07 August 2005

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Female Perpetration of Child Sexual Abuse:  An Overview of the Problem
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.

Societal Denial
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 Aftereffects
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.


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