Female Child Sexual Abusers: A Critical Review of the Literature

Hollida Wakefield, M.A. and Ralph Underwager, Ph.D.*

Awareness about female sexual abuse perpetrators has increased in recent years.  There is a great range in the estimated frequently from different studies and the definition of sexual abuse, sample selected, and methodology must be considered.  Taken as a whole, the literature indicates that although most sexual abusers are males, child sexual abuse by females does occur and may be less rare than was once believed.  There are widely different circumstances under which women sexually abuse children and these circumstances may often differ from those causing men to do so.  Many studies depict female abusers as socially isolated, loners, alienated, coming from abusive backgrounds and having emotional problems, although most are not psychotic.  However, some of the recent literature is likely to have included cases of false accusations which gives a misleading picture of the frequency of female sexual abuse and the characteristics of such women.

Most sexual offenders are men.  Men commit most of the aberrant and deviant sexual behaviors such as rape, child molestation and exhibitionism.  More males have paraphilias such as frotteurism, voyeurism. fetishism, coprophilia, necrophilia, and sexual sadism.  There are more male transsexuals and transvestites.  The DSM-III-R (1) reports that except for sexual masochism, in which the sex ratio is estimated to be 20 males for each female, the other paraphilias are practically never diagnosed in females, although some cases have been reported.

Therefore, until recently, women have not been viewed as sexual abuse perpetrators except in unusual circumstances.  Women who did sexually abuse children were considered seriously disturbed.  Maternal incest in particular has been believed to be extremely rare (2-5).

However, currently there is increased interest in women as perpetrators of child sexual abuse and some researchers suggest it is more common than previously believed.  But there is still considerable disagreement and confusion about just how often women sexually abuse children, what type of woman is a sexual abuser, and under what circumstances the abuse occurs.

METHODOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

Definitions of Sexual Abuse

The differences in rates of abuse by females and the characteristics of such women reported in the literature are likely to be due to the different definitional and methodological framing of the research questions along with the nature of the sample used.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the studies report such different results.

Finkelhor and Russell (6) note that some studies contain definitional problems which inflate the statistics concerning female perpetrators.  For example, the National Incidence Study figures suggest that almost half of the sexual experiences of children included a female perpetrator.  However, according to the study definitions, a caretaker could be a perpetrator if she "permitted acts of sexual contact to occur."  Therefore, if a mother neglected a child while a father sexually abused the child, the mother would be listed as a sexual abuse perpetrator.  Also, a mother could be listed as an active perpetrator if she did not adequately supervise the child's voluntary sexual activities.  The study by the American Humane Association had similar problems.  When the data were reanalyzed to exclude these types of cases, the figures suggested that 14 percent of perpetrators against boys and six percent of perpetrators against girls were females acting alone.

Travin, Cullin and Protter (7) observe that the concepts sexual abuse and sexual offense are often confused.  Although these terms are often used interchangeably, sexual abuse involves a sexual act perpetrated against an individual without consent, whereas sexual offense describes the same behavior but denotes it as a criminal act.

There are significant variations in definitions of sexual abuse in the literature.  The definitions vary in terms of their criteria and in their specificity.  They differ in the inclusion of noncontact along with contact.  Some specify an upper age limit along with a minimum age discrepancy while others do not.  Some rely on the respondent's perception of whether the event was wanted or unwanted.

Is it sexual abuse when a child catches a glimpse of an exhibitionist?  There is disagreement over this.  Most people would not consider it abuse if a child is shown a Playboy magazine by an older playmate.  But what if a young child is shown hard core pornography?  Does a mother sleeping with her child constitute sexual abuse in the absence of sexual touching?  What if the child is a teenager who becomes aroused by this?  Most people would agree that it is sexual abuse if a 19-year-old woman has sexual contact with a 6-year-old boy, but not if the boy is 16.  However, what if the boy is 14?  What if the 14-year-old boy initiates the experience with the woman and later views the experience as positive?  Some of the retrospective surveys of childhood sexual experiences include reports of sexual contacts with older women which were perceived as positive by the respondents and were initiated by the respondents.  How such issues are handled will effect the information obtained.

Retrospective Surveys

Retrospective studies are a common source of information about the prevalence of sexual contact between women and children.  Such studies therefore suffer from the difficulties of all such retrospective data.  Finkelhor (8) notes that "it is well-established in survey research that the validity of reports declines with the distance from the event."  Memory is basically a reconstructive process, and what is recalled depends upon our current beliefs and feelings (9-11).  We literally "make up stories" about our lives and reality (9) and may even come to believe in memories of events that never happened (11).  Surveys using retrospective reports do not have external verification of the information provided by the respondents.

