Do female sexual offenders exist?
Consider the following taken from a police report:
“The victim is a sixteen year old male who delivers groceries and a local convenience store. At 5:45 p.m. he makes a delivery for the second time that day to a motel room. On the second visit, the forty-one year old female suspect invites the victim in for a drink. The victim accepts and drinks two beers. During the conversation, the female suspect puts her hand between the victim’s legs and asks if he will tell the police that she did so. The victim says no, out of fear of her reaction. Despite the victim’s protest, the female suspect removes the victim’s clothing and touches his penis. At some point, the victim touches the suspect’s cat, which makes the suspect very angry. The suspect reacts by grabbing a nearby knife and threatens to castrate the victim. She puts the knife to his penis and yells” Do you want me to cut it off?” A short time later, the victim manages to take hold of the knife and throws it out of reach. The suspect gets very angry and grabs the victim by the neck and attempts to strangle him, causing bruises on his neck. Throughout the incident the victim wants to leave the premises, but fears the reaction of the suspect. The victim remained in the room for over two hours. Once the victim was allowed to leave the room he reported the incident to his employer who then called police” (Denov, 2001, pp. 321-2).
“Sexual abuse by women will be more subtle and there won’t be any violence… a woman can’t be violent… like the recent case of that woman in the motel. Did you hear about it? [laughter} The woman called for a delivery at her motel and then asked the boy in and offered him a beer!… [loud laughter]” (Denov, 2001, p. 322).
After being reminded of the boy’s injuries, the detective continued:
“Well, those marks on his neck – those could easily have been hickeys! [laughter]” (Denov, 2001, p. 322).
In her 2001 study, Myriam Denov reports on the culture of denial that exists in the very agencies charged with investigating such crimes that prevents these agencies from even acknowledging the existence of female perpetrators of sex crimes. She observed that the detective’s comments effectively render harmless, a violent sex offender based on the assumption that a woman cannot commit such a crime. He also transforms the victim of this violent act into a willing participant.
In a separate study, Denov (2003) reports on the “myth of innocence” (p. 303) surrounding the sexuality of women that influences attitudes and beliefs, and even law concerning the perpetration of sex crimes against children and adults. In several US States, at the time of her report, the crime of rape was defined in such a way that a woman could not be charged with the crime, unless she acted to facilitate a rape in conjunction with a male rapist. This “myth of innocence’ is so ingrained in the culture that the prevailing attitude is that sexual abuse of male victims by female perpetrators are viewed as less serious and less damaging to the victim, than the same crime when committed by a male against a female (Broussard, 1991 in Denov, 2003).
With the existence of such a culture of denial, is it any wonder that we seldom hear about women who perpetrate sexual abuse? Or is it? Perhaps it’s not the culture, it’s the reality? Do these cases actually exist?
Fifty years ago, it was suggested that child sexual abuse was practically nonexistent. Denov (2003) cites two studies, Weinberg (1955) and Freedman, Kaplan, and Sadock (1975) that suggest incest was extremely rare or almost nonexistent. However, by 1992, over half a million cases of child sexual abuse were reported in the US. The public image of these cases is that of a male perpetrator and a female victim. Certainly if we examine case studies, female sex offenders are quite rare and comprise anywhere from 1.2% to as many as 8% of all cases (Denov, 2003). On the other hand, self report studies find prevalence rates approaching 60%.
In two studies of college students, Fromuth, Burkhart, & Webb Jones (1991) and Fromuth and Conn (1997) found that 3% of college men and 4% of college women, respectively, admitted in surveys to committing behaviors consistent with sexual abuse of children when they were adolescents. In a 1987 study, Fromuth and Burkhart found that in two samples of college men, those reporting they had been sexually abused as children, reported that the perpetrator was female 78% and 72% of the time. These researchers also found qualitative differences in the experience of men vs. that of women who had suffered abuse. Men reported higher incidence of oral-genital contact and intercourse but less violence or threat of violence that women (Fromuth & Burkhart, 1987). Men also reported their experiences as positive or neutral 85% of the time as compared to 59% of women viewing their experience as negative.
Obviously, the reality of the male experience of sexual abuse has had some influence over culture. However, culture appears to be perpetuated by myth as well. These studies indicate that female perpetrated sexual abuse is quite common and not rare at all, although the effects on the victims may be less severe. It is easy, then, to understand how a detective might come to see a violent sex crime perpetrated by a woman against a boy as a sexual initiation in which the victim was a willing participant. It also demonstrates the importance breaking down cultural myth that may represent barriers to labeling these crimes as crimes and treating them as such. As a society, if we are concerned about the welfare of all of our citizens, we must insist that our laws, public policies and practices, and government entities not be guided by cultural myth, but by a rational decision-making process not governed by ideology or political agenda.
Denov, M. S. (2001). A cultural denial: Exploring professional perspectives on female sex offending. Canadian Journal of Criminology , 43 (3), 303-329.
Denov, M. (2003). The myth of innocence: Sexual scripts and the recognition of child sexual abuse by female perpetrators. The Journal of Sex Research , 40 (3), 303-314.
Fromuth, M. E., & Burkhart, B. R. (1987). Childhood sexual victimization among college men: Definitional and methodological issues. Violence and Victims , 2 (4), 241-253.
Fromuth, M., & Conn, V. (1997). Hidden perpetrators: Sexual molestation in a nonclinical sample of college women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence , 12, 456-465.
Fromuth, M., Burkhart, B., & Webb Jones, C. (1991). Hidden child molestation: An investigation of adilescent perpetrators in a nonclinical sample. Journal of Interpersonal Violence , 6, 376-384.
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