The Myth of Innocence: Sexual Scripts and the Recognition of Child Sexual Abuse by Female Perpetrators
Denov, Myriam S., The Journal of Sex Research
Although child sexual abuse has been studied extensively, minimal attention has been paid to sexual abuse by females. This paper explores the prevalence of female sex offending and reveals the paradoxes that exist within the available data. Moreover, it highlights the role of traditional sexual scripts in impending the official recognition of the problem. Traditional Sexual scripts, particularly the perception of females as sexually passive harmless, and innocent, appear not only to have influenced broader societal views concerning sexuality and sexual abuse but also to have permeated the criminal law, victim reporting practices, and professional responses to female sex offending. The implicit denial of women's potential for sexual aggression within these three domains may ultimately contribute to the underrecognition of the problem in official sources.
The last fifty years have seen a series of shifts in attitudes and beliefs regarding the prevalence of adult-child sexual exploitation. For example, early writers believed incest was a very rare occurrence. Authors such as Weinberg (1955) and Freedman, Kaplan, and Sadock (1975) suggested that the incidence of father-daughter incest was one in a million. However, between 1976 and 1986, reports of sexual abuse against children in the U.S. rose 22-fold. In 1976, only 6,000 cases of sexual abuse were referred to U.S. protective services agencies. In 1986, however, 132,000 cases of sexual abuse were identified (American Association for the Protection of Children, 1988). This trend has continued, and in 1992 almost 500,000 sexual abuse cases were reported in the U.S. (Mendel, 1995). As a result of (be large increase in the number of cases reported, child sexual abuse is now considered a significant social problem and has gained wide-spread attention.
While fluctuations occur in attitudes and beliefs concerning the prevalence of sexual offending, what is common to most constructions is their gendered nature: The offenders are inevitably male and the victims inevitably female. The words sexual assault and sexual aggression tend to conjure up an image of a male perpetrator and a female victim (Byers & O'Sullivan. 1998). While there is little doubt that males commit the vast majority of sexual offences reported to police and that their victims are primarily female (Snyder, 2000), the notion of male abusers and female victims has become paradigmatic within the field of sexual abuse. This has tended to obscure the reality that not only can males be victims of sexual assault, but also that females can perpetrate acts of sexual violence.
Although the issue of child sexual abuse has gained widespread attention over recent decades, the problem of sexual abuse by females has received very little recognition in both clinical and empirical literature ell sexual abuse. In the 1970s and early 1980s, literature on sexual offenders suggested that sexual offending among females was so rare that it was "of little significance" (Mathis, 1972, p. 54). Similarly, Freund, Heasman, Racansky, and Glancy (1984, p. 193) declared that "pedophilia ... does not exist at all in women."
More recent studies emerging from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, however, have begun to acknowledge the existence of female sexual offenders (Cooper, Swaminath, Baxter, & Poulin, 1990; Davin, Hislop, & Dunbar, 1999; Fromuth & Conn, 1997: Saradjian, 1996). The research, which has included a wide range of data-gathering techniques, has all pointed to the existence of female sexual offending. Nonetheless, there continues to be debate surrounding the prevalence of female sex offending. Some authors and clinicians continue to assert that female sex offending is a rare phenomenon (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994; O'Hagan, 1989; Robinson, (2001). For example, in its discussion of paraphilias--a diagnostic category that includes acts of exhibitionism, fetishism, frotteurism, pedophilia, sexual masochism, sexual sadism, transvestism, and voyeurism--the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, indicates that "except for Sexual masochism ... paraphilias are almost never diagnosed in females" (APA, 1994, p. 524). Similarly, O'Hagan (1989) declares that sexual abuse by females can be considered an "aberration" which has little or no significance for professionals working with child sexual abuse.
In contrast, authors such as Mendel (1995). Allen (1990), and Banning (1989) maintain that child sexual abuse by females is underrecognized and the lack of recognition is, in part, a result of traditional sexual scripts that depict women as incapable of commiting sexual offences (Denov, 2001). Sexual scripts, which enable individuals to interpret emotions and sensations as sexually meaningful and provide them with methods of organizing sexual situations, are characterized by an active male and a passive female (Jackson, 1978). In traditional sexual scripts, men are perceived to be highly sexually aggressive, and once a man's sexual response has been set in motion, he is thought to have difficulty controlling it (Jackson, 1978). Sexual scripts thus exclude the image of males as sexually reluctant or as victims of sexual coercion or assault (Mendel, 1995). In contrast, women are expected to influence men to avoid sex, not to have sex (Clark & Hatfield, 1989). Sexual scripts also exclude the images of women as Sexual aggressors, as initiating sex with men, as indicating their sexual interest, and as, at times, coercing their reluctant partners to engage in unwanted sexual activities (Byers & O'Sullivan. 1998).
To address the current debate concerning the prevalence of female sexual offending as well as to explore the role of traditional sexual scripts and their impact on the recognition of the problem. I developed two main objectives for this study. First, through a review of the available case and sell-report data, I examined the magnitude of female sex offending and highlighted the paradoxes that exist within the data. Second, I explored the role of traditional sexual scripts in obscuring the recognition of female sex offending. In particular, I explored why law-makers, victims, and professionals appear to rely on the representation of women as sexually innocuous and the implications of this representation for prevalence rates of female sex offending.