Raphael, Cloitre and Dohrenwend (12) report a study comparing ten months of concurrent monthly recall with a final retrospective recall using event checklists.  The level of concordance was so low they conclude "... the results are devastating for the accuracy of reporting event categories."  Gerlsma, Emmelkamp and Arrindell (13), in their meta-analysis of parental rearing styles, comment on the dangers in retrospective data and discuss false accounts and fabricated accounts.  Green and Hall (14) in discussing quantitative methods and dependent variables describe retrospective self-reports as especially tenuous.

It is generally assumed that this difficulty will result in underestimates of the actual rate of sexual abuse because people will have repressed their memories or will be hesitant to talk about them.  But retrospective data can also result in overestimation if some individuals, as a result of the media attention to sexual abuse or misguided psychotherapy, become convinced they have been sexually abused.  Ross (15) suggests that a person may come to attribute to the parents those behaviors now believed to be the cause of the individual's current state and generate a revisionist history to justify the present.

The accuracy of what is reported in a questionnaire to an interviewer will depend upon the way the questions are worded, the manner by which the interview is administered, and the skills of the interviewer.  The data will be influenced by the population sampled, the sampling techniques, and the response rates of those in the sample (16).

For example, Okami (17) observes that Russell (18), in her survey of incest history in women, carefully selected and trained her interviewers to be sympathetic to victims, to know how to ask questions to encourage disclosure, and to disbelieve "myths" such as a belief that sexual contact between an adult and child could ever be seen as benign.  Okami states that this ideological approach distorted the results and this is why Russell reported prevalence rates for incest that have greatly exceeded those in other studies.

Okami (17) also describes Finkelhor's (17a) instructions in his 1979 survey of childhood sexual experiences in college students: "Some of these (childhood sexual experiences) are very upsetting and painful and some are not" and notes that this sets the stage for negative reports.  He wonders what Finkelhor's reaction would be if some other investigator had used the instructions: "Some of these experiences are very delightful and pleasurable and some are not."  Also, when the subject marked an experience as neutral, the designation was graded by coders as negative if there was an age discrepancy of more than five years.  Okami gives several other examples to illustrate his assertion that much of the current victimology-based research employs polemical devices and research methods that blur the line between social science and social criticism.  Because of this, he maintains, empirical truths are ignored or distorted in the interests of furthering the cause.

Sample Characteristics

The major difficulty with studies based upon specialized samples is that they are not representative of cases which did not come to the attention of authorities or where the adult did not seek help from a mental health professional.  Many of the retrospective surveys use college students.  However, college students are unlike noncollege students in many ways and information from this population may not be representative of other groups (19).

Several studies use prison populations, both for studies of adults who were perpetrators of sexual abuse and for adults who were childhood victims.  Finkelhor and Russell (6) note that most sexual offenders are never reported and the number of those who are caught and convicted and end up in treatment is even smaller.  This group, therefore, is unlikely to be representative of sex offenders in general.  Also, prisoners who report childhood sexual molestation are atypical in several respects, including socioeconomic status, education and sociopathy.  In addition, there is evidence that convicted sexual offenders in treatment are likely to report childhood sexual abuse when it may have never happened (20).

Clinical samples also present problems.  Any generalization of dynamics and characteristics based on a clinician's experience is limited to victims or perpetrators who have sought therapy.  In addition, clinical experience and clinical impressions form a notoriously unreliable base for drawing conclusions (21, 22).  Therefore, although clinical and case studies provide a beginning point for developing hypotheses and therefore contribute to the knowledge in the field, their limitations must be kept in mind.

The Finkelhor Sexual Abuse In Day Care Study

David Finkelhor and his colleagues (23, 24), in a national study of 270 day care cases, report that 40 percent of the perpetrators were women.  These women tended to be intelligent, educated, highly regarded in their communities, and not likely to have a history of known deviant behavior.  Many of these apparently normal women were alleged to have engaged in extremely deviant, low frequency behavior, including oral-genital penetration, urolagia and coprophagia, and ritualistic, mass abuse.

This study has received both popular and professional attention and it is likely that it will be cited in the future as evidence that apparently ordinary women are sexually abusing children.  Finkelhor and his colleagues recommend that parents and licensing and law enforcement officials be educated to view females as potential sexual abusers.  Coleman (25) gives an example of how, shortly after its publication, the study was cited in a California Grand Jury as support for vigorous prosecution of such cases.

There are significant difficulties with the methodology of this study.  Although the authors required the abuse to be "substantiated," their definition of substantiation was whether any one of the individuals assigned to investigate the report believed that abuse was real, despite whoever else may have thought it was false.  They say "our way of defining substantiation is only a way of approximating the truth ...  Whenever we refer to cases, the reader should not automatically assume that we, or anybody else, knows with absolute certainty that these are cases of abuse rather than mistaken allegations" (23).  Therefore, their sample includes an indeterminate number of cases which ended in dismissals or acquittals, or convictions that were later reversed.  For example, the McMartin case, which later ended in dropped charges and acquittals, is included.

