If you hear the words ‘sex offender’, chances are that you will immediately think of a male perpetrator.
And the media spotlight has certainly been focused of late on cases involving males arising out of the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse.
But while the majority of sex offenders are men, it is estimated that females actually make up five per cent of this group – and very little is known about them.
This blog takes a look at the numbers of female sex offenders, their traits, the broad categories they fall into, and some of the issues surrounding the lack of research into this group.
The number of female sex offenders thought to be increasing
While little is known about female sex offenders, it is thought that their numbers may be on the rise.
Female sex offenders were the focus of Queensland Police’s Youth Technology and Virtual Communities Conference, held on the Gold Coast in late April.
At the conference, the Queensland Police unit responsible for tracking down sex offenders in that state reported that the number of arrests of female sex offenders was increasing. Of the 172 people arrested on sexual assault charges by the unit in the past year, three were female.
But there are so few studies on female sex offenders, and so little documentation, that it is difficult to work out what is actually going on in this area.
Traits of female sexual offenders
In a research summary released in 2014, the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (ACSSA) detailed some of the common traits of female sex offenders:
- Many are victims of child sexual abuse.
- Many have mental health issues.
- Many abuse drugs and alcohol.
- They are more likely to abuse someone they already know.
- Male coercion is a factor in offending.
Types of sex offences
Female sex offenders can be put into a number of different categories, including a teacher-lover scenario, where a female teacher abuses a male student and views it as an affair rather than abuse.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is the case of teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and student Vili Fualaau.
Fualaau was 12 when Letourneau, then aged 34, commenced a sexual relationship with him. She was eventually sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for statutory rape. Letourneau was released after just 80 days, but violated her parole through contact with Fualaau. She was sent back to prison for the full term. Letourneau, who already had four children with her then husband, had another two children by Fualaau during this time.
America, and indeed the rest of the world, was transfixed and scandalised by Letourneau’s conduct. At all times, she insisted that the pair had a special bond and that they were in love. She never conceded that she had been a sex predator, and that Fualaau was her victim.
Letourneau was released from prison in 2004, and she married Fualaau in 2005.
There is also the offender who was abused as a child, and then abuses her own children or those of friends and family.
The recent case of Theresa Goddard partially illustrates this. Goddard was a Canadian who believed she had met a father with whom she could have more children so that they could sexually abuse them. She described this as her “incest family.”
She had met the man online and had exchanged many messages with him outlining her plans. The online chats had been part of a sting operation by US police however, and Goddard is now serving 10 years in prison.
Another category is male-coerced abuse, in which the female abuser perpetrates the abuse with a male, with whom she is often in a relationship. We saw this in the case of Britain’s two worst serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West, and their infamous House of Horrors. The Wests abducted, tortured, raped and murdered at least 12 women, burying many of their bodies in and around their house.
Other categories of female sex offenders are those who experiment with younger male victims (for example a babysitter and her charge) and women who are psychologically disturbed.
The issues surrounding the lack of research
The ACSSA summary makes the point that a lack of research means that there is limited knowledge about the kind of offences that are committed, and about the motivation for committing those offences.
Sexual abuse by a man is often seen as a power play – a violent act. But because there is a general social unwillingness to view women as having the capacity to abuse or to inflict violence, women are often perceived to be incapable of committing sexual offences. Perhaps this is because women are generally viewed as nurturers.
There is also a perception that sexual abuse by a woman is less harmful than sexual abuse by a man – that if a man or boy is abused by a woman, then he probably enjoyed it. This has led to reluctance of male victims to report abuse.
The effects of female sexual abuse
According to the ACSSA, studies have shown that victims of sexual abuse by a woman have over time developed a deep mistrust of women in general. Other effects are similar to those reported by victims of male sexual abuse. They include:
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Social isolation.
- Drug and alcohol abuse.
Where to from here?
Because of the minimal research available, very little is known about prevention strategies, but the research summary suggests providing more support to victims of child sexual abuse, especially females. Also, more effort should be made to educate psychologists, counsellors and other human service professionals about female sex offenders.
Sexual abuse committed by female offenders is clearly serious issue, with the impact on victims being significant and long-lasting. Although society continues to struggle with the idea that women can be perpetrators, more research is required to get an accurate picture of the problem and the best way forward.