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.
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
- The Men’s Project / Le Projet Pour Hommes: The Men’s Project has grown to become one of Canada’s leading counselling and educational agencies for men and their families, and in particular for all male survivors of sexual abuse committed by males and females. The Men’s Project has witnessed incredible expansion of their funded services, their fee-for-service programs, and their training and consultation services. Their mandate is “helping men and their families build better lives.”
- Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation, Fourth Edition, by Janet Warren and Julia Hislop. These two, one a psychiatrist and the other a psychologist, studied female sex offenders and developed a typology. They found six types of female sexual offenders.
- “Female Sexual Abusers: A Theory of Loss,” by Hollida Wakefield, Martha Rogers, and Ralph Underwager, an important summary of several studies with extremely valuable nuggets of information in statements throughout the summary.
- “Female Sex Offenders,” a 2007 U.S. Department of Justice brief.
- “Female Adolescent Sex Offenders,” a fact sheet put out by the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth.
- Female Sexual Abuse of Children, by Michele Elliott, an older book but still extremely helpful for an introduction to the subject.
- “A Critique of the Female Sexual Perpetrator,” research by J. Johansson-Love in Aggression and Violent Behavior.
- “Female sexual abuse of boys often goes unreported,” an article by Joyce Frieden in Clinical Psychiatry News.
- Female Offenders: Critical Perspective and Effective Interventions, by Ruth T. Zaplin.
- A Comprehensive Study of Female Offenders, by Martin Guevara, Ph.D. Urbina.
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