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Understanding Girls Who Commit Sexual Offenses

An examination into an overlooked population of juvenile offenders.

Key points

  • Female juvenile sexual offenders account for 5-10 percent of sex crimes committed by children and adolescents.
  • These offenders are often sexually, physically, and emotionally victimized during childhood.
  • Psychiatric disorders, emotional and somatic concerns, and conduct issues are common among these offenders.
  • Female juvenile sex offenders are similar to their male counterparts in their offending styles.
Vickie Intili/Pexels/Edited
Female juvenile sex offenders are rare but still remain a threat to community safety.
Source: Vickie Intili/Pexels/Edited

Sexual offending may encompass many different crimes that occur in tandem with a sexual element, such as indecent exposure and rape. In most societies, the commission of sexual offences and their life-long and widespread effects present a significant threat to community safety and human health. In addition to many other vulnerable populations, including the elderly and intellectually disabled, children and adolescents are often victims rather than perpetrators of sexual violence. Finkelhor and colleagues (2014) found that an estimated one in four girls and one in 20 boys are sexually victimized during their childhood in the United States alone.

For many readers, it may be unfathomable to envision a child or adolescent, more notably a female, as capable of committing any act of sexual violence. However, research has demonstrated that juvenile sexual offending is a pervasive, complicated, and pressing issue in many societies worldwide, with offenders aged 10-19 years accounting for 16 percent rape offences in the U.S. between 2011 and 2021.

Research investigating the early lives of juvenile sexual offenders has found that different environmental and psychological factors may influence a child or adolescent's proclivity for committing sexual violence. Oliver and Holmes (2015) found that a chaotic family system and domestic violence punctuate the home environments of female juvenile sexual offenders. Unsurprisingly, the researchers also noted that sexual victimization was prominent among the female juvenile sample, with most being raped and sexually abused at least once from a young age, usually by more than one perpetrator. Similar to other studies of juvenile delinquents, van der Put (2013) found that poor parental control and familial alcohol and substance abuse were also highly prevalent in their sample.

Curiously, female juveniles who targeted younger children were less likely to run away from home, have parental alcohol abuse problems, and school performance and conduct problems. Concerning the differences in victimization between male and female juvenile offenders, Matthews and colleagues (1997) found that the female subjects were more likely to sustain physical and sexual abuse when contrasted with male offenders.

In addition to unhealthy sexual boundaries, Oliver and Holmes also elaborated that inadequate social skills and relationships may be an additional risk factor for sexual offending. Most adolescents in van der Put’s (2013) female sample demonstrated insufficient healthy peer relationships and an association with other antisocial youth. However, less than 7 percent maintained gang membership across all subtypes, and between 16 and 27 percent of the subjects also reported social isolation during childhood and adolescence. As mentioned, school performance may also be a source of grievance for female juvenile offenders, who commonly have intellectual difficulties and conduct issues in academic settings. Alternatively, van der Put (2013) also stated that severe behavioural problems in school and truancy were noted between nearly one-quarter and over half of the female offenders, with generally poor academic performance also prevalent in around half of the sample. Statistically significant differences were noted in the female juveniles’ propensity to drop out of schooling, with 4 and 35 percent choosing to cease school attendance across the three delineated subtypes.

Concerning the psychopathological origins of their violent offending and co-occurring non-sexual delinquency, Matthews and colleagues (1997) found that nearly half of the adolescent female sexual offenders had come into contact with mental services at some point in their lifetime, similar to the male sample’s frequency with mental health services contact. Suicidal ideation and attempts were highly prevalent in both the female and male youth, with over 40 percent of both samples having been afflicted during their childhood and adolescence. Bumby and Bumby (1997) similarly reaffirmed the male-female similarities between incidences of suicidal behaviour among juvenile sexual offenders (Oliver & Holmes, 2015).

Regarding one key discrepancy in Mattews and colleagues’ results, however, the authors asserted that the females were less likely to have a learning disability when compared with their male counterparts (23 percent vs. 45 percent). Van der Put (2013) also found that between 24 and 39 percent were afflicted with mental health problems across their sub-samples of female juvenile offenders.

Among the female offenders studied by Manetsch and colleagues (2021), over half reported somatic complaints, while nearly 40 percent conveyed depressed-anxious problems, and over one-third endorsed clinically significant angry-irritable problems above the clinical cutoff on the MAYSI-2 screening tool. Oddly, the female juvenile sexual offenders were more similar to the male offenders than the female non-sexual offenders in their mental health profile on the MAYSI-2. Oliver and Holmes also summarized in their review of literature that various studies have found a high incidence of conduct disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder among female juvenile sexual offenders. As stated, the manifestation of invasive substance abuse appears to be predominant among samples of female offenders. van der Put and colleagues (2014) found, in their sample of 40 female offenders, that drug and alcohol abuse were present in around 20 percent of the adolescents, while an earlier study by van der Put (2013) highlighted that alcohol use during childhood and adolescence were prevalent in up to one-third of the subjects, while drug use occurred in up to 47 percent of cases.