THE PREVALENCE OF FEMALE SEX OFFENDING
To explore whether female sex offending is a rare or underrecognized phenomenon, I analyzed and compared 15 pertinent studies and statistical reports. While it was necessary to rely on these studies and statistical reports because of the limited available research on the topic, comparing such diverse literature is inherently problematic. First, the literature investigated different areas and contexts of sexual offending, relied on various sample sizes, and used inconsistent terminology and definitions of what constituted a sexual offence. Second, some studies examined perpetrators of sexual offences while others explored victims. The task at hand was to organize the varied data and find a common thread in the relative rates of female sex offending (vs. males). These rates were extracted from the literature for further analysis or calculated from the data by computing the appropriate ratio.
To compare the studies, 1 divided the literature into two main categories: case report and self-report studies. I then grouped the studies into three categories based on the population that each study sought to examine: (a) perpetrators of sexual offences, (b) male victims of sexual offences, and (c) female victims of sexual offences. Importantly, the literature analysis was not statistical but was an in-depth examination and discussion of the literature that could bring forth important insights on prevalence rates of female sex offending. The following sections describe the case and self report data for the three populations as outlined in Table 1.
Population 1: Perpetrators of Sexual Offences
Case report studies. Data from official sources on offender populations in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada lend support to the conclusion that female sex offending is indeed a rare phenomenon. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2002), in the United States in 2001, 1.2% of those charged with forcible rape and 8% charged with sexual offences were female. In a statistical report using data from the U.S. National Incident Based Reporting System, Snyder (2000) found that between 1991 and 1996 in 12 States, 4% of offenders in sexual assaults against children were female. In the United Kingdom, Home Office figures show that 2% of adults convicted of a sexual offence were female (Home Office, (2001). Recent statistics from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (2001) reveal that in Canada in 2000, 1.5% of adults convicted of sexual assault were female.
Self-report studies. Given the scant self-report literature on this topic, I found it necessary to amalgamate two studies, one involving male college students and the other involving female college students, to obtain the prevalence rate of female sex offending. Fromuth, Burkhart, and Webb Jones (1991) surveyed 582 male college students on their histories of child molestation during adolescence. They found that 3% of the college men reported experiences that met the criteria for sexually abusing a child. Fromuth and Conn (1997) explored child molestation committed by females during childhood and adolescence. In a sample of 546 female college students, the authors found that 4% of the women reported at least one experience that met the criterion for sexually abusing a younger child.(1) Combining the results of these two studies reveals a prevalence rate of female sex offending of 58%.(2) Despite the limitations associated with calculating the prevalence rates for the self-report studies, the examination of offender populations demonstrates the sharp contrast that exists in prevalence rates between case report data (1.2-8%) and self-report data (58%).
Population 2: Male Victims of Sexual Offences
Case report studies. Pierce and Pierce (1985) reviewed 304 cases of sexual abuse reported to a child abuse hotline between 1976 and 1979. Child protection workers determined that sexual abuse had occurred in 205 cases. Of these 205 cases, 25 victims were male. The authors found that only 4% of male victims reported having been abused by a female. Faller (1989) analyzed 87 validated cases where boys had been sexually abused and were subsequently referred to the University of Michigan Project on Child Abuse and Neglect. She found that 8% of these victims had been sexually abused by a lone female and 29% had been abused by both males and females. Reinhart (1987) analyzed case reports between 1983 and 1985 of 189 sexually abused boys who had been identified, evaluated, and referred to a centre for child sexual abuse. Reinhart reported that 4.2% of the perpetrators of sexual abuse against the boys were female. Roane (1992) reviewed 77 cases of sexually abused boys referred to a multi-disciplinary child protection team. Six of the boys (7.8%) reported abuse by a female offender.
Self-report studies. Groth (1979) conducted a study of 348 convicted male rapists and child molesters. Groth found that 106 of these offenders reported histories of childhood sexual trauma. Of those reporting sexual trauma, 51% reported abuse by a male perpetrator and 42% reported abuse by a female perpetrator. Data was unavailable for 7% of the sample of offenders. Fritz, Stoll, and Wagner (1981) administered a questionnaire to 412 male college students and found that 4.8% of the men reported having been molested as a child. Interestingly, 60% of the abused men reported having been molested by a female. In their research involving college men, Fromuth and Burkhart (1989) discovered that 15% of 253 men in the first sample and 13% of 329 men in the second sample reported childhood sexual abuse. The majority of perpetrators were female: 78% of respondents in the first sample and 72% in the second sample reported having experienced sexual abuse by a female.
Allen (1991) surveyed 75 males convicted of sexual offences against children. Thirty-six percent of the male offenders reported they had been sexually abused an children. Of those who reported being sexually abused, 45% reported that their sexual abuser had been female. Mendel (1995) examined 124 sexually abused males undergoing therapy in private and community menial health clinics. He found that 14% of the sample indicated sexual contact with females only, while 46% reported sexual abuse by both males and females.
Comparison of case and self-report studies. Comparing case and serf-report data raises interesting questions. Case report data from Faller's (1989) sample reveal that 8% of the perpetration was committed by lone females and 29% by both males and females; thus, 37% of cases involved female offenders. While the 8% lone female perpetration falls within the range of the other case report studies in this population (4-7.8%), the total female involvement of 37% clearly does not. On the other hand, Mendel's (1995) self-report data show that 14% of offences were committed by lone females and 46% of offences were committed by both males and females: a total of 60% female involvement.(3) In this case, the 14% lone female perpetration does not fall within the range of the other self-report studies (42%-78%), while the 60% rood does. Regardless of these perplexing anomalies,(4) if one considers the total involvement of sexual offences by females in the analysis, the self-report data (42-78%) is notably higher than the case report data (4-37%).
