Female Perpetration of Child Sexual Abuse: An Overview of the Problem
Moving Forward Newsjournal, Vol.2, Number 6, July / August 1994, By Lisa Lipshires
Seven years ago, a client of Massachusetts psychologist Marcia Turner said something that shocked her. The woman, who had been sexually abused throughout her own childhood and was living in a house with other adults and their children, said, "The little three-year-old girl in my household is coming on to me, and wants me to have sex with her. I think I will, because I know that I will be gentle and kind to her, and it's inevitable that she is going to be abused."
Although Turner had previously counseled male sex offenders, she had never encountered a woman who wanted to sexually abuse a child. Alarmed, she consulted other therapists, but none had ever encountered -- or even heard of -- female sex offenders. Turner realized that "this is something we need to look at," and decided to make female perpetrators of child sexual abuse the focus of her practice.
Betsy K., a survivor of sexual abuse by her father, realized five years ago that she had also been sexually abused by her mother. As she was confronting the abuse, other women in her area who had been sexually abused by their mothers were starting to deal openly with their experiences. "It was something that people were just barely beginning to talk about," Betsy recalled. Nonetheless, she and the other women formed a weekly self-help group for women survivors of female-perpetrated sexual abuse.
Betsy K. and Marcia Turner are part of a small, growing number of people confronting the issue of female-perpetrated child sexual abuse. Many feel they are fighting an uphill battle against societal denial and cultural stereotypes of women and men.
In her 1993 doctoral dissertation, "Female Sex Offenders: Societal Avoidance of Comprehending the Phenomenon of Women Who Sexually Abuse Children" (University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, MI), Boston psychologist Laurie Goldman analyzed the ways society minimizes the scope and impact of sexual abuse by women.
Goldman initially planned to conduct in-depth research of female perpetrators. To that end, she distributed 315 letters to therapists and clinics, took out an advertisement in a major newspaper, and contacted several clinicians who treated sex offenders. She also placed 10 poster advertisements in highly visible locations. Her eight-month search yielded only one woman who was willing to discuss what she had done. Goldman knew from reliable sources that female offenders were being treated, but clinic administrators insisted that no such women were under their care.
In addition, within 48 hours of having been hung, all of her posters had been removed. Unable to obtain subjects for her study, Goldman decided to focus on the societal denial that makes female perpetrators such an elusive population.
Goldman discovered that denial of female perpetration is woven into the very systems meant to protect children. She learned that one of her new female clients had previously disclosed that she had sexually abused a nephew, but the Massachusetts child protection agency had not referred the case to the Attorney General's office. In fact, Goldman's client subsequently admitted that she had abused two other children since her first disclosure.
This treatment of the problem by the State of Massachusetts is not unique.
In the State of Washington, for example, one human services professional reported that when an accused female offender was brought before a judge, the judge declared, "women don't do things like this," and dismissed the case. In another case, a New England prison warden told Goldman that she had only one woman in her system who had been convicted of child sexual abuse because "public sentiment did not allow for such charges to be brought to trial in her conservative state."
This comes as no surprise to Gail Ryan, facilitator of the Kemp Center's Perpetrator Prevention Project in Denver. She has found that female adolescent sex offenders "are much less likely than male adolescent offenders to be caught or charged."
Iowa State University sociologist Craig Allen, who conducted a study Of 75 men and 65 women who had been convicted of sexually abusing a child, refers to this process as a form of societal "gate keeping." By the time female offenders could be referred to a therapist for treatment, he writes in Women and Men Who Sexually Abuse Children: A Comparative Analysis (Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press, 1991), "only those women would be left whose behaviors were so deviant" that their abusiveness could not be denied "at any of the preceding 'gates'in the system." Allen's gate keeping hypothesis could account for why female perpetrators appear so rarely in therapists'case studies and why, when they do, they are generally described as psychotic or otherwise severely disturbed.