Descriptions of ritualistic abuse are presented as fact in spite of the c6mplete lack of any corroborating evidence for such allegations (26).  Finkelhor et al. remark that the abusers, 40 percent of whom were women, did not fit any stereotypes about sexual abusers.  They note the "disturbing" fact that some parents "failed to believe their own children's allegations" and claim because very few staff members were the source of disclosures, there was sometimes an actual coverup of the abuse (24).

No conclusions whatsoever can be drawn about the characteristics of perpetrators from studies with such a flawed and questionable criterion measure.

The Finkelhor et al. study is the most obvious example of the problem of cases of false accusations included in the sample. In defending their choice the authors claim there is no reason to believe investigators err on one side or the other (23).  Given the extensive theoretical discussion and empirical research on the cognitive activity of the clinician, the research on the reliability of diagnosis, the wide and broad research on decision theory, the more than forty years of research on clinical versus statistical decisions with not a single study supporting confidence in clinical observations and judgment, and the failure of research to demonstrate any efficacy to clinical experience, this is a surprising claim (9, 21, 22, 27-30).  It can only be the result of ignorance or a deliberate choice to obscure and obfuscate the issues.

In other instances researchers may have inadvertently included falsely accused persons in their sample.  Therefore, the possibility of women wrongfully convicted or falsely accused must always be considered when reviewing the recent literature on female perpetrators.

Faller (31) reports on a clinical sample of 87 boy victims and 226 girl victims of validated sexual abuse.  The female victims were more likely than male victims to be sexually abused by a man.  Neither boys nor girls were very likely to be victimized by a woman alone, but this happened with boys ten times more often than with girls.  Of the 87 boys, 55 (63.1 percent) were victimized by a man alone, seven (8 percent) were victimized by a woman alone, and 25 (28.7 percent) were victimized by both females and males together.  Faller reports that the largest category of offenders was professionals, including day care workers.

In this study, the validation criteria was primarily the child's statements and a clinical interview, although other evidence such as perpetrator confession, witnesses and medical findings were also relied upon when present.  Therefore, this sample may include an unknown number of false accusations.  The fact that Faller reports the largest category of offenders was professionals, including day care workers, suggests this may have similar difficulties to the Finkelhor day care study.

FREQUENCY OF SEXUAL ABUSE BY FEMALES

Three retrospective survey studies of college students found large proportions of female perpetrators reported by males who acknowledged a history of childhood sexual abuse.  Fritz, Stoll and Wagner (32) administered a questionnaire to 952 male and female college students regarding sexual abuse when they were children and found that 4.8 percent of the males reported they had been molested.  Of these, 60 percent were molested by females, primarily older female adolescents.

Risin and Koss (33) surveyed 2972 male college students and found that 216 (7.3 percent) met one of their three criteria for sexual abuse (age discrepancy between child and perpetrator, use of coercion, or perpetrator who was a care giver or authority figure).  Their definition was very broad, and included some consensual activities with adolescent females.  The abusive behaviors ranged from exhibition to penetration.  They report that there were almost as many female perpetrators (42.7 percent) as male (53.3 percent), with a small proportion involving both a male and a female together (4.2 percent).  Almost half of the female perpetrators were adolescent babysitters.  Almost half of the boys involved with female perpetrators reported that they participated in the incidents voluntarily and did not feel victimized.  The authors note that this suggests qualitatively different experiences were tapped in this study compared to other surveys.

Fromuth and Burkhart (34) surveyed 582 men from two colleges and found that, depending upon the definition of childhood sexual abuse, prevalence rates varied from 4 percent to 24 percent being defined as abused.  The majority (78 percent and 72 percent in the two samples) of the perpetrators of sexual abuse were females.  They also found that, compared to women in college survey studies, men are less likely to perceive childhood sexual experiences as abusive, which is consistent with the Risen and Koss (33) survey.  It may be that women perceive such experiences as sexual violation, while men perceive them as sexual initiation.  Male socialization encourages men to define sexual experiences as desirable as long as there is no homosexual involvement.  The authors emphasize the need to consider how sexual abuse is defined, particularly in studies of male victims.

Finkelhor, on the other hand, found much smaller proportions of female perpetrators in his student samples.  Only 6 percent of college women and 16 percent of college males who reported childhood abuse indicated that the perpetrator was a woman.  His survey using a community sample of residents from Boston yielded similar figures: none of the women and 15 percent of men reporting childhood abuse indicated that a woman was the perpetrator (6).