Concerning the different characteristics of the crimes committed by these female offenders, Matthews and associates also concluded that the female juvenile sexual offenders were more likely to be older siblings, acquaintances, strangers, or babysitters to the victims than male offenders. The authors reported that female offenders were more likely to offend victims ages 0 to 5 years. Surprisingly, the female offenders were at an elevated risk for offending against both males and females. Wijkman and colleagues (2013) remarked that around 60 percent of the female offenders studied committed sexual abuse with the assistance of multiple perpetrators, with 9 percent of these cases involving a boyfriend as a co-offender. Despite the authors’ emphasis on the male influence in the bulk of group sexual offences, female juvenile offenders played an active role in 74 percent of the cases.

Similar to the study conducted by Matthews (1997), Wijkman and colleagues stated that most of the victims were known to the offender. As per the victim characteristics, the average age of the victim was 13 years old, with victim ages ranging between 0 and 23 years old. Kubik and colleagues (2002) surprisingly concluded that male and female juvenile sexual offenders were equally as likely to employ weapons, instrumental aggression, verbal threats, physical restraint, and force in their assaults.

Concerning recidivism in this population, Cortoni and colleagues (2010) found in their meta-analysis that only 3 percent of female juvenile offenders reoffended sexually, while a further 6 percent recidivated in other violent ways. The researchers found a total recidivism rate of around 25 percent for all crimes, including those coded as “sexual,” “violent,” and other nonviolent offenses. Cortoni and colleagues also established that recidivism rates for both sexual (3 percent vs. 14 percent), violent (6 percent vs. 25 percent), and any offence (25 percent vs. 37 percent) were higher among the male offender. In addition to being an understudied population and recidivating at a lower rate when compared to their male counterparts, female offenders are only believed to account for 5 and 10 percent of all sexually aggressive juvenile offenders (Roe-Sepowitz and Krysik, 2008; Finkelhor and colleagues, 2009).


Bumby, N. H., & Bumby, K. M. (1997). Adolescent female sexual offenders. In B. Schwartz, & H. Cellini (Eds.), The sex offender: New insights, treatment, innovations, and legal developments (Vol. 2, pp. 10.1–10.16). Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute.

Cortoni, F., Hanson, R. K., & Coache, M. È. (2010). The recidivism rates of female sexual offenders are low: A meta-analysis. Sexual Abuse, 22(4), 387-401.

Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R., & Chaffin, M. (2009). Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors. Juvenile Justice Bulletin.

Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A., Turner, H. A., & Hamby, S. L. (2014). The lifetime prevalence of child sexual abuse and sexual assault assessed in late adolescence. The Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(3), 329–333.

Kubik, E. K., Hecker, J. E., & Righthand, S. (2003). Adolescent females who have sexually offended: Comparisons with delinquent adolescent female offenders and adolescent males who sexually offend. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 11(3), 63-83.

Manetsch M, Nelson Aguiar RJ, Hermann D, van der Put C, Grisso T and Boonmann C (2021) Mental Health Problems in Girls Who Committed Sexual Offenses: Similarities and Differences Compared to Girls With Non-sex Offenses and Boys With Sex Offenses. Front. Psychol. 12:721927. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.721927.

Mathews, R., Hunter, J. A., & Vuz, J. (1997). Juvenile Female Sexual Offenders: Clinical Characteristics and Treatment Issues. Sexual Abuse, 9(3), 187–199.

Oliver, B. E., & Holmes, L. (2015). Female juvenile sexual offenders: Understanding who they are and possible steps that may prevent some girls from offending. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 24(6), 698-715.

Roe-Sepowitz, D., & Krysik, J. (2008). Examining the sexual offenses of female juveniles: The relevance of childhood maltreatment. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78(4), 405–412.

van der Put, C., van Vugt, E. S., Stams, G. J. J. M., & Hendriks, J. (2014). Psychosocial and Developmental Characteristics of Female Adolescents Who Have Committed Sexual Offenses. Sexual Abuse, 26(4), 330–342.

van der Put, C. E. (2013). The prevalence of risk factors for general recidivism in female adolescent sexual offenders: A comparison of three subgroups. Child abuse & Neglect, 37(9), 691-697.

Wijkman, M., Bijleveld, C., & Hendriks, J. (2014). Juvenile female sex offenders: Offender and offence characteristics. European Journal of Criminology, 11(1), 23-38.

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