Ruth Matthews, a St. Paul psychologist who has worked with 50 adolescent and 70 adult female sex offenders, says another major reason why adult female perpetrators are rarely seen in treatment is that many are mothers. In such cases, she says, dependent children are generally reluctant to turn in their mothers.
If children -- whose disclosures still provide the primary means of reporting offenders -- are being abused by mothers who are single parents or who carry out the abuse with male partners, disclosure would cause them to be removed from their homes and placed in foster care. By contrast, when there is an offending father and a non-offending mother, a child's disclosure would not mean "as much of a loss," says Matthews. "They still will have their home, they still will have a parent, and their family will stay intact."
Prevalence of Abuse by Females
If children seldom disclose, and if female abusers are often winnowed out of investigations and court proceedings, how much female perpetration is actually going on? Because of the hidden nature of child sexual abuse and because of problems with the way in which child abuse data are collected, nobody can provide a definitive answer to this question.
There are two main sources of information on the extent of child sexual abuse: data gathered by state child protective agencies and retrospective studies that seek to determine the percentage of adults who were sexually abused as children.
Two retrospective studies of adult populations are frequently quoted by researchers and child advocates. The Los Angeles Times survey, conducted in 1985, found that seven percent of the abuse reported by male and female participants in the study was perpetrated by women. Sociologist Diana Russell's 1978 San Francisco-based study revealed that four percent of the women who reported having been abused indicated that the perpetrators were female.
The Times survey and the Russell study were based on a random selection of participants. Other retrospective studies focusing on narrower populations have found much higher rates of female perpetration, although some of these findings have yet to be replicated. In a 1981 study, 60 percent of 412 male and 10 percent of 540 female undergraduate psychology students at the University of Washington who recalled childhood sexual contact with a post-pubescent person at least five years older than themselves said their abusers were female. (Fritz, G., Stoll, K., and Wagner, N. "A Comparison of Males and Females Who Were Sexually Molested as Children," Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 1981, vol. 7,54-59.)
In another study, doctors at a New Jersey medical clinic found that 11 out of 25 teenage males who revealed that they had been sexually molested named females (ages 16 to 36) as their assailants. These perpetrators were "usually acquaintances of the victims -- most often a neighbor, baby-sitter, or other trusted adolescent or young adult." (Johnson, R., and Shrier, D. "Past Sexual Victimization by Females of Male Patients in an Adolescent Medicine Clinic Population," American Journal Of Psychiatry, 1987, vol. 144,650-662.)
Finally, a study of 582 college men found that up to 78 percent of those abused as children had been abused by females. ( Fromuth, M., and Burkhart, B. "Childhood Sexual Victimization Among College Men: Definitions and Methodological Issues," Violence and Victim, 1987, vol. 2, no. 4, 241-253.)
Researchers do not know why some studies uncover a higher rate of female perpetration than others, but The National Resource Center on Child Sexual Abuse ( NRCCSA ) asserts that because of a lack of standardization in reporting and inconsistencies in research methods and definitions of sexual abuse, "the firm statistics everyone desires" on the prevalence of abuse "simply are not available." ( NRCCSA News, May-June 1992, vol. 1, no. 1.)
The inconsistencies noted by the NRCCSA can be found in the other main source of data on child sexual abuse: yearly reports from the 50 states'child protective agencies. The American Humane Association which was responsible for gathering these data from 1973 through 1987, found that approximately 20 percent of substantiated cases of child sexual abuse during that time period had been perpetrated by females. (Information on perpetrator gender is not available for 1988-1992; data eventually will be available for 1993 and subsequent years.) However, not all states require the gender of perpetrators to be included in their reports. Thus, says John Fluke, Director of Research and Program Analysis for the American Humane Association, there are inherent difficulties in getting good information, given the fact that we're working with 50 different systems of information development."
