Profile of a Female Perpetrator

This is another one of the promised articles for calendar year 2008, and it took more research than usual. There’s less data on female sexual offenders than on male offenders, and the data that exists is interpreted in many ways. The information below is culled from a number of sources (see the source list at the end for examples) and represents an overview of generally accepted conclusions about female sexual perpetrators. If we are dedicated to rooting out sexual assault in our society, we must face facts.

The truth about female perpetrators and child sexual abuse

The heartbreaking introduction must be this: Twenty to 25 percent of substantiated child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by women. That’s right — one-fifth to one-quarter. Please understand this number correctly: It’s estimated that females report only about 10 percent of their sexual assaults, but males (especially children) underreport their sexual attacks even more.

What that means is that if 20 to 25 percent of substantiated cases are committed by female perpetrators, the real percentage is likely somewhat higher due to the fact that males underreport female attacks at an even higher rate than females underreport male attacks.

Current numbers show that about half the victims of female perpetrators are male, half female. In the case of the male victims, we can draw a fairly immediate line from victim to victimizer: About 59 percent of male sex offenders have a background of female sexual abuse.

Tragically, another line is even more direct than that: A male sex offender who has been sexually abused exclusively by a female chooses only female victims on average over 93 percent of the time.

What is a female perpetrator like?

It is widely acknowledged that women sexually attack for different reasons than men, particularly in the case of molesting a child. For example, where a man may use a child for sexual gratification, a woman may use a child sexually as part of her search for intimacy. Female perpetrators are often loners and have trouble forming relationships. Most come from abusive backgrounds.

So far as we have information, female offenders are significantly less likely than male offenders to perpetrate a violent sexual attack such as forcible rape, although those do happen. Their sexual attacks tend to be predicated on “winning” the victim and having a relationship with him or her.

Female sexual perpetrators are far more likely than male perpetrators to have an opposite-sex partner in crime. Many female sex offenders assault at the behest of a male partner, or at least facilitate and witness his assault. Far fewer female perpetrators act alone than male, and when they do, they typically have a longer, more severe history of abuse than male perpetrators. Far more male perpetrators than female actually don’t have a history of sexual abuse. Studies show that women are extremely unlikely to sexually assault a child where there’s no history of abuse in their own lives. These are simply informational statements as of 2008.

Female child molesters target boys significantly more often than girls. Female perpetrators of forcible rape or sexual assault against adults, however, tend to select female victims.

There may be truth to the idea that females are less likely to sexually offend than males. This unfortunately tends to feed our unwillingness to see females as abusers, to take their offenses as seriously, to hold them as culpable, and to sentence them as we sentence male offenders. There is no excuse for any blindness that interferes with protecting people from sexual assault (particularly children) and prevents effective justice and treatment for all offenders.

The double standard: How we portray and punish sexual offenders

Our society often thinks of women as the nurturers and caretakers of society and doesn’t want to see differently. Over 85% of male victims of female perpetrators are not believed when they tell their story. Media stories of male perpetrators use terms like rape, forced sex (another problematic term), and sexual assault, where stories of female perpetrators often use deceptive terms such as had an affair, had sex with, slept with instead of the more accurate raped or sexually assaulted. With a female perpetrator and an underage boy, in particular, people more often assume a kind of caring relationship between the perpetrator and her victim. The boy’s experience might even be regarded as a rite of passage. Male attackers are animals, while female attackers are “troubled.”

This double standard does not go only one way, however. Male sexual assault of females is considered sad, but a fact of life, and people even have sympathy and understanding for male attackers. “He must have had a terrible childhood,” “Boys will be boys,” and so on. Female attackers, on the other hand, are considered to be far sicker than male attackers. There can be perceptions such as “He’s just doing what men do; she’s a sociopath.”

Regardless of perceptions and prejudices, today’s laws should at the very least reflect the equal responsibility of women who have committed a sexual assault. They do not. The tragic result is systematic injustice perpetrated via the legal system. Female child molesters, for example, are arrested, charged, and prosecuted at significantly lower rates than male. They are sentenced more lightly. That’s if they reach the legal system at all, which they also do at a lower rate. Most female sexual perpetrators are never even arrested — fewer even than male rapists, and not many male rapists are ever arrested. So it’s a very small number.