A small percentage of female perpetrators was also found by Russell (18) who states that her sample of 930 women only reported ten cases of incestuous abuse by females.  The perpetrators included a biological mother, three sisters, three first cousins and three more distant relatives.  These ten relatives constituted only five percent of all incest perpetrators and affected only one percent of the 930 women interviewed.  The percentage of female perpetrators of extrafamilial child sexual abuse was four percent.  Russell's survey provides no information on the frequency with which females abuse males.

The necessity of considering differences in the type of sample and research method is demonstrated by contrasting the above studies to those reported by Reinhart (35), who found that only four percent of 189 boy victims were alleged to be abused by females and Farber et al. (36), who reported that only two percent of 162 children (half boys and half girls) were sexually abused by a female acting alone (six percent were abused by both a male and a female).  Both Reinhart and Farber et al. used clinical as opposed to college samples and their studies were of current cases in a hospital as opposed to a retrospective survey.  Neither study is clear as to how the abuse was substantiated.

A still smaller percentage of female perpetrators was found by Rowan, Rowan and Langelier (37), who report that only nine (1.5 percent) of 600 sex offenders referred for evaluations were females.  This study, however, was on sex offenders rather than on victims.  The previous studies focused on victims.

The necessity of specifying the sample and methodology is also shown by contrasting the Fromuth and Burkhart (34) and the Risen and Koss (33) retrospective surveys of college males to a report by Johnson and Shrier (38) on eleven cases of molestation in a community based sample of adolescent male outpatients.  Eight of these boys experienced the molestation as intensely traumatic.  The female molesters were usually acquaintances of the victims — most often a neighbor, babysitter, or other trusted older adolescent or young adult.  All but one of the female molesters used persuasion rather than physical force or threats and three-quarters of the female molesters attempted to get their victims to ejaculate, and nearly half succeeded.  Johnson and Shrier therefore conclude that childhood sexual victimization of boys by women as well as men is a high risk and traumatic experience.  In contrast, the two college surveys indicate that many men did not feel victimized by the experience.

Studies using prison samples show high percentages of men reporting childhood sexual experiences with older women.  Groth (6) found that 51 percent of a sample of sex offenders had been molested when they were young and of these, 25 percent had been by a female. Petrovich and Templer (39) found that 59 percent of 83 convicted rapists reported heterosexual experiences before the age of 16 with a female at least five years older.  The authors stated that they did not know whether this high rate was a function of low socioeconomic status, being rapists, being sex criminals more generally, or being criminals in general.

Condy, Templer, Brown and Veaco (40) surveyed 359 male college students and 212 male prison inmates concerning childhood heterosexual contact.  Of the male prisoners, 46 percent reported early sexual contact.  This differed by offense with 57 percent of the rapists, 37 percent of the child molesters and 47 percent of the nonsexual offenders reporting such contact.  In contrast, only 16 percent of the college students reported childhood sexual contact with a woman.  Both the prisoners and college men reported more good feelings than bad at the time of the incident and, with the exception of the child molesters, the experience was regarded as having more of a good than a bad effect on their adult sex lives.

In every category for the subjects who reported sexual contact with a female, intercourse was involved in at least half of the sexual encounters.  In only a minority of the cases did the female force the boy.  In fact, in a large proportion of the cases, the male reported initiating the activity.  The distribution for the ages at which the boys first became involved was skewed toward the higher ages; the median age was 13 and the mode was 15.  Condy et al. speculate that the nature of these contacts could be more characterized by an extension of the lower end of the age distribution for adult male-female sexual relationships, in contrast to what ordinarily occurs when the molester is a male.  Also, although prepubescent vaginal size would make penile penetration of a girl by an adult male difficult, the prepubescent penile size would actually be less difficult with a young boy and a woman.

These higher percentages reported in prison populations could be due to many factors, such as lower socioeconomic status and higher sociopathy.  However, it could also be due to a possible tendency, as discussed earlier, for a prisoner to report being sexually abused when this has actually not happened.  At any rate, data from prison populations cannot be generalized to the population at large.

Bolton, Morris and MacEachron (41) conclude that male perpetrators far exceed female perpetrators of child sexual abuse.  They observe, however, that the interest in studying female offenders has increased markedly in the past few years and note that no matter how the differing rates found in the various studies are explained, the fact remains that females are sometimes perpetrators.

HYPOTHESIZED BARRIERS TO RECOGNITION

Finkelhor and Russell (6) note that despite ample opportunities for sexual abuse, remarkably few mothers seem to take advantage of them.  They conclude that the literature "leads fairly persuasively to the conclusion that the traditional view about child molestation as a primarily male deviation is essentially correct.  Women do not use children for their own direct sexual gratification very frequently."  However, other researchers have challenged this and asserted that barriers have prevented the recognition of female child molestation.

Allen (42) claims that women may be perpetrators more often than is realized and believes that there are several barriers preventing the recognition of female child sexual abuse.  The first barrier suggested is an overestimation of the strength of the incest taboo, in which the taboo was thought to be so strong that sexual abuse by women was an extremely rare aberration.  When it occurred, it was seen as evidence that the woman was seriously impaired.

