Recently, media has raised awareness of female sexual offenders. The reporting and conviction of female sexual offenders tends to be rare compared to male sexual offenders. The ratio of known male to female sexual offenders is approximately 20:1 and females are estimated to account for committing 4-5% of all sexual abuse. However, self-report studies conducted with victims of sexual abuse suggest that 1-5% of female victims and 17-44% of male victims experienced the abuse from a female aggressor. The discrepancy between the low number of known female sexual offenders and the higher number of victim reported incidents of female sexual abuse suggests that female sexual abusers are underrepresented in the court system.
How many female sexual offenders are there?
Determining the exact number of female sexual offenders is difficult because often, sexual crimes committed by women are not reported. This could be the result of an adult-child power relationship (e.g., teacher-student, parent-child) which deters a child victim from reporting. Children often fear repercussions from getting an adult into trouble. Additionally, a harmful adult-child power relationship may involve the adult engaging in coercion, threats, intimidation, and blaming. The difficulty of identifying female sexual offenders could also be a result of potential stigmatization of the crime as female-perpetrated sex crimes are unimaginable to the general population. Society perceives women as nurturers and caretakers and this is inconsistent with the idea that women could be sexual offenders. Society also has strong beliefs that suggests sexual offending by women is harmless, is only perpetrated by women who are psychiatrically disturbed, or is more acceptable than sexual offending perpetrated by men.
Another factor limiting the identification of female sexual offenders is that often mental health and justice professionals are not trained to consider women as sexual offenders. Until recently, laws in some countries (e.g., Canada in 1983) failed to recognize women as perpetrators of sexual offences. There is also evidence that victims of female-perpetrated sexual abuse are either not recognized in the same way as victims of male-perpetrated sexual offences (e.g., via risk assessments) or reports of crime are not completed in the same way. Furthermore, victims of female-perpetrated sexual abuse are less likely to report the abuse and when they do, their reports are often minimized.
The fact that female sexual offenders are treated differently in the criminal justice system than male sexual offenders further complicates the identification of these offenders. How allegations of sexual offending are addressed can be different for the genders. A female sexual offender is often directed to the health care system rather than the criminal justice system thus avoiding conviction. Also, if a woman is a co-perpetrator with a male sexual offender she is often considered a victim of coercion rather than a perpetrator of a crime.
The exact numbers of female sexual offenders involved in the forensic and correctional services in Canada is not reported. Research studies suggest that female sexual offenders represent anywhere from 1-12% of all known sexual offenders. In Canada, this prevalence would suggest there are approximately 1,630 to 19,560 female sexual offenders involved in these services. These numbers could be significantly higher if all the factors limiting identification where corrected for.
This three-part mini-blog series continues. Part 2 describes the nature of female sexual offending. Part 3 discusses the mental health and treatment needs of female sexual offenders.
Dr. Stephen Rochefort is a registered psychologist in the province of Alberta. For more information on this or any other forensic or clinical psychology topic, contact Dr. Stephen by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (403.986.1044).