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Female-perpetrated sexual abuse:

Redefining the construct of sexual abuse and challenging beliefs about human sexuality

Within the past twenty years, the incidence of child sexual abuse jumped from just one in a million to one in four or five children (Hastings, 2000). In this time, the conception of female children as victims of inappropriate male sexual behavior has dominated the research and consequently, our understanding of child sexual abuse. However, recent research consistently reveals that females account for about one in four offenders (Pearson, 1997), and emerging research often challenges the current construct of perpetrators (Fitzroy, 1997), and highlights the special concerns of their victims. Thus, increased attention on female-female sexual abuse is important not only to provide intervention and support for perpetrators and survivors, but also to increase our overall understanding of human sexuality and child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse is a challenging concept to define. Child abuse in general is defined as “proscribed, proximate and preventable” human action that causes harm to children (Finkelhor and Korbin, 1988, p.3). Child sexual abuse has been explained in terms of domination and control (Maltz, 1991) with the aim being sexual gratification (Mitchell and Morse, 1998). Defining sexual abuse by females necessitates an expanded definition as “sexual abuse can occur without a penis” (Rosencrans, 1997, p. 20). Lawson (1993) proposed that sexual abuse by a female perpetrator against a male or female victim may include; meeting emotional or sexual needs through a child, criticizing a child’s sexuality, exposing a child to inappropriate sexual content such as pornography, and direct physical contact including genital stimulation, and digital penetration. Another important element is the perpetrator’s intent (Rosencrans, 1997), which is partly based on the victim’s perception of the experience.

The two most comprehensive published studies concerning female-female sexual abuse were conducted by Rosencrans (1997) and Mitchell and Morse (1998), with 93 and 80 participants respectively. Both consisted of extensive questionnaires completed by survivors which included information about their abuse experiences, families of origin, and effects of the abuse. Rosencrans (1997) focused exclusively on mother-daughter sexual abuse, although the majority of the identified perpetrators included by Mitchell and Morse (1998) were also mothers. Other perpetrators included; Grandmothers, sisters, Aunts, nurses, baby-sitters, teachers, nuns, therapists, cult members, Sunday school teachers, and scout leaders.

Sexually abusive acts that were reported by survivors of female-female abuse included, but were not limited to; digital penetration, the insertion of objects into the vagina or anus, being touched, or fondled or being made to touch or fondle another, oral sex, unnecessary enemas, and being forced to watch another bathe, dress, and/or masturbate (Rosencrans, 1997; Mitchell & Morse, 1998). Rosencrans (1997) also included being watched against her will while bathing, dressing, or masturbating as an act that was considered abusive by the victim.

Survivors of female-female abuse report that their perpetrator appeared "normal", and were sometimes respected members of their communities (Mitchell & Morse, 1998; Rosencrans, 1997). This may be one reason that their crime is underreported. Other reasons include; a lack of protection by physically or emotionally absent fathers (Rosencrans, 1997), the younger age of the victims as compared to male-perpetrated abuse, and the rarity of the offender seeking treatment (Jennings, 1993). Additionally, because females often fulfill the care taking role, female child molesters may abuse a child under the guise of appropriate care (Jennings, 1993; Mitchell & Morse, 1998; Rosencrans, 1997).

The underreporting of female-female sexual abuse can also be explained in a larger cultural context in which this form of abuse is largely unacknowledged. The feminist community, often at the forefront of bringing attention to violence against women, has almost exclusively focused on males as the perpetrators of sexual violence towards females (Fitzroy, 1997). The feminist explanation for this male-female dynamic has been explained in terms of male socialization and culture (Finkelhor, 1986), with an emphasis on male power and aggression (Elliot, 1993). Female perpetrated sexual abuse against other females challenges current beliefs about sexual behavior and gender, including the definition of sexual behavior in male-female terms, and the belief that women largely do not initiate sexual acts (Rosencrans, 1997; Hastings, 2000).