Myths and messages about male sexual assault victims

If the injustice stopped with the legal system, that would be bad enough. But male victims find they’re lucky if they’re not simply laughed at when they tell their story of being sexually assaulted. Social custom still sends false and crushing messages to male victims — messages as antiquated as the lopsided sentencing laws. People’s reactions to male victims — whether the victims are children or adults — can include:

  • “You should feel lucky.”
  • “A real man would be glad to have sex.”
  • “What’s the matter with you? It was just sex.”
  • “What did she do — hold you down?”
  • “You got attacked by a woman?”
  • “I wish she’d come to my house and attack me.”
  • “Honey, she’s your babysitter. You probably just misunderstood.”

These are some of the same messages people give to women who are raped, and if there’s anything I’d like today’s post to communicate, it is this: Sexual assault, and the painfully false messages and lack of support that can follow, are equally damaging to female victims and male victims alike.

In today’s culture, men often don’t — and often don’t dare — allow themselves to appear vulnerable. It’s incredibly difficult to even talk about a sexual assault, especially if a man has internalized, all his life, any of these common cultural myths:

  • Real men always want sex.
  • It’s impossible for a woman to rape a man.
  • Women don’t sexually assault people. Women don’t molest children. If they do anything, it’s just play. It’s not really bad or serious.
  • It’s OK for an adult woman to “have sex with” a teenage boy, even though it’s not OK for an adult man to “rape” a teenage girl, because boys and men are just sexual animals.
  • A real man would be grateful for it.
  • Men want it. And if they don’t, something is wrong with them.

We’ve begun challenging myths when they’re applied to female victims. Now it’s time to stop perpetuating myths when they’re applied to male victims too.

What about female victims of female perpetrators?

Younger female victims are reluctant to say they’ve been assaulted by a woman because they may question their own sexuality or worry about how they’ll be judged by others when people find out they were attacked by a woman. Like male victims of all ages, female victims of all ages are also much more likely to grow up to assault someone else than someone with no history of abuse or assault.

Resources for male sexual assault victims

As we’ve mentioned in this blog before, resources for male sexual assault victims are fewer than for female sexual assault victims. Here’s my earlier post on this subject. (Update in 2012: I’m sure there are more resources now. I’ve seen them, but haven’t had the time to go back and update all the relevant posts.) You would expect this, given the lopsided ratio of female sexual assault victims to male victims overall, but the ratio of resources for men is not even equal to that. Part of the problem is that while women have pressed for, and gotten, research done on their assaults, men’s relative silence due to severe shaming and social pressure has guaranteed that very little research has been done specifically on male victims. This is a heartbreaking oversight that needs to be remedied immediately.

Here’s a bit of the little we do know: If you are the wife, girlfriend, etc., of a man you suspect has been sexually assaulted, be a safe person for him to talk to. If you have children, let him see you being fiercely protective of them — and tell him you’re protective of him too. Open up a space for him (as opposed to badgering him) to talk to you if he chooses. Prepare ahead of time by having resources in hand that he might want to look at. If you sense he’s not open to talking to you about it, give him the materials. Be willing to be wrong about it and look foolish; you’d be shocked at how many men carry this secret. Eventually he may take action. Support his absences while he goes to meetings or counseling, and be willing to go to counseling with him if he wants you to. Above all, never, never shame him or blame him for any part of what happened.

Where is a child least safe?

It’s worth noting that despite the news stories in recent years, schools are still one of the safest places for children. Sexual abuse by teachers comprises less than 10 percent of all sexual assaults on children. The least safe place for a child is in the family. The vast majority of child sexual assaults are committed by family members. Incest stories tend to not make the news as often or as memorably because they’re so much more common than sexual abuse by others.