Population 3: Female Victims of Sexual Offences
Case report studies. Case report studies stemming from female victim populations reveal low numbers of females who perpetrate sexual abuse against other females. Pierce and Pierce (1985) reviewed 304 canes of sexual abuse reported to a child abuse hotline between 1976 and 1979. Of the 304 cases, child protection workers determined that sexual abuse had occurred in 205 cases. Of these 205 cases, 180 victims were female. The authors found that only 1% of female victims reported having been sexually abused by a female. Reinhart (1987) analyzed case reports between 1983 and 1985 of 189 sexually abused girls who had been identified, evaluated, and referred to a centre for child sexual abuse. Reinhart reported that 2.1% of the perpetrators of sexual abuse against girls were female. Faller (1989) analyzed 226 validated cases where girls had been sexually abused and were subsequently referred to the University of Michigan Project on Child Abuse and Neglect. She found that 1% of victims had been sexually abused by a lone female and 17% had been abused by both males and females.
Self-report studies. Fritz, Stoll, and Wagner (1981) administered a questionnaire to 540 female college students and found that 7.8% of the women reported having been molested as a child. Of the participants reporting child molestation, 10% reported having been molested by a female.
Studies exploring the backgrounds of convicted sex offenders have uncovered histories of sexual abuse by females. Allen (1991) surveyed 65 females convicted of sexual of offences against children. Approximately three quarters of the female offenders (72%) reported they had been sexually abused as children. Of the female offenders who reported being sexually abused, 6% reported sexual abuse by a female.
Comparison of case and self-report studies. Once again, Faller's (1989) case report data, which include lone female perpetrators (1%) and both male and female perpetrators (17%), are inconsistent with the other case report data in this population. While Faller's 1% of lone female perpetrators is within the range of the other case report studies (1-2.1%), the total female involvement in sexual offences (18%) is not. Despite the complexities associated with Faller's data, self-report studies yielded slightly higher prevalence rates than case report studies. However, the discrepancy is not as large as in the other two populations.
When considering the offender and male victim populations, the self-report literature reveals that females are offending at notably higher rates than are presented in the case report literature (see Table 2). In contrast, the female victim population reveals a small gap between self-report and case report studies. The literature review also demonstrates that females appear to be sexually abusing male victims at a higher rate than female victims. Finally, the analysis of prevalence rates points to the underrecognition of female sex offending in case report data.
The discrepancy in case and self-report data may, in part, reflect the nature of these types of data collection. Case report data reflects only those who come into contact with the criminal justice or social service systems. This data may be fraught with inconsistencies given that societal taboos may deter many from reporting female sex offending to the police and child welfare agencies (Elliott, 1993). In contrast, self-report studies are able to tap the hidden source of unreported crime--the so-called "dark figure" (Sparks, Genn, & Dodd, 1977)--and appear to foster more candid disclosures as compared to official methods of compiling information, particularly when studying sensitive issues related to intimate violence (Campbell 2000). While this may be the case, the disparity in case and self-report data highlights the need for a greater understanding of the factors that may work to prevent the recognition of female sex offending in case report data. The concept of traditional sexual scripts, outlined earlier, may provide a suitable framework from which to understand the low rates of female sex offending in official sources.
TRADITIONAL SEXUAL SCRIPTS: A BARRIER TO RECOGNIZING SEXUAL ABUSE BY FEMALES
Although self-report studies indicate that female sexual abuse may be a greater social problem than is demonstrated by official statistics, there continues to be a pervasive societal belief that women are incapable of sexual aggression (Anderson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998). To be "feminine" means to be nurturing, protecting, caring, nonaggressive, and nonsexual. Thinking of a woman as sexually aggressive, or worse, as a sexual offender, is therefore contrary to traditional sexual scripts which are heterosexual and gendered (Byers, 1996). As Larson and Maison (1987) state,
Socially, we, as a culture, find it particularly difficult to think that women would sexually abuse children. Our Judeo-Christian heritage places enormous emphasis on women as warm, nurturing mothers. Furthermore, we are, at best, culturally ambivalent about female sexuality. We struggle with the notion of women-particularly mothers--being sexual at all (p. 30)
The idea that people are unable to see women as potential sexual aggressors has been substantiated in several empirical studies of the general population (Broussard, Wagner, & Kazelskis, (1991); Finkelhor. 1984). For example, Broussard et al. (1991) asked 180 female and 180 male undergraduates their perceptions of the effects of child sexual abuse on the victim. Participants tended to view the interaction of a male victim with a female perpetrator as less representative of child sexual abuse. They also believed that male victims of female offenders would experience less harm than would female victims of male offenders.
Traditional sexual scripts, particularly the societal perception of females as sexually passive and innocent, may play an important role in the underrecognition and underreporting of female sex offending. The perception of females as largely incapable of committing sexual offences is likely to affect whether or not cases involving female perpetrators are identified and treated as sexual abuse. More importantly, however, traditional sexual scripts appear to have penetrated the institutions and groups including the criminal law, victims of female sex offenders, and clinical or social service professionals who work the area of child sexual abuse--that play a crucial role in the official recognition of the problem. The following sections explore not only the ways in which each of these three groups appears to reflect traditional sexual scripts, implicitly negating women's potential for sexual aggression, but also how the reliance on traditional sexual scripts may affect prevalence rates of female sex offending.