Many theories have been formulated to explain adult sexual behavior towards children. Finkelhor and Araji (1986) created a four-factor model to explain pedophilia, which provided both individual and environmental explanations for adult sexual behavior or thoughts involving children. Emotional congruence relates to a perpetrator’s ability and need to relate sexually with a child due to immaturity, low self-esteem, or poor social relationships. It may also be used as a way to reclaim power that may have been lost as a child through traumatic experiences. Sexual arousal refers to the physiological response elicited by sexual thoughts or actions with children, and can partly be the result of conditioning from earlier traumatic experiences. Blockage refers to an inability to meet sexual or emotional needs through adult heterosexual relationships, for developmental or situational reasons. Disinhibition can be exacerbated by environmental stressors and personal factors, such as poor impulse control.

When first theorized, the model by Finkelhor and Araji (1986) presented a more comprehensive model of pedophilia than had previously been offered, and is still widely referenced. However, it was formulated in reference to male perpetrators, as evidenced by the words “adult”, and “perpetrator” being used interchangeably with the words “men” and “he”, and other masculine pronouns. Because of this male-oriented model, an exploration of the similarities and differences between male and female perpetrators is warranted.

Similarly to males, female perpetrators may be previous victims of sexual abuse, perhaps acting out, or attempting to reclaim power, over their own abuse experiences as a child (Rosencrans, 1997). The female may also be developmentally immature, as seen in maternal perpetrators who often put their own needs before their daughter's, and seek emotional support from their victims, often resulting in a reversal of roles (Mitchell & Morse, 1998; Rosencrans, 1997). They may also be situationally blocked from pursuing a sexual relationship with an adult, as survivors viewed their fathers or mothers' partners as emotionally or physically absent, which may have been felt by the abusing mothers as well.

The “sexual arousal” component of the Finkelhor and Araji (1986) model may not apply well to female perpetrators, as females, more than males, may sexually violate their victims without being aroused (Hastings, 2000), and may be abusing more in response to hatred of their own body or femininity (Rosencrans, 1997; Fitzroy, 1997). A female perpetrator may also be unclear about proper boundaries, and view the daughter as a physical extension of her own body (Rosencrans, 1977; Fitzroy, 1997). Finally, the possibility exists that women, and especially mothers, may not know when they are being inappropriately sexual with their children, as guidelines of sexual and non-sexual touch between females and children, is not always clear (Hastings, 2000).

In terms of a perpetrator's characteristics, a literature review conducted by Jennings (1993), found that certain differences exist between male and female child molesters, including that many more female abusers sexually abuse with another person, are more likely to know their victims, tend to be less violent in their abuse, and abuse their victims for a shorter period of time. Previous research has also suggested that female child molesters are typically teenagers or young women engaging in exploratory sexual activity (Rosencrans, 1997).

Matthews (1993) categorized three types of female child molesters; male coerced, teacher/lover and predisposed. The male-coerced perpetrators are physically or emotionally forced to participate in the sexual abuse of a child. The teacher/lover type is generally in a position of power, and views her sexual relationship with the child romantically. The predisposed type experienced childhood trauma which contributed to their abuse of a child. These categories are based on females with either male or female victims, and explanations for the abuse are more attributed to situational or environmental aspects, than to individual characteristics.

Attributing the abusive acts to aspects outside of the individual may be related to a more sympathetic view of female perpetrators. According to Matthews (1993), female child molesters typically share the following traits; shame, low self-esteem, impaired empathy, and anger, which is comprised of underlying pain and fear. She reports that they are less likely to initially deny the abuse, and more willing to take responsibility than their male counterparts. Matthews (1993) suggests that a shorter prison sentence of 45 days to 6 months for female offenders usually has a positive effect, and allows the women to continue with their lives and tend to the problems which caused them to abuse.

