Are there women paedophiles?
Paedophiles are invariably thought of as men and they mostly are. But do women commit sexual abuse against children, and if so, why is it rarely discussed?
By Tom Geoghegan
April 29, 2009 / BBC News
Colin never knew innocence as a child. His earliest memories are of his mother sexually abusing him. In the bath, in his bed and in the night. Until he was 13.
Twenty years later, after a young life derailed by truancy, drugs and violence, he is still deeply affected by what he says happened.
"It's only now that I realise the impact it has had on me. From the age of 14, as soon as it got dark I would have panic attacks and that fuelled my drug-taking because doing it, I felt safe again.
"I couldn't sleep at night and I'd get flashbacks of my mum on top of me. I couldn't hold down a job and I was scared of girls."
The fact the perpetrator was the person who gave birth to him made it harder for him to identify and accept it as abuse, he believes.
"I found it hard to even say it was sexual abuse because of the way society views mothers, and quite rightly - 99% are loving but I was just unlucky to get one that wasn't.
"That's what stopped me from getting help for a long time. I couldn't even acknowledge it myself and there was a worry about being believed and speaking out against my mother. I felt like I was doing something wrong."
It's a comment on how society views paedophilia today that the most shocking aspect of Colin's story is not the sexual abuse itself, but the fact the perpetrator was female.
Yet Colin is not alone in experiencing this particular kind of trauma, says Steve Bevan, who for nearly two decades has run a support group for male victims of all forms of sexual abuse. Out of 18 men currently getting individual and group support, five say they were abused by women, three of them exclusively so.
"Over the years we've had lots of men abused by mothers, sisters, aunties and baby sitters," says Mr Bevan.
"It's hard enough for adult men to admit abuse but to admit to abuse by a woman is even harder because it challenges their masculinity, it challenges their sexuality."
Women can commit a wide range of sexual offences, he says, including rape. And their victims commonly experience sexual confusion and a fear of intimacy. Anger can manifest itself as violence towards a wife or girlfriend in later life.
By its very nature the true picture of child abuse is unclear. But with women perpetrators it's even more so. Convictions are thin on the ground and some believe the issue is an unhelpful distraction from the bigger problem.
Experts agree that women commit only a fraction of child sexual abuse but so much is hidden that it's difficult to be accurate. An influential study in the US in the 1980s suggested 20% of all offences against boys and 5% against girls were by women.
Professor Kevin Browne, who has been researching the maltreatment of children for 30 years, says between 5% and 10% of abuse against pre-pubescent children in the UK is committed by females, but only about 5% is thought to involve a woman acting alone.
"Stranger attacks by women hardly exist, so most female paedophiles are winning the trust of children first and either have a position of care working with children like a babysitter or they are a relative."
Female offences against teenagers (hebophiles rather than paedophiles) are more of a mystery, he says, because victims don't come forward, partly because in a patriarchal society boys are even expected to enjoy that kind of abuse, and not admit how scared they are by it.
Some believe that society's different attitude to women offenders is reflected in the language of the media reporting it. They point out that teachers "seduce" pupils if they are female but "sexually assault" if male.
In 2005, the NSPCC raised concerns about how disbelief of female paedophiles was hindering detection. Its report said child protection professionals too often met allegations of abuse by females with incredulity, dismissing them as fabrication and allowing women to continue to offend.
It also said that victims suffered a peculiar sense of isolation and stigma because this form of abuse was not so widely recognised.
Eight-hundred victims of female sexual abuse have contacted Michele Elliott, founder of children's charity Kidscape, since she wrote her controversial book, Female Sexual Abuse of Children, in 1992. Three-quarters of the cases feature women acting alone.
"One of the issues of controversy is the thinking that if women do this, it's because men made them do it," says Ms Elliot.
"I disagree with that. I think there's no difference in the motivation between men and women, which is sexual gratification and power over a child. It's very selfish."
Like male paedophiles, many female offenders convince themselves they are not harming children, says psychologist Sharon Lambert who this month presented her research on the subject to the British Psychological Society's annual conference.
She contacted a number of people through a website specifically aimed at women. There were no indecent images posted but there were stories and poems about their sexual fantasies with children and a forum for women to discuss their feelings and how they could avoid detection.
"They would say they're not as bad as men because they're more loving with their impulses, and a male involved with a child is more abusive."
'Under the radar'
She began correspondence with six people who claimed to be women aged from 21 to 48. They all described themselves as heterosexual and five claimed to be married. They all said they fantasised about young girls but said they had not actually abused any.
"We can't be certain about the connection between sexual fantasies and actual offending. Some adults who fantasise about children may never offend but we can't be sure they won't act out their fantasies."
They all admitted their first sexual experiences came very early in life, aged about seven or eight, with other children their own age. They said they had never been abused themselves.
"There are things you can do as a woman that you can't do as a man," says Ms Lambert. "If I was still bathing my 11-year-old son, people would think that was weird but if a man was doing that then people are more likely to think it was sexual abuse. Women go under the radar."
Unlike Ms Lambert's studies, some perpetrators seem also to be victims. Colin's mother told him she was a victim of sexual abuse from her father, sometimes describing it to him in detail moments before indecently assaulting him.
"Maybe I reminded her of her dad and she felt like she was getting back at him, taking back some control that way, by taking it out on me," says Colin.
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A woman's place
I used to be one of those people who thought only men sexually abuse women and children. I used to think if women were sexual with children it's because they didn't know what they were doing, or their actions were completely misinterpreted by the victim. Then a friend told me about the female in his family who sexually abused him. That story bonded us in a way that I cannot explain. The following statement seems to put it best:
It's bad enough pedophilia/incest and inappropriate sexual activity takes place in biologic, foster, and adoptive families. How does anyone explain this: Norwegian Female Pedophile Predators go Free ?!?
Even more disturbing is what's written about nuns, the clergy and sexual abuse. In one article, Complains of Sex Abuse by Nuns Begin to Emerge, it reads:
Later in the article it states:
When I read articles like Abuse spotlight on Australian Nuns, I begin to wonder just how many children put in-care have been touched by sexual abuse, and forced to live with the well-protected secret.