A possible second barrier to recognition has been an overextension of feminist explanations of child sexual abuse.  Here, child sexual abuse is considered to be a direct result of culturally-based socialization which leads to male dominance and subsequent exploitation of women and children.

The third proposed barrier is the overgeneralization of the empirical observation that female perpetrated child sexual abuse is rare.  That is, the frequency of reports in the literature may not accurately reflect the frequency of actual occurrence.  Allen notes that even if there are far fewer female than male perpetrators, there may still be a significant number of females who abuse children.  Allen concludes by recommending the strategy suggested by Bolton and Bolton (43): "Awareness of female sexual abuse perpetration is increasing ...  It seems wise to withhold judgment about such cases until more is known."

Groth (44) suggests three possible reasons for the less frequent identification of female sexual abuse perpetrators: I) women may mask sexually inappropriate contact through activities such as bathing or dressing the child; 2) the sexual offenses of women are more incestuous in nature and therefore children are more reluctant to disclose the abuse when the offender is a parent and someone they depend on; and, 3) boys may be more frequent targets of abuse by females than are girls, but it may be difficult to confirm this since boys are less likely to disclose abuse.

Justice and Justice (18) suggest that mother-son incest is seldom reported in the literature because mothers engage in types of sexual activity that does not get reported.  Examples of such activities are sleeping with a son, fondling and caressing him in a sexual way, exposing her body to him, and keeping him tied to her emotionally with promises of a sexual payoff.

Banning (45) also maintains the incidence of child sexual abuse by women is underestimated.  She notes that feminists view child sexual abuse as a crime committed against girls by men and until recently mother-child incest was considered to be virtually nonexistent.  She claims female sexual abuse is not recognized because of the disbelief that this can occur.  In addition, women are permitted a freer range of sexual contact with their children through caregiving activities and sexually abusive behavior may be more difficult to recognize.  Although more recent studies have shown a higher incidence of female perpetrators, there has been little research on them and their psychopathology may be different from that of male perpetrators.  Banning believes, however, that the incidence of female sexual offenders will probably remain much lower than that of males.

Sax (46) believes the abusive nature of erotic and sexual encounters between women and children is exaggerated.  She notes that the relationship between women and children is such that nobody ever thinks about sexual or erotic involvement.  However, such relationships do exist and not all such encounters are disagreeable; they might even be pleasurable depending upon mutual agreement and the circumstances.  She speculates that, compared to men, women's experience of sexuality is apt to be more diffuse and less orgasm-centered, and therefore the nature of an erotic relationship between a woman and a child cannot be understood from the male perspective.

Sarrel and Masters (47) note that sexual abuse of men by women has been an integral part of many cultures, in which most of the sexual abuse has been committed by older females on young males.  This abuse has ranged from casual masturbation to quiet an irritable child to long continued incestuous relationships.  They report on eleven case studies of males who have sought treatment for sexual dysfunction that was a consequence of their childhood sexual abuse by women.  In four of the cases, the assaulted males were physically constrained, violently attacked and feared for their safety, but still functioned sexually.  The authors observe that this contradicts the belief that male cannot achieve or maintain an erection when threatened or attacked by a woman.  There is no information on the characteristics of the perpetrators of the sexual assaults, but these cases suggest that, although rare, women can commit rape and violent sexual assault.

Finkelhor and Russell (6) and Russell (8) discount the hypothesized barriers to identification and conclude the research indicates sexual contact between children and older women is a distinct minority of child-adult sexual contacts. They believe the best estimates put female perpetrators of sexual abuse at about 20 percent for male children and five percent for female children.  (Since this time, however, Finkelhor has recently reported greater frequencies of females as sexual abusers, as was discussed above.)

Although these proposed barriers are interesting, they are speculative and not supported by empirical data.  In summary, the different studies report widely varied frequencies of sexual abuse by women.  The definition of sexual abuse used, the type of sample selected and the methodology employed affects the results obtained.  Although child sexual abuse by females may not be as rare as was once believed, it does occur.  However, some of the recent studies may be inadvertently including cases of false allegations.

CHARACTERISTICS OF FEMALE SEXUAL ABUSE PERPETRATORS

What are the circumstances under which women sexually abuse children?  What are the characteristics of such women?  Are the etiological factors similar to those in male perpetrated sexual abuse?

There are beginning to be studies which address these questions.  Many of these are based on small samples and case studies.  Although any generalizations from such reports must be made cautiously, this information provides a necessary starting point in understanding female sexual abuse perpetrators.

