The researchers summarize the main points of their study in 7 theses:
1) While sexual abuse perpetrated by women on children is underreported, such abuse is primarily perpetrated by males.
2) It is not as rare as previously thought.
3) Estimated frequency is highly dependent upon the selected sample, methodology and definition of abuse.
4) Some of the supposed victims may have lied about their victimization.
5) Female abusers are less likely to be straightforwardly pedophilic.
6) Circumstances in which abuse by females occurs are oftentimes distinct from the circumstances in which abuse by males occurs.
7) Female abusers tend to be victims of abuse themselves, and have emotional problems associated with having been abused, but are typically not psychotic.
While sexual abuse of children is typically associated in the media with men, females can be guilty of it as well. This is particularly controversial, because “abuse” needs to be defined, and so the frequency of such abuse may vary widely based on differences in definition. For example, one study suggests that up to 50 percent of child abuse cases are perpetrated by women. However, this includes caretakers who merely allow children to be abused by others, rather than being limited strictly to those who actively perpetrate abuse(Wakefield & Underwager).
Some stipulate a certain minimum age discrepancy. Some exclude non-contact and some do not. Others use as a criteria the perception of whether or not the contact was desired. From this latter perspective, many cases of older women with underaged males do not constitute abuse, since the females may have correctly perceived that the males desired such contact. Studies of rates of sexual abuse, in general, are problematized by these definitional issues:
“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”(Wakefield & Underwager).
One study considers as sexual abusers mothers whose supervision of the child victim was inadequate. This is a controversial definition, to say the least. Once these cases were excluded, the figures suggested that females are guilty of 14 cases of abuse towards males acting alone and 6 percent against girls acting alone. To be sure, most abusers are male. Indeed, sexual paraphilias, with the exception of sexual masochism (with one male masochist for every twenty female masochists), are much more frequent among men than women. With the exception of masochism, the other paraphilias are virtually unknown among women(Wakefield & Underwager).
One researcher makes a distinction between sexual abuse and sexual offense:
Sexual abuse – a non-consenting sexual act.
Sexual offense – specifically a legal term for sexual behavior that is against the law.
As with any survey of memories, there is the danger that this process is a reconstructive one, rather than one merely of recover. We spontaneously generate narratives of our own histories that do not necessarily correspond to reality. In the case of sexual abuse, there is the danger of both under-estimation and over-estimation; under, because some individuals may not wish to talk about it, and over-estimation, because of psychotherapists who convince their clients that they have been sexually abused.
Most of the samples, furthermore, come from college students. This population differs in important respects from non-college samples. Furthermore, the fact that most sex offenders are never reported, and that an even smaller amount are caught and convicted, means that a prison sample size will not necessarily be representative of sex offenders in general. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that sexual offenders themselves are likely to lie about having themselves been the victim of sexual abuse. In addition to this, clinical samples can be problematic because many victims do not seek therapy, which limits the sample specifically to those who do seek therapy.
What sorts of individuals are female sex offenders? They tend to fall into one of three categories:
1) Male-Coerced – a highly dependent personality type who works in collusion with a male to perpetrate the abuse.
2) Predisposed/Intergenerational – a victim of chronic, severe abuse from a young age. Her motives are emotional intimacy with an individual who is non-threatening.
3) Teacher/Lover – involves with preteen or teen males, treating them as a peer; understands herself as teaching the male about sexuality.
In general, female abusers tend to have been the victims of such abuse themselves. They tend to have lacked interpersonal skills and competence while young and exhibited consistent social alienation and isolation growing up. In another study of female sexual abusers, the women tended to have interpersonal problems, oftentimes co-existing with psychosis or mental retardation. Over half had substance abuse problems and 75 percent had abused the victims in non-sexual ways in addition to sexual. They were divided up into five categories:
1) Polyincestuous abuse – 72.5 percent of the women. Usually instigated by a male, who played the primary role in the abuse.
2) Single-parent abuse – 15 percent of female abusersabusers. They tended to avoid relationships with men their age and instead use the oldest child as a replacement for such.
3) Psychotic abusers – 7.5 percent. They had been diagnosed as psychotic during the period of the abuse.
4) Adolescent abusers – 7.5 percent. They lacked interpersonal competence and had no other sexual outlet.
4) Noncustodial abusers – Only one woman in the study. Non-custodial mother who sexually abused the children during visitation. The researcher expressed his belief that the children become a source of emotional gratification after a devastating divorce.
Hollida Wakefield, M.A. and Ralph Underwager, Ph.D. Female Child Sexual Abusers: A Critical Review of the Literature