Sexual Scripts and the Criminal Law on Sexual Offences
The criminal law is said to have a distinctly social basis: it both shapes and is shaped by the society in which it operates (Comack & Brickley, 1991). This section traces the evolution of laws governing sexual offences in the U.K. and the U.S. particularly with regard to sexual offences committed by females. The analysis reveals that the denial of women as potential sexual aggressors has not only been accepted and affirmed in the beliefs of the general population but has also been cemented in everyday practices of law. Despite recent legal amendments which have sought to eradicate gender specificity in sexual offence laws. Several laws in the U.S. and the U.K. continue to exclude females as possible perpetrators of serious sexual offences. The failure of the law to recognize females as potential sexual offenders may ultimately contribute to the small number of cases reported to official agencies. Laws governing sexual offences in the United Kingdom. The majority of laws governing sexual offences in the U.K. continue to be gender specific in that a victim must be female and a perpetrator must be male (Keenan & Maitland. 1999h Presently, a female cannot be charged with committing rape and a male cannot be a victim of rape. Section 1 (1) of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 provides that:
A man commits rape if (a) he has unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman who at the time of the intercourse does not consent to it: and (b) at the time he knows that she does not consent to the inter course or he is reckless as to whether she consents to it. (Rook & Ward, 1990, p. 24)
Under the current law, a female can only be convicted of aiding or abetting a male to have sexual intercourse with another female knowing that the other female does not consent. As such, the construction of rape within U.K. law precludes the possibility of a female acting as the principal sexual aggressor and a male as a potential victim. Other examples of gender bias are apparent under the current sexual offence laws in the U.K. For example, men and women face different charges if they have sex with underage children with consent. Moreover, only males and not females can be found guilty of indecent exposure (Wintour, 2000). The lack of legal consideration for women as potential sexual aggressors may stem from the popular beliefs that young children (particularly boys) do not need to be protected from the sexual advances of older women and that even if sexual abuse occurs, no great harm is done. As an English Judge in the 1976 case of Upward explained.
It has never been an offence for a woman to have sexual intercourse with a boy. Perhaps for the simple reason that Parliament has never thought it fit to legislate for it, or alternatively it may be that Parliament which passes these Acts, takes the view that no great moral harm is done (as cited in Edwards. 1984. p 115)
Many believe that the gender biases within the English laws pertaining to sexual offences are highly problematic (Keenan & Maitland. 1999). The U.K. Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has recently asserted that the current sexual offence laws are "archaic, incoherent, and discriminatory" (Travis, 2002). In response to such concerns, the British government has proposed the first major overhaul of the law on sexual offences in nearly 50 years (Travis, 2000). The new Sexual Offences Bill. which was introduced in the House of Lords on January 28, 2003. will be debated and amended by both Houses of Parliament. However. despite the major overhaul of the laws and the proposed elimination of some aspects of gender bias, genderbias will remain with regard to the crimes of rape and rape of a child under 13. According to the Sexual Offences Bill. these crimes can only be committed by a male against either a male or a female.
Laws governing sexual offences in the United States. Currently in the U.S.. several states have taws governing sexual offences that reflect a gender bias in that females cannot perpetrate the crime of rape. These states include Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi. and North Carolina. For example, in the statutes of Idaho, rape as it is currently defined can only be perpetrated by a male against a female:
Rape is defined as the penetration, however slight, of the oral, anal or vaginal opening with the perpetrator's penis accomplished with a female under either of the following circumstances ... (Idaho Statutes. 2003a)
To protect males from the crime of rape, the state of Idaho has included in its statutes an offence called male rape. However. the definition of male rape is once again gender specific in that a female is unable to commit rape against a male. The statute on male rape reads as follows:
Male rape is defined as the penetration, however slight, of the oral or anal opening (if another malt:, with the perpetrator's penis, for the purpose of sexual arousal, gratification or abuse, under any of the following circumstances ... (Idaho Statutes, 2003b)
As another example of gender bias. in the state of Missouri. under the categories of forcible rape and attempted forcible rape, a female can be charged with rape for assisting a male in committing rape. but the law maintains that a female cannot commit a rape on her own. The case law in question reads as follows:
(1997) Females can be held guilty of rape where she aids a male in committing the rape, even though she cannot commit a rape individually. Bass v. State, 950 S.W.2d 940 (Mo.App.WD.). (Missouri Revised gravitates 2002)
In contrast to these examples of gender bias, it is important to note that the majority of U.S. state laws governing sexual offences currently reflect a great deal of gender neutrality. Stales that promote gender neutrality in their definitions of sexual offences include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. An example of such gender neutrality can be found ill the statutes of Alaska that define the crime of sexual assault in the first degree. The statute reads,
(a) An offender commits the crime of sexual assault in the first degree if.... (Alaska Statutes, 2002)
It is clear that the U.K. and U.S. have both made positive legal changes in an effort to eradicate gender bias. However, gender bias continues to exist in laws concerning sexual offences, highlighting the ways in which the criminal law sustains and reinforces traditional sexual scripts, implicitly denying women's potential for sexual aggression. Importantly, such gender biases may also provide a partial explanation for the low numbers of female sex offending ill official statistics. Even if a victim comes forward to report a serious sexual offence by a female, the criminal law may not have had in the past or have now the language to represent such a case, nor the political will to prosecute it. This is likely to have an impact on prevalence rates in official data.