Mathews, Matthews, and Speltz (48), Matthews, Mathews, and Speltz, (49) and Patton (50), report on a study of 16 female sexual offenders who were in the Genesis II treatment project in Minnesota.  All but one of the women studied were themselves victims of childhood sexual abuse and many were also victims of physical abuse.  There were strong and consistent patterns of childhood social isolation, alienation, and lack of development of interpersonal skills and competence among perpetrators.  Three categories of female sex offenders were described: Teacher/Lover, Predisposed (intergenerational), and Male-Coerced.

The Teacher/Lover is generally involved with prepubescent and adolescent males with whom she relates as a peer.  Her motive is, ostensibly, to teach her young victims about sexuality.

The Predisposed offender is usually a victim of severe sexual abuse that was initiated at a very young age and persisted over a long period of time.  She initiated the sexual abuse herself and the victims are her own children.  Her motives are nonthreatening emotional intimacy.

The Male-Coerced offender acts initially in conjunction with a male who has previously abused children.  She exhibits a pattern of extreme dependency and nonassertive behavior and she may eventually initiate sexual abuse herself.  Her victims are children both within and outside of the family.

Faller (51) reports on a clinical sample of 40 women who were judged by staff to have sexually abused at least 63 children.  These women represented 14 percent of the total of 289 perpetrators of sexual abuse.  Many of the women had significant difficulties in psychological and social functioning.  About half had mental problems, both retardation and psychotic illness.  More than half had chemical dependency problems and close to three-fourths had maltreated their victims in other ways in addition to the sexual abuse.  The women fell into five case types (four were sexually abusive in more than one context).

1) Polyincestuous abuse: Twenty-nine (72.5 percent) of the women fit into this category.  In such cases, there are at least two perpetrators and generally two or more victims.  Usually, a male rather than the female offender instigated the abuse.  The woman went along with the male and played a secondary role.
2) Single-parent abuse: Six (15 percent) of the women who sexually abused were single parents.  These mothers did not have ongoing relationships with men and the oldest child seemed to serve as a surrogate partner for the mother, often having adult role responsibilities.
3) Psychotic abusers: Only three (7.5 percent) of the women were classified as psychotic at the time of the sexual abuse.  Therefore, this study does not support the clinical assumption that most female perpetrators are highly disturbed and often psychotic at the time of the sexual abuse.
4) Adolescent perpetrators: Three (7.5 percent) were adolescent girls who had difficulty with peer relationships and lacked alternative sexual outlets.
5) Noncustodial abusers: There was only one woman who was the noncustodial mother of her victims and sexually abused them during visitation.  Faller believes that in such cases the noncustodial parent is apt to be devastated at the loss of her spouse and the children become the source of emotional gratification.

Faller concludes that the circumstances that lead women to sexually abuse children can be differentiated from those causing men to do so.

McCarty (52) describes the characteristics of 26 mother-child incest offenders.  These women were identified by the Dallas Incest Treatment Program over a three-year period and constituted four percent of the offender population.  The cases had been validated by a protective service investigation.  Nine of the mothers were co-offenders with a male partner, while 12 were independent offenders (a male offender was also involved in half of these).

All but two of the women described their childhood as difficult and abusive.  When the mother was a co-offender, her dependency on her spouse was the major contributing factor.  Half of these women were of borderline intelligence.

The independent offenders in particular were characterized as experiencing themselves psychologically as loners and lacking any sense of attachment or belonging.  They were likely to have married as teenagers.  Half were characterized as seriously emotionally disturbed and almost half had a serious chemical abuse problem.  However, all were at least of average intelligence.  In three of the cases of mother-son incest, the father was out of the home and the mothers seemed to treat the boys as age mates.  However, the women who abused daughters seemed to treat the daughters as extensions of themselves.

Vander Mey (53) reviews the research on sexually abused boys and reports that there is so little information on sexual abuse of males that findings must be considered tenuous.  She tentatively posits that male incest victims are abused more often by males than by females and that both mother and father incest perpetrators tend to have emotional, social and psychological problems compounded by poor impulse control, low self-esteem and alcohol abuse.

Finkelhor (6, 54) suggests that there are four components that contribute, in different degrees and forms, to the making of a child molester.  These four components represent complementary processes which help explain the diversity of the behavior of sexual abusers.  These four factors are sexual arousal, emotional congruence, blockage and disinhibition and Finkelhor believes that examination of these factors can help explain why sexual abusers are predominantly male.

Sexual arousal: In order for an adult to be aroused by a child, there has to have been cultural or familial conditioning to sexual activity with children or early fantasy reinforced by masturbation.

Emotional congruence: For emotional congruence, there is comfort in relating to a child and satisfaction of emotional need through the abuse.  This is apt to be due to arrested development through limited intelligence, immaturity, or low self-esteem.

Blockage: Age appropriate sexual opportunities may be blocked by bad experiences with age appropriate adults, sexual dysfunction, limited social skills, or marital disturbance.