Research on female child molesters is inconclusive at best, and often varying and unrepresentative, as it places all types of female molesters into the same study, and does not differentiate between their male or female victims (Jennings, 1993). This may lead to inaccurate generalizations about abusers and their victim's experiences. More recently, focused studies with large samples of survivors of female-female abuse have been conducted (eg. Rosencrans, 1997; Mitchell & Morse, 1998), and often contradict the existing generalization concerning female child molesters (Jennings, 1993; Matthews, 1993).

Rosencrans (1997) found that the mother perpetrators were more likely to be married and older, and abused their daughter an average of 8.5 to 10 years. Forty-nine percent of survivors reported that their sexual abuse was also physically violent, with 30% choosing the highest degree of violence when asked to rate it on a five-point scale. The length of time that the abuse occurred, as well as the violence of the female perpetrators was also supported by Mitchell and Morse (1998).

The element of violence is a point of contention between studies focusing on female molesters and those focusing on survivors of female-female abuse. The reports by survivors seem more compelling, as they are based on the experiences of larger samples of survivors of female-female abuse. It is also important to note that female violence against others is not a new phenomenon, as women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, and commit more sibling, elder, and physical child abuse than men (Pearson, 1997). Understanding the extent of a woman’s ability to be violent has societal significance, as 62% of prison inmates have been abused by males and females, and men who commit domestic violence were abused by more women than men in childhood (Pearson, 1997).

The conclusions about female child molesters (Matthews, 1993; Jennings, 1993) may also be more unreliable because they are formulated based on small samples of women who have already been convicted and mandated to attend treatment programs. This may not only affect the characteristics they display, but these groups of women may also be unrepresentative of perpetrators of female-female sexual abuse in general, who largely are not seen in treatment because the majority of their victims remain silent (Rosencrans, 1997), or are not believed if they do report their perpetrator (Mitchell & Morse, 1998). Finally, the higher level of responsibility reportedly taken by female perpetrators for their actions must be considered in terms of their contrition which occurs within the context of mandated treatment, and the overall rarity of them seeking treatment on their own.

The secrecy surrounding mother-daughter sexual abuse is reflected in survivor reports that the abuse was the most hidden aspect of their lives, and that they had never spoken to another survivor of this form of abuse (Rosencrans, 1997). Those survivors who did try to relay their experiences, felt marginalized not only by society, but by survivors of male-female sexual abuse as well (Fitzroy, 1997). This may partly be due to a general disbelief that this form of abuse occurs, or the conception of female abusers as more gentle or just mistaken in their actions.

In terms of a survivor’s support system, Rosencrans (1997) reported that none of the survivors had spoken to their partners or children about their abusive experiences, and only 3% had told their therapist about the abuse, despite 81% of them currently being in therapy. In contrast, 83% of the survivors in Mitchell and Morse (1998) had told their therapist about the abuse, and 36% had told their spouses. This discrepancy may be explained by differences in sample recruitment, although the secrecy of mother-daughter (Rosencrans, 1997) versus female-female (Mitchell & Morse, 1998) sexual abuse may warrant further research, as well as differences along other dimensions.

The effects of female-female abuse on a woman’s sexual experiences in adulthood may be very similar to those effects felt by other survivors of sexual abuse. According to Maltz (1994), some common issues affecting survivors of sexual abuse include; maintaining intimate relationships, a fear of sex, viewing sex as obligatory, intense negative reactions to touch, difficulty with arousal and sensation, and frequent dissociation. They may also have sexual thoughts and fantasies that are disturbing, and engage in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors.

Survivors of female-female sexual abuse may have additional concerns unique to females with female perpetrators. This includes ambivalence about gender identity and gender roles. Survivors may have difficulty developing their identity as women and relating to other woman, while also feeling societal pressure to conform to “normal” feminine roles (Mitchell & Morse, 1998). They may also feel that their ability to be a healthy woman was ruined by their abusive experiences (Rosencrans, 1997). For those survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse, the dualities of their mothers as sources of both life and “potential death” (Fitzroy, 1997) as well as identifying with their abuser as a woman and mother (Rosencrans, 1997) can be the source of great pain and anguish.