Sexual Scripts and Victim Underreporting
Victim underreporting is considered a significant barrier to understanding the extent of child sexual abuse (Fromuth & Conn. 1997). To make a disclosure of child sexual abuse, a child victim must make public an event that likely involves personal shame, fear, or anticipation of negative consequences (Browne & Finkelhor, 1986). In addition, in cases of intrafamilial sexual abuse, victims may experience significant emotional conflict about making disclosures that implicate caretakers or family members and may fear family disruption (Lawson & Chaffin, 1992). This section explores the issue of victim underreporting with regard to sexual abuse by males and females. While there is little doubt that all disclosures of sexual abuse are inherently difficult and that victim reporting rates are generally low regardless of the gender of the perpetrator, there appear to be issues that need special consideration regarding sexual abuse by females that may have an impact on prevalence rates.
Victim reporting of sexual abuse by male perpetrators. Research has demonstrated low reporting rates with regard to sexual abuse by males. Sauzier (1989) reported that 39% of 156 children evaluated at a treatment clinic for sexual abuse by males had [level" disclosed to anyone that alley had been abused: abuse in these cases was discovered "accidentally" more than a year after its onset. Similarly, Lawson and Chaffin (1992) described a sample of children whose sexual victimization by males was confirmed by medical findings. Many of these children had not disclosed the abuse until their medical examinations, and some still denied it even after positive medical diagnosis.
Unfortunately, the difficulty disclosing sexual abuse does not appear to dissipate in adulthood. In fact, the literature on sexual abuse by males has indicated that many adult survivors never disclosed or delayed disclosing their abuse for years, attesting to the extreme difficulty of revealing the secret (Arata. 1998: Russell, 1986: Sauzier, 1989). Smith et al. (2000) sought to gather representative data regarding the length of time women who were raped by males before age 18 delayed prior to disclosing such rapes. Data were gathered from 3,220 Wave II respondents from the National Women's Study (Resnick, Kilpatrick. Dansky, Saunders, & Best, 1993), a nationally representative telephone survey of women's experiences with trauma and mental health. Of these respondents, 288 reported at least one rape prior to their 18th birthday. Smith et al. (2000) found that 28% of child rape victims reported that they had never told anyone about their child rape prior to the interview: 47% did not disclose for over 5 years post-rape.
Victim reporting of sexual abuse by female perpetrators. Similar to sexual abuse by males, studies have found that sexual abuse by females is significantly underreported (Mitchell & Morse, 1998: Johnson & Shrier. 1987). Rosencrans (1997) conducted a self-report study of women and men who were sexually abused by their mothers. The study relied upon participants to come forward with their histories of abuse, and all participants were recruited by announcing the study at conferences or through personal or professional referrals. A far greater number of females than males came forward to participate in the study (93 women vs. 9 men). Rosencrans' work revealed that victims of female-perpetrated sexual abuse. both male and female, are unlikely to report the abuse. She noted that 80% of the women and men in her sample viewed their sexually abusive treatment by their mothers as the "most hidden" aspect of their lives. Rosencrans found that only 3% of the women and none of the men told anyone about the sexual abuse during their childhoods, even though 100% reported that it was damaging.
Importantly, studies have also found that victims who have been sexually abused by both males and females find it more difficult to disclose sexual abuse by females. For example, Sgroi and Sargent (1993) found that all of the adult female survivors interviewed for their study reported that it was harder [or them to acknowledge that they had been sexually abused by a female relative than to acknowledge that they had been physically and/or emotionally abused by their mothers and sexually and/or physically abused by their fathers. All of the female participants reported that the sexual abuse by a mother or sister was the most shameful and damaging form of childhood victimization they had suffered. Study participants found it more difficult to disclose female perpetrated sexual abuse than their other forms of victimization. One survivor noted the following:
It's odd that the (sexual) abuse by my father was not as awful as the (sexual) abuse by my mother. There's something about a mother. When you're small, she should be the first person you go to if you're hurt, the first person tie cuddle you. She should clothe you, feed you and give you physical love and care, as well as emotional support. So when she's the one who abuses, it leads to an even greater especially sense of despair than when your father abuses you (Elliot, 1993. p. 138)
Denov (2003) also found that victims who had experienced sexual abuse by both males and females found it more difficult to discuss and disclose the sexual abuse by females, One male respondent in her study noted,
It's more difficult for me to talk about the [female perpetrated] incest than the incest by my father. It was really hard to come forward and say that I was sexually abused by a woman Those were hard limes for me. (p. 52)
Sgroi and Sargent (1993) and Kendall-Tackett and Simon (1987) have noted that within the context of a therapeutic relationship, victims sexually abused by both males and females are more likely to first disclose childhood sexual abuse by a male perpetrator and may wait until later in the treatment relationship before disclosing sexual abuse by a female perpetrator. Goodwin and DiVasto (1979) cite two cases in which clients initially presented with a complaint of alter-effects of sexual abuse by males and only after the clients had developed sufficient trust in the therapeutic relationship did they reveal that they were abused by their mothers.
These studies are particularly important as they highlight that while all disclosures of sexual abuse are inherently difficult disclosures of female-perpetrated sexual abuse may have an added complexity given that these cases transgress the norm and dell, traditional sexual scripts. Victims of female sex offenders, keenly aware that their experiences challenge traditional perceptions of sexuality and sexual abuse, may be particularly reticent to report abuse by females because they fear hostile reactions to their disclosures including verbal abuse, disbelief, dismissal, and the trivialization of their experiences (Denov, in press). One female victim in Denov's (in press) study who had a history of sexual abuse by both a male and a female noted.