Disinhibition: The abuser may lose control through impulse control deficits, psychosis, alcohol, drugs, stress, or nonexistent family rules.

Rowan et al. (37) describe characteristics of the nine female (out of 600) sex offenders in terms of Finkelhor's (6) four-factor model.  In five of the cases, the abuse occurred in conjunction with a dominant male partner; in four the woman acted independently.  The case histories of several of the women showed a history of childhood abuse and all had serious psychological problems or limited intelligence.  The four women who acted independently abused boys.  Of the five who acted in conjunction with a male, three had female victims, one a male victim, and one victimized both a son and a daughter.  The authors conclude that none of these cases were true paraphilics according to the DSM-III-R but that the female molesters did fit the model proposed by Finkelhor.

James and Nasjleti (55), in discussing their clinical experience with sexually abusive families, report that a minority of their cases involved female perpetrators.  Although the psychological profiles of these mothers is sketchy, in general they have infantile and extreme dependency needs, a marriage relationship that is absent or emotionally empty, possessive and overprotective attitudes toward child victims, and alcohol used as a crutch.  These women expect their children to meet their emotional needs and because of the mothers' traditional rule as a caretaker, they are able to hide the sexually explosive nature of these contacts.

Chasnoff et al. (56) report on three cases of sexual abuse by a mother of her infant.  The mothers all were separated from their sexual partners, had demonstrated some confusion regarding sexual identity and had sought assistance with chemical dependency during pregnancy.  Two of the three were diagnosed as borderline personality disorder and two had been raped.  All three women were isolated in their living arrangements and the authors believe that the sexual abuse was motivated by loneliness.  The social alienation and isolation of the mothers were significant facts in the molestation of their infants.

Goodwin and DiVasto (57) review six reported cases of mother-daughter incest and two cases of grandmother-granddaughter incest.  These cases deviate from the usual descriptions of incest and the authors note that physical closeness between mothers and daughters is less subject to taboo than are father and daughter contacts.  The greater toleration of physical intimacy between mothers and daughters makes it more difficult for the child, the parent, and eventually the therapist to recognize when these contacts become incestuous.  Although Goodwin and DiVasto acknowledge that since the reports of mother-daughter incest are few and brief, any conclusions must be tentative, they find the mothers seem to be similar to those mothers who initiate mother-son incest.  They describe the mothers as aggressive women who have abandoned their maternal role for an exploitive relationship with their children.  Their need for nurturance precipitates a sexual relationship with the child.  In all five cases of mother-daughter incest, the mothers were involved in deteriorating marriages.  Goodwin and DiVasto believe that mother-daughter incest is more common than the rare case reports suggest.

Kempe and Kempe (58) suggest that with the high divorce rate, an increasing number of boys are living alone with their mothers and become a source of comfort and closeness which may sometimes substitute for the companionship previously experienced in marriage.  Although this in itself is normal, it can lead to problem behaviors, such as taking the boy to bed for comfort.  Kempe and Kempe note that society is more ready to believe that there is a sexual aspect to fathers who sleep with daughters compared to mothers who sleep with sons.  They describe two case studies in which sleeping arrangements also included overt sexual behavior and state that in their experience, the psychological effects to the boy can be devastating.

Krug (59) reports on eight case histories of men who were sexually abused by their mothers as children in which seven of the mothers slept with their sons regularly until the boys were teenagers.  The mothers, who were either divorced or had troubled marriages, appeared to be trying to satisfy emotional and relational needs through their sons.  Some were clearly socially insecure and isolated.  In four of the cases, the mothers initiated actual sexual contact, in the others there was no overt sexual behavior.  None of these mothers were described as psychotic.

Although these case studies are interesting, we question Krug's classifying all of them as sexual abuse.  The behaviors of the mothers sleeping with their sons into adolescence may be inappropriate and may infantilize the boys, but to label all such cases as sexual abuse is to use a very inclusive definition of sexual abuse.  Krug reports that all these men had psychological and adjustment problems.  However, since this was a clinical sample we would expect the men to report emotional and adjustment problems in that this is why they sought therapy.

In an early article describing different types of incest, Lukianowicz (60) discusses five cases of female perpetrators — three mother-son and two aunt-nephew.  In one case of mother-son incest, the mother was a widow, and in a second, the mother's married life was very unhappy.  Both of these women became very dependent on their eldest sons, in whom they saw the idealized young lovers of their own youth.  The third mother was a chronic schizophrenic of low intelligence.  One of the aunts was hypomanic and seduced her nephew during a manic phase; the other was generally promiscuous.  Lukianowicz reports that in in many of the cases studied, social isolation was a very important etiological factor.

