
Few researchers or clinicians discuss the impact of the female abuser in any great detail. An exception is Breer (1987), on adolescents who molest other children. He suggests that serious and multi-victimed paedophilia in later life is a likely outcome in boys who have been abused by men. They offend outside of their own home in an attempt to find young victims. When victimized by a woman, Breer claims that boys under five years do not recall the abuse, possibly because of the trauma it engenders. These boys do not go on to offend against other boys, but against girls instead.
For Breer, this means that there is a conflict focusing on their relationships with
females -- they are literally afraid of approaching same-age or older females sexually since this would arouse a conflict between the fear of
and wish to be engulfed by them. By abusing younger girls, they
Older boys abused by a woman may be less traumatized and may regard the abuse as a positive sexual opportunity , not as a major trauma. The main effect is that boys become sexualized early.
This may be related to the "trauma control and mastery principle" observed in those soldiers who endlessly repeat the traumatic situations of war by recreating them in circumstances in which they can achieve control. Similarly, adolescent molesters recreate their trauma with a child, putting themselves back into the abusive situation but with the key difference of being in control, not the helpless victim.
There is a form of abuse that is perpetrated on adolescent offenders by their mothers. A high proportion of these mothers have themselves been victims of sexual abuse, inside or outside of the family, which leaves them angry and ambivalent in their relationships with males. Their sons may become the focus of their hatred for their own molesters. Boys are then put into situations that imply that they should molest without it ever being stated. For example, boys might be persistently encouraged to bathe with a younger female relative long after the age that both of them have become modest about nudity. Should they respond to this sort of situation by molesting, all hell can break loose and they may be thrown out of their homes.
Breer describes the case of Ricky U., which illustrates the confusing sexual dynamics that can exist between boys and their mothers:
Hurry (1990) describes "Kevin", who had been referred for therapy following self-mutilation around the age of 19. While he had apparently never sexually abused a child, nevertheless he had paedophiliac fantasies about touching young girls. Among these was the fear that his penis would become trapped if he penetrated a woman. Apparently this was partly based on an anal and oral view of vaginas stemming from a childhood incident in which he soiled
himself and was washed by the nursery school teacher. He recalls the incident as one in which the excited woman put her face close to his penis as if she wanted to put it in her mouth. She penetrated him with her finger as she washed his bottom. After several years of therapy he became able to divulge his experience of abuse by his mother:
Some of these themes were repeated in terms of his relationship with his sister, six years older than him:
Kevin could not cope with his desire to be touched as if he were a girl. Consequently, in fantasy, he reversed the roles, so becoming the person doing the touching. Such fantasies and the thought of carrying them out terrified him.
One typology of female sex offenders
differentiates them according to whether the offender acts alone or not (Mathews, Mathews and Speltz, 1990):
(1) Self-initiated offences:
(2) Accompanied offences:
While female offenders may be the minority, there is a possibility that they have a disproportionately greater effect on their victim's later sexual offending.
For example, although 70% of Tingle et al.'s (1986) sample of molesters had been abused by males only, 13% had been by females only, and 17% by both males and females. That is, nearly a third of the sex molesters had themselves been molested by a woman in childhood.
Carlson (1991) found that nearly a third of men on a long-term sex offender programme had experienced legally chargeable abuse by a woman, such as oral sex, masturbation, fondling or intercourse. The figure reaches 50% if one includes less flagrant offences such as sexual kissing, extended weaning or flirting.
It was difficult to find any men who had not been abused by a woman if invasion of privacy (e.g. enemas, obsessive cleaning of his foreskin, etc.) or inappropriate relationships (unloading emotional and sexual problems, sleeping with him or substituting him for the father) are added into the equation.
Such findings are difficult to equate with the rstes of female offending in general since they are based on information gathered from samples of men who are offenders themselves. Nevertheless, they seem to demonstrate that where a boy is offended against, the offender may well be female.
This is supported by other studies of male victims. One study found that over 40% of offenders against
boys were female, often ones in caring roles such as babysitters teachers and parents' friends (Risin and Koss, 1987). About 30% of a sample of undergraduate males had been abused by females (Urquiza, 1988).
There is a parallel in some forms of abuse by women with the boy-love
aspect of some abuse claimed by paedophile activists.
For example, Mathews, Mathews and Speltz (1990) relate how one woman described her abuse of one of her son's 14-year-old friends:
The one area in which abuse by females is well documented is in American day-care, providing care for six-year-olds and younger.
Finkelhor and Williams (1988) studied cases of child sexual abuse in these settings for which substantiation could be provided by child protection agencies, the agency for licensing the day-care centre, the police or combinations of these. As few as a fifth of alleged cases might be substantiated.
Females were common abusers in these settings. About a fifth of both the girl and boy victims had beer abused by a female acting alone or with other females. About half of the female victims and two-fifths of the male victims had been abused by males acting singly or together. Female and male abusers accounted for the rest -- more or less a third of victims.
Notably, in contrast to the impression created of female offenders in general, the female offenders in these settings were less likely to be single and to be socially isolated from their peers compared to male offenders They were also less likely to have histories of any of the following: school problems, alcohol problems, drug problems, psychiatric problems, isolation from peers or prior arrest, although these were not statistically significant.
Furthermore, the victims of the women were younger and more numerous, the women were more likely to abuse with others, the women were more likely to threaten to harm
the family, and the abuse was more likely to involve kissing, digital-anal penetration, insertion of objects into the vagina or anus, forced child-child activity or ritualistic aspects.
So, it would appear that the characteristics of female offenders are dissimilar from those of male offenders in this context, and that penetration of the fingers and objects is more co perpetrated by female offenders.
The evidence of abuse by females especially in the biographies of paedophiles, leads to the more general question of whether sexual abuse by men or women tends to make the victim paedophile.