Wrap-up

Did anyone else notice the obvious conclusion to this research? The biggest single step we can take to help get rid of sexual assault in our society is to stop assaulting and abusing people today — especially children, who are tomorrow’s attackers if we assault them instead of protecting them. To stop a sick pattern — stop it!

Resource list for this post

6 Responses

  1. Overall I think this is a decent post, although the information about female predators being victims is somewhat misleading. The studies supporting those claims were rather small and also dependent on the comments of women who are prone to lying and manipulating. Most women who abuse child do so by themselves, not by co-offending. They do so for the same reasons as men, not because they are re-enacting their abuse. Like most male predators, female predators may be victims, however, the extent of their victimization appears to have very little to do with their perpetration nor is it true that female child rapists offend only because they were victimized.

    The problem is that there is very little information available about female predators and much of what is available does not match with reports coming from victims. The myth of the “emotionally clingy” female perpetrator gets perpetuated (even by professionals) because as a society we are unwilling to look at women as violent and aggressive. Instead we overlook the majority of cases in which threats of violence or actual violence is committed. This includes instances such as women using objects to penetrate male and female victims, something which tends to be common.

    Again, I do not think the information is necessarily bad, but it is somewhat misleading and gives the false impression that female predators are not really rapists, just victims unfortunately acting out on boys who technically have not been harmed.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I couldn’t agree more that there’s not enough information about female predators. Finally, studies are being done, but even the information we have is not as much as we need. Only time and public noise (we’re making public noise on this blog) will remedy this.

    In the meantime, I see no reason to simply dismiss the careful work that has been done thus far. As I read your comment and began to respond, I noticed that I was repeating variations on a theme. Some of your statements are references to extreme views that simply aren’t in my post, such as “…The information about female predators being victims is simply misleading” or “nor is it true that female child rapists offend only because they were victimized.” I didn’t say those things. We may disagree on certain points — but not on those points.

    For clarification: One fact that is established is that abuse leads to more abuse. This is true of both sexes. Most sexual abuse victims actually don’t go on to abuse others. But far more sexual abuse victims grow up to abuse others than people who don’t have a history of abuse. For further clarification, this in no way excuses sexual assault perpetrated by anyone, no matter what their gender. (Er, that’s why I wrote this post…)

    We’re also in agreement that women are more violent than people are willing to admit. For the most part, people don’t want to see or admit that women are violent at all, and certainly not that there’s a major unaddressed problem with female sexual offenders. I included information about female offender violence and about the double standard for male and female sex offenders for that reason.

    Being able to read the primary source material for your assertion that the majority of sexual attacks by women are violent attacks (“…we overlook the majority of cases in which threats of violence or actual violence is committed”) would be a great help.

    Since I reference so much information about sick and evil things female sex offenders do, obviously I wouldn’t have withheld information about the majority of female sexual attacks being violent ones, had it been supported by my research so far. Feel free to post links here on the blog so we can study this one out for ourselves. (This is one of the main reasons I post links myself.)

    One other statement I’m consumed with curiosity about is: “The problem is that there is very little information available about female predators and much of what is available does not match with reports coming from victims.” If you would be so kind as to post the source material for that as well, we could study that too. I just have to ask, if there’s no source material that substantiates your assertion, then how do you know? One person can’t possibly know all the victims of female sexual assaults, and that’s the limitation. Whence the info?

    It appears unlikely that available information doesn’t match reports from victims, because so many victim interviews have been done as part of sex offender research/tracking initiatives. People aren’t just looking at offenders, they’re also interviewing victims, and these studies have been going on for a long time.

    This is a key issue, because it casts the debate in terms of “we’re only interviewing offenders, we’re ignoring victims, we take the offender’s word about the victim and don’t bother to ask the victim directly.” That is not an approach I’ve observed researchers taking, but there could be supporting source material on your statement, and I would encourage you to publicize the sources on that for our readers. We may find that you’re right, that victims are saying some very different things than are being reported, and if so, that needs to change.

    The goal of “For the Record” is primarily to support and inform victims of sexual assault/violence, and to shine a light on things that some people don’t want light on. So don’t withhold information you have that I don’t have — we all need more information. I hope this blog and this post will serve to confirm any victims of any sexual assault in the truth of their experience, the intensity of their pain, and to communicate to them that they’re heard and cared about.

