Female sexual abusers not as rare as widely believed
The Edmonton Journal, By Sarah Sacheli, Canwest News Service, January 29, 2010
WINDSOR, Ont. -- She gave him life and was the only parent he ever knew. In the way she snapped photos of him sleeping and playing happily, she was like any other adoring mother. But she also committed unspeakable acts to his little body, turning him into a human sex toy in her pornographic broadcasts.
The set of facts involving the Windsor-area mother who sexually abused her two-year-old son horrified both those involved in the case and those who'd only heard about it.
"Society expects the mother of a toddler would do everything in her power to make sure her child is protected from harm," said the judge who on Friday handed the 24-year-old woman a 3 1/2-year prison sentence.
He called her crimes "appalling" and "abhorrent."
While female sexual abusers are rare in the court system, those who deal with child sexual abuse know the woman is not unique. She may be the first Ontario woman to be jailed for making child pornography featuring her own offspring, but she's not the first mother to sexually abuse a child.
A national study released in 2005 shows that biological mothers were the perpetrators of sexual abuse in 5% of the substantiated cases investigated by child welfare authorities.
The instance is probably higher, since researchers are certain that many cases of child sexual abuse never come to light. "A lot of people have difficulty believing women are capable of sexually abusing children," said social worker Angela Hovey, whose doctoral thesis deals with a topic related to this theme.
Even victims of such abuse, looking back at it as adults, have a hard time talking about it.
In her past employment in federal prisons, she would ask inmates about any sexual abuse in their past. "Many men had been abused by women." The problem, she said, was "they often had more difficulty identifying it as abuse."
A U.S. report, entitled "Child Sexual Abuse -- The Predators," explains it this way. "Mothers generally have more intimate contact with their children, and the lines between maternal love and care and sexual abuse are not as clear-cut as they are for fathers."
Therefore, the report says, "Sexual abuse by mothers may remain undetected because it occurs at home and is either denied or never reported."
Hovey says it's hard to get accurate data on the prevalence of female sex offenders, much less women who abuse their own children. The best information, she believes, may come from victims themselves.
A 2003 U.S. study questioned a random sample of adults to determine the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse. It found that of the 32% of females and 14% of males who identified themselves as victims, 9% of women and 39% of men said they had been abused by at least one female.
While figures are usually inflated, studies of male sex offenders show 45% to 50% were themselves victims of sexual abuse. Hovey is researching counselling practices for women survivors of sexual abuse to see if they should be asked if they've ever in turn abused anyone. She saw it in her private practice -- women sexually abusing children.
"Do I think it happens a lot more than we hear about? Absolutely," said Bill Bevan, executive director of the Windsor-Essex Children's Aid Society -- which sees two or three such cases each year.
Most don't end up in prosecutions because the young victims aren't capable of testifying. "It could be a teacher. It could be a sister. It could be a babysitter. It could be a mother with her child."
Society kids that teenage boys abused by women are somehow "lucky" and females, by nature, are too nurturing to commit such an offence. In any case of child sexual abuse, there's "kind of gender bias" that automatically excludes women from suspicion, Bevan said.
"It's not the first place you look. It's the father figure you look at first."
Canadians think of female sex offenders, and their minds automatically turn to Karla Homolka who, with her then husband, Paul Bernardo, abducted, sexually abused, tortured and murdered female victims, Bevan said.
"On the other end of the scale is where the female in the caring role takes in a partner who is abusing the child.... Some mothers might be kind of looking the other way."
Justice Kathryn Feldman, in a Jan. 18 Ontario Court of Appeal case, said the Internet is providing greater opportunity to produce and distribute images of child abuse.
"The victims are innocent children who become props in a perverted show, played out for an ever-wider audience not only of voyeurs but of perpetrators," Feldman said of a case involving a father who sexually abused his daughter and distributed the images over the Internet.
"The predominant offender in Internet child exploitation is males," said Windsor police Det. Jason Belanger. "They're out there, but if you do get a female offender, you're surprised."
Canwest News Service
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