[After being sexually assaulted by a female] I felt I had at: place to go I felt like I couldn't go to a sexual assault centre and say "I've been raped by a woman." I didn't think I would receive respect or attention or if I would be told that that just wasn't so, It's harder to have your story believed if the perpetrator is a woman. It made me feel very alone. (p. 182)
The fear of disclosing sexual abuse by females may be so severe that marly survivors, from a desire to receive help of any sort, have said that their abuser was a man (Longdon, 1993). Elliott (1993). who refers to female sex offending as society's "'last taboo." has noted the fear and anxiety associated with reporting sexual abuse by females because of its defiance of sexual scripts.
Uncovering cases of female sexual abuse has been traumatic. There is a strongly held view that the issue or" female sexual abuse should not be raised publicly, but should only be dealt with in private ... Secrecy, distress, anger, controversy, and tear surround the issue ... secrecy is deemed necessary because of the hostile reaction many have had to the subject of female sexual abuse ... it isn't sale yet. (Elliot. 1993, p. 1, 11)
Societal perceptions of females as sexually harmless and innocent appear to have an impact on victim reporting practices. While disclosures of sexual abuse are difficult regardless of the gender of the perpetrator, there appears to be added complexity to disclosing sexual abuse by females given that it challenges traditional conceptions of sexual abuse. This difficulty with disclosure needs to be considered with regard to prevalence rates on female sex offending. Victim underreporting may prevent an in-depth understanding of the true extent of the problem.
Sexual Scripts and Professional Responses to Sexual Abuse by Females
A final group that appears to be influenced by traditional sexual scripts in relation to female sex offending is clinical and social service professionals who work in the area of child sexual abuse. Such professionals play a pivotal role in the identification and treatment of cases of child sexual abuse. Professionals' approaches to inquiry and investigation+ their reactions to disclosures, and the procedures they use to intervene may have an enormous impact on who is labelled a victim or an offender and. ultimately, what behaviours are identified, reported, and charged as sexual abuse. In this sense, professional attitudes about female perpetrated sexual abuse are likely to have a critical influence on prevalence rates.
The emerging literature on female sex offending has begun to reveal the ambivalent and sometimes dismissive professional responses to allegations of female child sexual abuse at all points in the child welfare system, whether by police officers, psychiatrists, or social workers. For example, in their study of sexual abuse in child care settings, Finkelhor, Williams, and Burns (1988) found that police and prosecutors' responses to females who committed sex acts with children were more ambivalent than their responses to males committing similar acts. Cases involving female perpetrators were less likely to result in arrest or prosecution. The cases that proceeded to court included a disproportionate number of cases in which perpetrators and victims conformed to traditional sexual scripts concerning sexual abuse. The authors suggest that criminal justice professionals may be more comfortable prosecuting, convicting, and punishing those who fit the traditional stereotype of a sex offender, that is, a male.
In a study exploring psychiatrists' and police perspectives on female sex offending, Denov (2001) found that the denial of women as potential sexual aggressors was integral to understanding their accounts and constructions of female sex offending. It appeared that both psychiatrists and police officers made efforts, either consciously or unconsciously. to transform the female sex offender and her offence to realign them with more culturally acceptable notions of female behaviour. This ultimately led to a denial of the problem. Nelson (1994) found that police officers who dealt with eases involving female sex offenders reconstructed the offender and the offence in accordance with a "fantasy model" that was more fitting with conventional images of gender and sexuality. In doing so, the severity of the sexual offence and the impact on the victim were greatly diminished. Nelson outlined one case in which a mother whose 5 year-old son had been sexually abused by a female babysitter was frustrated at the police inaction in charging the female perpetrator. When Nelson questioned a police officer about the case, he responded,
I wish that someone that looked like her (the babysitter) had sexually abused me when I was a kid ... the kid's mother is overreacting because someone popped her kid's cherry. Hell, it's every guy's dream. (Nelson, 1994, p. 74)
Incidentally, no criminal charges were brought against the alleged perpetrator.
Hetherton and Beardsall (1998) identified gender biases in the decisions of social workers and police working in child protection. The authors presented police officers and social workers with identical case vignettes of sexual abuse involving either a male or a female perpetrator. Both pro fessional groups considered that social service involvement and investigation were less warranted when the perpetrator was female, and both groups considered case registration and imprisonment of the male perpetrator more important.
The above research illustrates how traditional sexual scripts and the implicit denial of women's potential for harmful sexual aggression appear to have penetrated the professional realm. Importantly, such professional responses are likely to affect how cases involving female perpetrators are managed and recorded. If professionals perceive females as harmless and largely incapable of committing sexual offences, it is unlikely that such cases will be retained, investigated, and prosecuted by professionals. Ultimately, these cases may elude inclusion in official statistics.
The traditional sexual script of women as incapable of sexual offences appears to have influenced key institutions and groups thai play a role in the official recognition of female sex offending. As reflected in criminal law. in victim reporting practices, and in professional responses to female sex of lending, sexual abuse perpetrated by women is perceived in a gendered context. Because the meaning of the abuse is gendered, so too are the responses to the abuse, reflecting an implicit negation of the problem while simultaneously perpetuating the myth of female innocence with regard to sex offending.
