Dispelling the Myths: Female-Perpetrated Sexual Abuse
Female-perpetrated sexual abuse may be more common and serious than you think.
Posted Aug 11, 2020
Last month, Mary Kay Letourneau, perhaps the most well-known female sex offender, died. Mary Kay Letourneau was convicted of two counts of second-degree rape for sexually abusing her 13-year-old student, Vili Faulaau, and sentenced to seven years in prison. One of the reasons that this case was so sensational was that Mary Kay Letourneau — a teacher and a married mother of four — did not fit the stereotypical image of a sex offender.
When most people envision a sex offender, they do not picture a woman. While the majority of sex offenders are indeed male, a recent meta-analysis (a study that combines the findings of smaller studies) examining female-perpetrated sexual abuse across 12 countries found that victims reported that in 12 percent of cases of sexual abuse, their abusers were women. This is in contrast to official reports wherein only a small proportion of reported cases (2.2 percent) of sexual abuse were women.
Further, it is suspected that the rate of female-perpetrated sexual abuse may be even higher as many victims who were abused by women may not recognize that what was done to them was in fact sexual abuse, as a significant portion of female sex offenders mask their abuse in their caregiving roles. It was found that about 40 percent of men who report sexual abuse were abused by women (as opposed to 4 percent of women), and they may not report their abuse because of shame or fear either not being believed or their manliness being questioned.
Further, female perpetrated sexual abuse in our culture has historically not been taken seriously. For example, following Mary Kay Letourneau’s conviction for raping her student, comedian Norm McDonald joked on "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live: "In Washington State, elementary school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau pleaded guilty to having sex with a sixth-grade student ... Miss Letourneau has been branded a sex offender, or as the kids refer to her, 'the greatest teacher of all time.'" Further songs such as "Stacy’s Mom" where a minor is fantasizing about sexual activity with his friend’s mother or Van Halen’s "Hot for Teacher" and the sexy teacher trope suggest that having a sexual relationship with an adult female is every teenage boy’s fantasy and not, in fact, sexual abuse.
However, what these cultural depictions of minors having sex with adult women fail to take into consideration is that female-perpetrated sexual abuse has serious negative consequences on victims, which can be further compounded when the abuse is mocked or the impact minimized. In fact, research shows that victims of female-perpetrated sexual abuse experience the same or even greater negative consequences as individuals abused by males including depression, anger, suicidal thoughts, and problems with substances, relationships, and sexual functioning.
Further, when the perpetrator is a mother or female caregiver, a child may not be believed as this goes against the stereotype of women as nurturers, further compounding the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. In 2002, Vili Faulaau and his mother unsuccessfully sued the school district for failing to protect Vili. During the lawsuit, it was reported that as a consequence of the abuse, Vili suffered from emotional problems including depression for which he was hospitalized; he also dropped out of school and, in adulthood, he continued to battle drug and alcohol problems.
So, what do we know about female sex offenders? Two studies found that the typical female sex offender is a Caucasian woman in her early 30s whose victims are just under 12 years of age. Multiple studies have found that females who commit sexual abuse are more likely to have been physically and sexually abused themselves and that many come from chaotic homes. They may be more likely to have a personality disorder or mental health problem and abuse substances. Compared to male sex offenders, female sex offenders are less likely to have a previous criminal history or re-offend once they are caught.
While multiple typologies of female sex offenders have been proposed, most women who sexually offend fall into three main categories: 1) heterosexual nurturers — women in their 30s who have a mentoring role, such as teachers, and offend against young teenage males; 2) female predators — women who have a more extensive criminal history and generally offend against young teenage males; and 3) young adult child molesters — younger women who offend against children and may include mothers who abuse their own children.
While we are learning more about what causes a woman to sexually offend, much still needs to be learned and understood. What we do know is that female-perpetrated sexual abuse is more common than initially believed, that it disproportionately impacts men, and that the consequences of victimization can be severe. Thus, it is important that we recognize that female-perpetrated sexual abuse is a serious problem and that we do not perpetuate stereotypes that mock or minimize its consequences.
For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting you child from sexual abuse: What you need to know to keep your kids safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.