At one time, it may have been unusual for those involved in child safeguarding, law enforcement and child care to encounter a female sex offender. However, feedback from the many agencies we work with tell us that this is no longer the case. Many report that they feel under informed and uncertain as to how to handle issues involving female sex offenders (FSOs). There is no doubt that research and clinical experience is playing catch up, and that a greater understanding of female sex offenders is essential.
The picture that is emerging is succinctly summarised by Mary Stathopoulos (2014), a Senior Research Officer at the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault:
- Although female sex offending is a serious issue, it makes up a very small percentage of all sex offences against children and adults: just under 5 percent of all offences.
- Half of all female sex offenders in the criminal justice system co-offended with a male perpetrator.
- Women’s offending often comes as a result of male coercion.
- Victim/survivors of female-perpetrated sexual abuse do not usually disclose the abuse.
- Most theories of sexual offending are based on male perpetrators, so female sexual offending can be difficult to conceptualise.
- While female sex offending convictions are under 5 percent, a true picture of its prevalence continues to remain unclear. This is due to the way the data is categorised and collected, as well as because it is a largely under-recognised and underreported crime (Cortoni et al., 2010).
Research has shown that FSOs suffered significantly more severe childhood trauma and sexual abuse than female non-sexual offenders. Lewis and Stanley (2000) reported an 80 percent rate of childhood sexual abuse in FSOs, who also tend to come from more deprived backgrounds and have poorer social skills (Strickland 2008). In addition, high levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Conduct Disorder and Dissociative Disorders in adolescent FSOs have also been found, according to Vick, McRoy and Mathews (2002).
Furthermore, FSOs reported more frequent instances of childhood sexual abuse with longer durations than non-sex offenders, according to Christopher, Lutz-Zois and Reinhardt (2007). Research completed to date appears to support the theory that childhood sexual abuse, trauma and personality disorders can be a strong component in female sexual offending.
Research has also found that co-offending FSOs were more likely to have multiple victims of both genders, to be related to the victim, and to have nonsexual offences on their record (Vandiver 2006). It has also been noted that FSOs tend to begin their offending at a younger age than their male counterparts, choose relatives or acquaintances as their victims, and, when abusing very young children, can inflict pain and cause physical damage (Miccio-Fonseca 2012).
Unsurprisingly, cognitive distortions – thinking errors – regarding child sexual abuse were found to be common amongst FSOs. Ring (2005) reported higher levels of cognitive distortions in FSOs compared to non-offender females. Females who abuse alone, as opposed to with a co-offender, displayed significantly higher levels of cognitive distortions. Meanwhile, Beckett (2007) reported similar levels of cognitive distortions in both male and female sexual offenders, and again, lone female abusers displayed significantly higher levels of cognitive distortions than those with co-offenders.
The number of FSOs who hold myths about the cause and impact of rape was also higher than the general female population (Kjellgren, Priebe, Svedin, Mossige & Langstrom (2011). While lack of victim empathy appears to be a factor for both male and female sexual offenders (Beckett, 2007; Elliott et al., 2010; Ring, 2005), FSOs who abused alone reported greater deficits of victim empathy than those who had a co-abuser (Beckett, 2007).
The media is inclined to portray FSOs as monsters; indeed, many of us are left with images such as those of convicted nursery worker Vanessa George as to what this group look like. However, this is not the reality and FSOs are not easily identifiable. As professionals and the public struggle to cope with the complexity of FSOs, what is clear is that they are an under-researched group, whoneed much attention and ongoing research so that they can receive appropriate intervention and we can ensure optimum safeguarding.