UNDERSTANDING THE MYTH OF INNOCENCE AND ITS IMPACT ON PREVALENCE RATES
It is important to explore why law makers, victims, and professionals, operating in very different contexts, appear to rely on the particular representation of women as sexually innocuous, These groups did not invent such a portrayal of women. Rather, the portrayal reflects one of many cultural belief systems that have historically represented women as sexually passive, innocent, and harmless (Allen, 1987). Traditional themes of women as prototypical victims and as guarantors of idealism, passivity, and virtue have had a consistent presence within the context of broader culture (Elshtain, 1993). It is possible to see how within three very different contexts, law makers, victims, and professionals appear to implicitly draw upon these culturally available representations in their constructions of female sexuality and offending. Without an alternative conceptual framework or narrative through which to understand such cases, the traditional sexual script of women as sexually passive and innocuous provided an efficient means to explain and understand female sexuality and offending.
However, by constructing and portraying females as essentially sexually innocuous, the complexities that are intrinsic to cases of female sexual assault remain unexplored. While such representations serve to maintain the security of our model of the world where women are forever nurturing and maternal, these constructions inhibit the development of any new discourse, insight, or convincing understandings of women who sexually offend, instead, the actions of these women, the source of their offending, and their agency are relegated to simplistic and often inaccurate explanations, or their behaviour is simply overlooked. Ballinger (1996) has argued that even when a female offender attempts to resist being relegated to stereotypical criminal categories (the "'mad" woman, the "bad" woman, or the "'victim") by presenting her own logical explanations of her crimes, she is often disqualified as a speaker and her accounts become muted by "expert" and commonsensical knowledge concerning criminal women. Accordingly, having become a member of a muted group, a female offender will only be heard again if and when she communicates through the dominant modes of expression: as either the mad or bad woman or as the victim.
Arguably, each time a female sex offender raises her "voice," she is reopening the space within which new knowledge and discourse can be produced about women who sexually offend. However, research presented in this paper has shown that each time a female sex offender "speaks," there are explicit attempts by criminal justice and mental health professionals to mute her voice, actions, and responsibility and once again rely upon the "known truths'" about women. The criminal justice responses to female offending which result in a lack of formal sanctions may, at times, be advantageous to women. However, there is a cost and it is a price thai arguably all women pay.(5) Women are relegated to limiting, narrow frames of reference. They lack agency and responsibility for their actions. If women's voices are to be heard, it would be beneficial if they could be heard in all possible forms, whether in compassion, in protest, or in violence. This highlights the need to move beyond traditional sexual scripts and, in relation to explanations of female sex offending, to allow the complexities that surround such cases to be thoughtfully explored.
The pervasive reliance on the traditional sexual scripts of women as sexually harmless is likely to affect the official recognition of the problem. Official statistics on female sex offending which suggest that female offenders account for 1 to 4% of all sexual offences may be more of a reflection of the (gendered) norms and beliefs which appear to shape the criminal law, victim reporting practices, professional decision making, and societal attitudes than a true reflection of the extent of the problem. The low rates of female sex offending in official sources must be considered within this context.
Societal perceptions of females as sexually passive and innocent appear to have an important influence on the criminal law, on victim reporting practices, and on professional attitudes, reflecting an implicit negation of women as potential sexual aggressors. The serious implications of these findings highlight the need for more in-depth research on the issue, particularly in relation to female sex offenders, their victims, and the societal responses to sexual victimization by females. However. while the issue deserves greater attention, cause for panic in searching out the new and previously undetected female sex offender is unwarranted. This is one of the dangers associated with providing attention to a new and underrecognized issue. What is essential, however, is that the possibility of female sexual abuse be considered, particularly by legal scholars and policy makers, and by mental health and child protection professionals who play a crucial role in the official recognition of the problem. It is only through an exploration of all types of sexual abuse that the complexity of the problem can be further understood.
Table 1. Literature Review Summary on the Prevalence of Female Sex Offending Author/type of study Sample Canadian Centre for 5.218 males Justice Stats 80 females (1999/00) Alleged perpetrators charged in 7 provincial courts, 2 territorial courts Case report and 2 Superior Courts in Cananda Faller (1989) 87 male children 226 female children Case report Validated cases of sexual abuse referred to the University of Michigan Interdisciplinary Project on Child Abuse and Neglect between 1979 and 1986. Home Office, UK 5042 offenders found guilty or (2001) cautined in all courts of England and Wales Case report Approx. 5000 males Approx. 