  3. I have been treating female victims of childhood sexual assault for two decades, and have gotten to know these victims up close and personal, and my observations are close to this report, although I found that almost all the victims I treated tended to have strong same gender attractions which manifested themselves during early puberty. in particular those who were victimized by females.
    Close to 1/2 of these children had developed an attraction toward younger girls which was not mere sexual in nature, but almost protective and nurturing.
    The victims also all developed trust issues which manifested itself in relationships, along with guilt and the feeling that “their bodies betrayed them” which all began during puberty.
    The general findings I seem were many and varied, no two victims were the same, nor were the perpetrators, but there are many patterns that were found in all the victims, and the main thing I found is that if you do not treat the victims before and during puberty, your positive results are next to zero.
    Sexual assault is like a cancer! It not only effects the victim, but also all those around them, the parents, the people they interact with on a daily basis, and it eats away at their very being.

  4. As a 52 y/o victim of female perpetrated childhood sexual assault, I can say without reservation that lack of recognition of female predators has been one of the largest stumbling blocks in getting a grasp to control the ever increasing number of sexual assault cases among both genders.

    If perpetration produces perpetrators, and women cases outnumber men 4 to 5 times, then somebody tell me why the numbers of sexual assault cases won’t increase even more dramatically, without unbias in the way sexual assault is treated both in the mental health system and in the courts.

    From my standpoint as a female perpetrated male victim, unwilling disclosure to a social worker at the tender age of 41, has been more traumatizing than the original rape. From the resultant guilt producing right wing church (koo koo ka choo Mrs. Robinson), to the outright danger from the female ‘specialty’ domestic violence and rape crisis counselors (tracked as a potential rapist), the pain of living a life time from having your soul sexually violated, has been far and again superseded by the pain from society post disclosure.

    It sure would be nice if there were professional mental health services available for men in the female predominated industry, let alone safety and freedom outside ones home in such a sexualized anti-male society.
    But at any rate, I know the issue of sexual assault, including that of females, takes a back seat to other far more pressing issues like reproductive rights or promotion of sexual education classes to teach the proper technique for rolling on a latex condom to 8’th graders.
    Tom S. in Tn.

  5. Sadly, even this article contributed to stereotypes and myths that sexual assault of boys and men by women is rare- It seemed like you kept making a point to present men as perpetrators and women as victims. In reality, since boys and men do not report even a fraction of the sexual assault and rape that happens to them by women and society does not suspect women as perpetrators, nor does society properly record female perpetrators in crime stats and media or prosecute their crimes, how can you justify stating that “most” victims are female and the majority of perpetrators are men? In some victim studies, up to 75% of the sexual assault of males was perpetrated by women. In my work with youth in the mental health field, it has been clear that boys are 50% or more of all sexual assault victims and females perpetrate that assault in high numbers. Of the boys who have been raped and sexually abused by women, none had reported to law enforcement, and none of the stats recorded. The FBI didn’t even recognize the rape of males until Jan. 2012! All references to sexual assault and rape should be gender neutral unless discussing specific cases, which, of course, should be gender balanced in the cases presented. I have never heard anyone “feel sorry for” a male perpetrator- Usually they are vilified as the worst criminals on the planet- But coddling of and sympathy for female rapists and sexual abusers is the standard and norm. I also was disappointed that you did not point out that women can be just as violent and torturing of their victims as men. Some of the rapes, tortures and suffering the youth I’ve worked with have endured at the hands of women is shocking to the conscience. Please stop trying to keep women in the honorary victim position- Break the stereotypes yourself and let the article focus on MALES as victims.

  6. Laurie, you brought up some key issues. I want to address several of them.

    I re-read this post, since it was written in 2008, to see how it reads now. It doesn’t say that sexual assault by women is rare — it says the exact opposite, that this type of assault occurs far more than our society is willing to admit.