Another difficulty, as University of New Hampshire sociologist David Finkelhor notes in Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research (New York: The Free Press, 1984), is that the "child abuse that is mandated for reporting in most states is only child abuse committed by parents and other caretakers." As a result, abuse perpetrated by children, adolescents, and unrelated adults or strangers is unlikely to appear in yearly reports; a sizeable proportion of sexual abuse committed by males and females is therefore generally not recorded.
Improvements are being made in this regard. Last year the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, which has been collecting national data since 1988, began to ask states to include perpetrator gender in their reports.
Range of Abuse
The abuse that females perpetrate can range from subtle, non-contact forms such as exhibitionism and voyeurism to overt sexual touching and/or penetration. In his study of offenders, sociologist Craig Allen found that both genders engaged in a range of abusive behavior. Therapist Marcia Turner says that her clients have claimed to "digitally penetrate, orally stimulate, insert things into kids, and have kids do things to them like. .. stimulate their genitals."
Other therapists, including those specializing in male survivors of sexual abuse, have noticed an apparent pattern in clients' reports of female-perpetrated abuse. Minneapolis psychologist Peter Dimock has counseled 400 to 500 male survivors of sexual abuse since 1980. He found that, for the 25 percent who recall being abused by a female, most experienced the abuse as subtle or seductive. Very often, Dimock says, if the female abuser is in a parental or caretaking role, she will perpetrate the abuse "under the guise of caretaking, where it has involved putting medication on the child's genitals, inserting suppositories or enemas," or she will make an excuse to expose her body to the boy, "clearly with an intent to arouse, but, again, under the guise of normalized behavior."
Nic Hunter, a psychologist from St. Paul, author of Abused Boys: The Neglected Victim of Sexual Abuse, and editor of The Sexually Abused Male, Volumes I and II (all from Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1990), has also found in his work with hundreds of male survivors that approximately 25
percent were sexually abused by females and that in general, the abuse was "very covert in that it was disguised as something other than a sexual contact." Dimock adds that female abusers frequently treat their victims like romantic partners, taking them on "date-like outings."
Not all survivors or victims report that sexual abuse by females was subtle or covert. Of the 93 women who perpetrated in Michigan therapist Bobbie Rosencrans'recent four-year study of survivors of maternal incest, 65 percent reported that their abuse had been violent. Karen K., a survivor of maternal incest from Washington State who edits the newsletter S.O.F.I.E.(Survivors of Female Incest Emerge!), has read nearly 500 letters from survivors in the past 18 months. She feels that "women are more creative and more brutal in their abuse."
Abuse After effects
Therapist Bobbie Rosencrans' research on 93 female and nine male survivors of maternal incest ( Rosencrans had originally planned to study female survivors only, but nine men asked to be included as well.) is the most comprehensive study to date of survivors of female perpetrators. Rosencrans found among her study participants many of the reactions shared by survivors of male-perpetrated abuse: depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and high rates of eating disorders and substance abuse. She also found, when she asked her participants what they would want the public to know about maternal incest, a nearly universal wish to tell society that "this really happens."
Gender Identity Issues
One of the most common reactions to female-perpetrated abuse is shame about gender identity. Phyllis E, who was sexually abused by both her mother and her father, remembers feeling a deep disgust for her mother's body -- a disgust that carried over into a hatred of her own female self. "I couldn't stand my own body for years," she says. "I couldn't understand how men could stand women's bodies."
Tom, a therapist and survivor of abuse by three females, including his mother, has also felt a deep confusion about his gender identity. Along with subjecting Tom to unnecessary enemas, masturbating him in the bathtub, and making him sleep in her bed and watch her dress, his mother perpetrated against him a type of behavior that Indiana therapist Christine Lawson refers to as "perversive abuse." Perversive abuse, Lawson writes in "Mother-Son Sexual Abuse: Rare or Underreported? A Critique of the Research" (Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 17, no. 2) is abuse of a child's sexuality and "may include behavior such as forcing the boy to wear female clothing ... and generally discouraging the child's identification with males." Tom says that "until I was five, I hadn't the foggiest notion that I wasn't a girl."