Wakefield, Rogers and Underwager (61) describe four case histories of women who had sexual contact with children.  Each of these women had a history of significant losses in her background along with a lack of healthy, secure childhood relationships.  The sexually abusive behavior was triggered by a particular loss and in three of the cases the relationship between the woman and the victim was emotional as well as sexual and appeared to be engaged in primarily to satisfy the woman's emotional needs.

O'Connor (62) reports on a group of 62 convicted and imprisoned female sex offenders in Great Britain.  In 39 (63 percent) of the sex offenses with individual victims, the victims were children and in nine cases the offender was the mother or stepmother.  In most (25) of the cases the women were convicted of aiding and abetting a male offender.  Almost half of the women convicted of child sexual abuse had a previous history of psychiatric disorder.  Sexual gratification was never noted as a motivation for the women involved in sex offenses with a victim.

In another survey using a prison sample, Condy et al. (40), asked 625 female college students and 172 female prison inmates about their early sexual contacts with younger males.  They report that three (0.5 percent) of the college women and thirteen (7.6 percent) of the prison women reported that they had had sexual contact with a boy.  These women were more likely to have had early sexual experiences themselves (81 percent compared to 21 percent) and were significantly higher on the schizophrenia and hypomania scales and lower on the Lie scale on the Kincannon Mini-Mult.  The authors state that although they were atypical, the women were not psychotic.  Although this finding is consistent with other research concerning the characteristics of females who sexually abuse children, the different response set suggested by the lower Lie scale and the serious limitations of the Kincannon (James Butcher, personal communication, l988) must be considered.  The authors also note the possible importance of the lower socioeconomic status of the prisoners since it is well established that acting out and illegal behaviors are more common among less privileged segments of society.

Travin et al. (7) observe that only the most overt acts of sexual abuse perpetrated by females are likely to come to the attention of the criminal justice system.  Also, female offenders often exhibit a history of physical and sexual victimization, chronic substance abuse and longstanding psychiatric disorder.  Therefore, those female abusers identified by the justice system as offenders generally represent women who are both severe victims and victimizers.  They report on nine case histories of women referred for evaluation and treatment at a forensic psychiatry clinic.  These cases constituted 1 percent of the sex offenders seen at their clinic.  All nine women had backgrounds of severe psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse. E ach had low self-esteem, reported few or no positive social contacts, and was functioning at a marginal level.  Four had histories of severe psychopathology, including psychosis and substance abuse.  The other five had obvious characterological deficiencies, although no history of psychosis.  Travin et al. conclude that female sexual offenders do exist and may warrant the diagnosis of paraphilic disorder.

CONCLUSIONS

Several conclusions can be drawn from the review of the literature on female perpetrators:

1)

Awareness about women perpetrators of sexual abuse use has greatly increased in recent years.  However, sexual contact between children and women is a minority of child-adult sexual contacts and the traditional view of child sexual abuse as a primarily male problem is correct.

2)

Child sexual abuse by females does occur and may not be as rare as the earlier literature indicates.

3)

There is a great range in the estimated frequency of sexual abuse by women from different studies and the definition of sexual abuse used, sample selected and methodology employed must be considered.

4)

Some of the recent literature which discusses female perpetrators is likely to have included cases of false accusations which gives a misleading picture of both the frequency with which females abuse children and the characteristics of such women.

5)

Female child sexual abusers are less likely than men to fit the psychiatric definition of pedophile.

6)

There are widely different circumstances in which females may engage in behavior that is defined as child sexual abuse and the circumstances that lead women to sexually abuse children can often be differentiated from those causing men to do so.  One example of this is sexual abuse which occurs in conjunction with a dominant male and in which the woman plays a secondary role.  Another is found by the retrospective surveys of college men in which many of the boys reported that they had engaged in the incidents voluntarily and did not feel victimized.

7)

Many studies depict women who sexually abuse children as being loners, socially isolated, alienated, likely to have had abusive childhoods, and apt to have emotional problems.  However, most are not psychotic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Hollida Wakefield, M.A. is a licensed psychologist and Ralph Under-wager, Ph.D. is a licensed consulting psychologist at the Institute for Psychological Therapies in Northfield, Minnesota. They provide treatment to victims, families and perpetrators of child sexual abuse and have consulted or testified in cases of alleged sexual abuse in thirty-six states and several foreign countries. They have presented workshops and seminars on the topic and are the authors of Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse, published by C.C. Thomas in 1988.

This paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Symposium In Forensic Psychology of the American College of Forensic Psychology, held May 2-5,1991 in Newport Beach, California.

Copyright 1991 American Journal of Forensic Psychology, Volume 9, Issue 4.  The Journal is a publication of the American College of Forensic Psychology, 26701 Quail Creek, Number 295, Laguna Hills, California 92656.

* Correspondence should be addressed to Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, 5263 130th Street East, Northfield, MN 55057-4880[Back]

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