100 females Pierce & Pierce 25 male children (av. age 8.6) (1985) 180 female children (av. age 10.6) Cases of sexual abuse reported to a Case Report child abuse hotline between 1976 and 1979 Reinhart (1987) 189 male children 189 female children Case Report Cases of sexual abuse reported (1152) to the Davis Medical center in Sacramento (1983-85). The 189 males reporesent all the cases involving male children. The female sample was constructed for comparison purposes from the sample of female victims. Roane (1992) 77 male children (av. age 8) Case report Randomly selected from 125 male cases of sexual abuses from the children's protective service agency in Florida for the years 1985-89. Cases involved sexual assault by acquaintance only (no strangers). Snyder (2000) 57,762 victim-identified offenders from the 1991-1996 files of the National Case report Incident-Based Reporting System. U,S Department 18,356 males (3,079 under 18) of Justice (2002) 220 females (40 under 18) Alleged perpetrators arrested Case report Reported by 9,511 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. U.S Department 57,935 males (11,422 under 18) of Justice (2002) 5,062 females (959 under 18) Alleged perpetrators arrested Case report Reported 9,511 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Allen (1990) 75 males (36% sexually abused) 65 females (76% sexually abused) Male sex offenders drawn from the Iowa Child Abuse Registries and treatment porgrams for sexually abusive women in the Minneapolis, Minnesota. area. Fritz, Stoll, & Wagner 412 males (20 molested) (1981) 540 females (42 molested) Psychology college students at the Self-report University of Washington voluntarily taking part in a survey. Fromuth & Buckhart 253 males (15% sexually abused) 329 males (13% sexually abused) College students (av. age 20) from a midwestern and southwestern U.S. university voluntarily participating in a survey. Fromuth & Conn 546 females (22 offenders) (1997) College students (aged 17-21) from a large southwestern U.S. university Self-report voluntarily participating in a survey. Fromuth, Burkhart, 253 males & Webb-Jones 329 males (1991) (of 582 subjects: 16 offenders) College students (ave. age 20) from a Self-report midewestern and southwestern U.S. university voluntarily participating in a survey. Groth (1979) 348 males (106 vicitimized) Offenders convicted of sexual assault Self-report and referred to a security treatment centre for diagnostic observation. Mendel (1995) 124 males (av. age 36) Self-identified survivors of childhood Self-report sexual abuse undergoing treatment and recruited through therapists responding to a mailed questionnaire. Author/type of study Definition Canadian Centre for Sexual assault: aggravated sexual assault Justice Stats sexual, assault with a weapon, causing (1999/00) bodily harm, threats to a third party Case report Faller (1989) Sexual abuse: There was an age differntial of atleast 5 years between the victim and the Case report abuse involved sexual contact--fondling of the intimate parts, oral-genital sexual contact, or penetration fo the vagina or anus by finger(s), penis, or object Home Office, UK Sexual offences include buggery, indecent (2001) assault on a male, gross indecency between males, rape of a female, rape of a male, Case report indecent assault of a female, unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13, unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 16, incest, procuration, abduction, bigamy, soliciting or importuning by a man, abuse of position of trust, gross indecency with a child. Pierce & Pierce Sexual abuse: Defined by the state protective (1985) agency and includes xposure, fondling, masturbation, intercourse, and attempted Case Report intercourse. Reinhart (1987) Sexual abuse divided into 5 categories: Non-contact, oral-genital contact, genital Case Report contact, anal contact, anal penetration Roane (1992) Sexual abuse includes: fondling of child, fellatio of child, fellatio of adult, Case report anal/penile penetration of child, attemted penetration, anal penetration of adult by child, exposure to pornography, required to witness sexual activity, cunnilingus of adult, vaginal intercourse, masturbation of adult by child. Snyder (2000) Forcible sex offences: Any sexual act directed against another person, forcible and/or Case report againsts that person's will; or not forcibly or against that person's will where the victim is incapable of giving consent because of his/her temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity. U,S Department Forcible rape: The carnal knowledge of a of Justice (2002) female forcibly and against her will. Included are rapes by force and attempts or assaults to Case report rape. Statutory offences are excluded. U.S Department Sex offences (Excluding forcible rape, of Justice (2002) prostitution and commercialized vice): Statutory rape and offences against chastity, Case report common decency, morals, and the like. Attempts are included. Allen (1990) Sexual abuse: exhibitionism, voyeurism, touching, fondling, oral intercourse, sexual (vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, and bestiality Fritz, Stoll, & Wagner Molestation: At least one sexual encounter (1981) with a post-adolescent before the subject reached puberty. Sexual encounter was defined Self-report as an instance of physical contact of an overly sexual nature. Fromuth & Buckhart Abusive behaviour included both contact (e.g., fondling, intercourse) and non-contact (e.g., sexual invitation, exhibitionaism) experiences. Age criterion: if the student was 12 years old or younger, the partner had to be at least 16 years old and at least 5 years older; if the student was aged 13-16, the partner had to be at least 10 years older. Fromuth & Conn Sexual abuse: contact experiences included (1997) kissing and hugging in a sexual way, fonlding intercourse and oral-genital contact. Self-report Non-contact experiences included invitation or request to do something sexual, child showing his or her genitals to offender exposing genitals to child. For victims under 13, the offender had to be at least 5 years older than the victim, and for victims 13-16 years of age, the offender had to be at least 10 years older than the victim. Fromuth, Burkhart, Sexual abuse: contact experieces included & Webb-Jones kissing and hugging in a sexual way, fondling, (1991) intercourse, and oral-genital contact. Non-contact experiences included an invitation Self-report or request to do something sexual, child showing genitals to the offender, the offender exposing genitals to the child. For victims 12 years old or younger, the perpetrator had to be at least 16 years old and at least 5 years older than the victim. For victims 13-16 years old, the perpetrator had to be at least 10 years older than the victim. Groth (1979) Sexual trauma: Occurring during developmental years (ages 1-15) and includes forcible sexual Self-report assault, sex-stress situation (anxiety reslting from family reaction to the discovery of the subject's involvement in sexual activity), sex-pressure (a person in authority enticing or misleading the child into sexual activity), witnessing upsetting sexual activities (witnessing and being forced to take part in sexual assault), suffering sexual injury or physiological hadicap. Mendel (1995) Sexual activity before the age of 16: anything from 'playing doctor' to sexual intercourse, Self-report anything that the participant perceived as 'sexual'. While Mendel differentiated between activities that were perceived