Psychologist Mic Hunter says that the societal belief that "when sexual contact takes place" between a male and female, "the male is responsible for it" can place an extra sense of shame and responsibility on boy victims of female perpetrators. There is also the cultural myth, exemplified by movies such as "Summer of '42," "Men Don't Leave," and "My Tutor," that sexual contact between an adult female and a young boy is a desirable initiation into manhood. Hunter has witnessed this during training sessions at the offices of various district attorneys. Often, he says, "there will be a female attorney on staff who is trying to prosecute a female perpetrator [of a male victim], and the male attorneys will say, 'Look, we're not going to waste the taxpayers' dollars on this. This is every man's fantasy.'"
Rick S., a survivor of maternal incest as well as sexual abuse by a female nurse, confirms that he struggled to accept that what was done to him was inappropriate and wrong. "I adored my mother," Rick says, "and she doted on me, especially in the early years." When Rick got to high school, he says, "I felt like I was unfaithful to her if I thought of going out with a girl."
He had "no idea that you were supposed to grow up and develop and learn." He saw his peers growing up and finding age-appropriate dates, and wondered what they had that he didn't.
Confronting Gender Stereotypes
A widespread societal belief that female-perpetrated sexual abuse is improbable -- particularly if the abuser was one's mother -- has made it especially difficult for survivors of female abusers to disclose their experiences and has left them with perhaps an even deeper sense of isolation. Remarkably, though 81 percent of the women in Rosencrans' study were currently in therapy, only three percent had revealed to their therapists that their mothers had abused them sexually.
Karen K. remembers believing for years that she was the only survivor of mother-daughter incest. "I felt completely isolated and alone with who my perpetrator was," Karen says. In response to Rosencrans' study (Safer Society Press, 1994), one woman wrote, "I've never met anyone who was sexually abused by their mother. I didn't know that 93 other people existed."
Betsy K. believes that the sexual abuse of daughters by mothers is even more taboo than the sexual abuse of sons. Between mothers and sons, Betsy says, "People would believe, probably, that there was some sort of sexual contact, though they might not look at it as abuse." But in our homophobic culture, "females sexually abusing females -- Oh God, nobody, nobody wants to believe that. I think it's as hard to believe, or close to as hard to believe, as ritual abuse ... It doesn't get the attention it deserves."
Moving Past Secrecy and Shame
It was liberating for Betsy, in a survivors' march and rally several years ago, to carry a sign: "Mothers Can Be Abusers, Too." She and other survivors of maternal incest glued photographs of their Mothers onto the sign, and Betsy held it up while she recounted the story of her mother's abuse. Betsy spoke so loudly, one woman later told her, that she had heard her from nearly a quarter of a mile away and she had to stop and listen.
Months later, a stranger approached Betsy at a workshop and said she saw Betsy's sign at the march and that it had really helped her to reveal, for the first time, that she had also been sexually abused by her mother. "It was very moving," Betsy says. "I'll never forget that. It speaks to survivors helping survivors ... I think we can, as a community, really heal each other."
Lisa Lipshires is a freelance writer and human services professional.
Allen, Craig (1991). Women and Men Who Sexually Abuse Children: A Comparative Analysis. Brandon, VT: The Safer Society Press.
Evert, Kathy (1987). When You're Ready. A Woman's Healing from Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse by Her Mother. Walnut Creek, CA: Launch Press.
Kelley, Susan J., et al. (1993). Sexual Abuse of Children in Day Care. Child Abuse & Neglect vol. 17,71-89.
Lawson, Christine (1993). Mother-Son Sexual Abuse: Rare or Under-reported? A Critique of the Research. Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 17, no. 2.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood (1991). Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. (Note: Anne Sexton's daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, disclosed in Middlebrook's biography that her mother had sexually abused her.)