    I’ll quote you since that’s the most efficient way to address longer comments:

    —“…since boys and men do not report even a fraction of the sexual assault and rape that happens to them by women and society does not suspect women as perpetrators, nor does society properly record female perpetrators in crime stats and media or prosecute their crimes, how can you justify stating that “most” victims are female and the majority of perpetrators are men?”

    We agree that boys and men, for the most part, rarely report assaults. I’ll quote myself here: “It’s estimated that females report only about 10 percent of their sexual assaults, but males underreport their sexual attacks even more.” This already harmonizes perfectly with what you just said in the quote above.

    Regarding most victims being female and most perpetrators being male: Our viewpoints here may be based on the group we chose to focus on. You work with youth, a group in which female sexual attacks against males comprise a far higher percentage than if *all* attacks by *all* people against *all* victims are counted. I count everyone who is attacked by anyone at any age.

    By every legitimate study one can find, the *overall* statistics show that far more males sexually attack females than the reverse. This is a statistic based on everyone, not just on youth. I’d be very interested to see statistics on gender in sexual attacks in the age group you work with. That subject would be worth a post all by itself.

    Another quote from your message, for clarification:

    —“In some victim studies, up to 75% of the sexual assault of males was perpetrated by women. In my work with youth in the mental health field, it has been clear that boys are 50% or more of all sexual assault victims and females perpetrate that assault in high numbers.”

    Would you post here some links to the studies you’re referring to? In many years of reading and researching, I have never come across a study of *all* sexual assault victims that put female-on-male assault at 75%. That figure isn’t even close to the studies I’ve read and a number I’ve posted links to at various places on this blog. Could this possibly be a study of youth or some other subgroup of sexual assault victims? That doesn’t make it less legitimate or important of a study; it’s essential to specify the terms of the study. Especially when you’re quoting a statistic that is so far from what all the other source material is saying. That way we can compare apples with apples and oranges with oranges.

    I’m aware, and am very glad, that in 2012 the FBI finally joined the current century and recognized the rape of men. It’s outrageous that it took this long. That’s why I posted specifically about that (http://rapeinfo.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/men-can-be-raped-too-now-that-the-fbi-says-its-so/). As I said here in this post, we don’t have as much information and studies on women perpetrators as we do men — really not enough at all.

    A key point:

    —“All references to sexual assault and rape should be gender neutral unless discussing specific cases, which, of course, should be gender balanced in the cases presented.”

    I disagree. I’m going to write about sexual assault and rape as it really happens. Among young adults and adults, that skews greatly toward male-on-female assaults. Perhaps it’s different among youth. (Now you’ve got me curious, and I will be looking for your links and for other information. Thanks for the post idea. It’s a good one.)

    What I do here on the blog to combat the idea that rape is monolithic (male on female) is to make sure to include posts like this one, where we talk openly about females who do violence, females who attack males, male underreporting, and so on.

    If you wander the blog, you’ll find quite a number of posts that mention or are specifically written for males. There’s at least one that I can recall that lists a bunch of resources that are available to men. And this post itself talks about how horrible and how traumatizing sexual assault is for males of all ages. It says:

    —“Sexual assault, and the painfully false messages and lack of support that can follow, are equally damaging to female victims and male victims alike.”

    —“Female child molesters target boys significantly more often than girls.”

    —“We’ve begun challenging these myths when they’re applied to female victims. Now it’s time to stop perpetuating these myths when they’re applied to male victims too.”

    —“If the injustice stopped with the legal system, that would be bad enough. But male victims find they’re lucky if they’re not simply laughed at when they tell their story of being sexually assaulted.”

    Given these quotes from the post, and many more like them — no, I’m not perpetuating any false stereotypes. I’m not painting men as worse than they are here, I’m painting them as the suffering victims. I’m not painting women as better than they are, I’m painting them as the sick perpetrators. Female-on-male sexual assault does happen, and no matter what number of cases it is, it’s too many. Hence this post.

    While we disagree on some points, I think we agree more than you think. From where I’m sitting we’re both fighting for male victims and female victims alike. No sexual assault is OK, ever.

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