Survivors of female-female sexual abuse may also experience uncertainty about their sexual orientation. In contrast to statistical norms regarding sexual orientation, Rosencrans (1997) reported that survivors identified themselves as 42% heterosexual, 36% homosexual and 10% bisexual. The survivors included in Mitchell and Morse (1997) identified themselves as 51% heterosexual, 18% homosexual, 11% bisexual, and 10% nonsexual or unknown. Whether or not these findings were due to uncertainty about sexual orientation, more openness in responses, or influenced by female-female sexual abuse experiences, would warrant more careful examination, and be a helpful addition to the current body of knowledge concerning the development of sexual orientation.

Finally, survivors of mother-daughter sexual abuse may have more difficulty than survivors of only female-female abuse in terms of individuation, or developing a sense of self. Although blurred boundaries are a normal part of the mother-child relationship during infancy through the birth process and breastfeeding (Fitzroy, 1997), mother perpetrators continue to violate their daughter’s boundaries, keeping mother and daughter enmeshed (Rosencrans, 1997). As a result, daughters may surrender to their mother (Mitchell & Morse, 1998), and have no sense of themselves as their own person, physically, emotionally, and sexually (Fitzroy, 1997). This dynamic is potentially dangerous, as these daughters become mothers and risk repeating this cycle with their own daughters. This potential is also reflected in survivor’s own concerns that they will also abuse children (Rosencrans, 1997), especially if they view themselves as just an extension of their own mother.

The topic of female-female sexual abuse is one that has largely been ignored when developing the constructs related to child sexual abuse. Females and mothers as perpetrators of sexual abuse challenge researchers and the general public to reexamine currently held beliefs about feminine roles and what constitutes sexual abuse, by examining how our sexuality is expressed and experienced through more than just the male-female act of intercourse, or other more common sexual acts. Additionally, focusing on female perpetrators forces researchers to expand the construct of the child molester beyond the male offender model, which may also increase or redefine our understanding of male perpetrators. Finally, and most importantly, female-female abuse is a topic which needs to be researched and spoken about, so that survivors can receive the support, information and validation that they deserve, and little girls who are brave enough to tell, may one day be believed.


References

Elliot, M. (1993). Female sexual abuse of children. New York: Guilford Press.

Finkelhor, D., & Korbin, J. E. (1988). Child abuse as an international issue. Child Abuse and Neglect, 12(1), 3-23.

Finkelhor, D., & Araji, S. (1986). Explanations of pedophilia: a four-factor model. The Journal of Sex Research, 22(2), p. 145-161.

Fitzroy, L. (1997). Mother/daughter rape: a challenge for feminism. In Cook, S., & Bessant, J. (Eds). Women’s encounters with violence: Australian experiences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Jennings, K.T. (1993). Female Child Molesters: a review of the literature. In Elliot, M. (Ed.) Female sexual abuse of children, 219-234. New York: The Guilford Press.

Lawson, C. (1993). Mother-son sexual abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 1, 261-269.

Maltz, W. (1994). "Sex therapy with survivors of sexual abuse." Moving Forward, 3(1), Retrieved from the World Wide Web: http://movingforward.org/v3n1-professionals.html

Matthews, J.K. (1993). Working with female sexual abusers. In Elliot, M. (Ed.) Female sexual abuse of children, 57-73. New York: The Guilford Press.

Mitchell, J.M., & Morse, J. (1998). From victims to survivors: reclaimed voices of women sexually abused in childhood by females. PA: Taylor & Francis Group.

Pearson, P. (1997). When she was bad: violent women and the myth of innocence. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc.

Rosencrans, B. (1997). The last secret: daughters sexually abused by mothers. VT: Safer Society Press.