There weren’t a lot of statistics, because no one thought it was a problem. But then in 1990, Ramsay-Klawsnick found that adult females were abusers of male adolescents 37% of the time and of female adolescents 19% of the time; and in six studies reviewed by Russell and FInkelhor, female perpetrators accounted for 25% or more of those abused. In 1996, The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect conducted a widespread investigation on the maltreatment of children. Of the three million children investigated, more than one million were identified as victims of abuse and of the one million, 12% were sexually abused. The sexual abuse of children by women, primarily mothers, once thought to be so rare that it could be ignored, constituted 25% (approximately 36,000 children) of the sexually abused victims. Furthermore, all of these statistics are likely underestimated because victims of this type of abuse rarely disclose. Finally, there is an alarmingly high rate of sexual abuse by females in the backgrounds of rapists, sex offenders and sexually aggressive men – 59% (Petrovich and Templer, 1984), 66% (Groth, 1979) and 80% (Briere and Smiljanich, 1993).
Why haven’t we, as a society, been aware of this problem? Most probably because women have been idealized as mothers and nurturers. They haven’t been viewed as sexual aggressors. And because they are caretakers and are expected to be emotional, warm and physical with children, no one notices or suspects them. Sexual abuse by women is rarely reported because their victims usually are their own children – who are dependent on them. Furthermore, these children either do not understand what is happening to them or do not think anyone will believe them. And for male victims, there is additional embarrassment and denial – they must have wanted it – men (boys) can’t be raped!
But women can be sexual aggressors. And even though the abuse they are capable of doesn’t conjure up violent images of attack and penetration, surveys show that women are capable of a different type of violence toward their victims, sometimes physical and almost always psychological and verbal. This abuse can penetrate the psyches of their victims more deeply because they are the one person who was never supposed to betray them.
What type of woman would betray her own child or another person’s child in such a manner and why? A profile of a female sexual abuser looks something like this: She would probably be a person with low self-esteem who may have had a history of severe emotional and verbal abuse and/or been a victim of childhood sexual abuse herself. In fact, a study by Fowler et al in 1983 maintained that 80% of incest offenders had been sexually or physically abused as children. There would be feelings of alienation and isolation and possibly the loss of a spouse or other adult partner. She might have a history of drug or alcohol abuse and less often a history of indiscriminate or compulsive sexual activity. There might be arrested psychosexual development; there might be a need to have power and control in some aspect of her life. But the common perception that any woman who does this has to be mentally insane is false. Only a minority of female abusers do not pass reality-testing measures. How the abuse takes place and with who may differ, but the personality type can be constructed from the above profile.
David Finkelhor, who has written extensively on this subject, maintains that there is a Four Factor Model, or to put it another way, there are four components that contribute in different degrees to child molestation:
1. Emotional Congruence – a satisfaction of emotional needs through the abuse of a child that is due to either arrested psychosexual development, immaturity or low self-esteem.
2. Sexual Arousal – probably due to familial conditioning through their own childhood abuse or early fantasy reinforced by masturbation.
3. Blockage – Age appropriate sexual opportunities have been cut off by either a traumatic sexual experience with an adult, sexual dysfunction, limited social skills or a marital disturbance such as the loss of a spouse. The latter has been described as a “Theory of Loss” phenomenon precipitating abuse.
4. Disinhibition – due to poor impulse control either because of substance abuse, a chaotic family background or psychotic mental illness.
There are women who are pedophiles and simply pursue children for the sex, but the female abuser usually falls into one of three categories:
1. Predisposed Offender – the abuser was herself abused as a child and she continues the generational pattern by abusing her own children. It is thought that she becomes an offender in an effort to resolve her own childhood sexual trauma.
2. The Teacher/Lover – she generally becomes involved with an adolescent male with whom she relates to as a peer. She may be looking for non-threatening emotional intimacy.
3. The Male- Coerced offender – she is being led by an abusive male who she is extremely dependent upon. But she may eventually initiate sexual abuse on her own.
While the public is periodically shocked into awareness by sensational revelations of the second and third type of female abuser (i.e. Hedda Nussbaum, Mary-Kay Latourneau), it is the first type that we have to finally give a face to – she is the one that is quietly victimizing thousands of young children who have nowhere to turn for safety. And the children ARE young. Studies have concluded that women abusers victimize younger children than male abusers – probably because of their role as caretakers. If current research is correct and more female than male children are sexually abused, then it is logical to conclude that more girls may grow up to be sexual offenders themselves and there may be a significantly larger number of female sexual abusers than we had previously imagined.
It is up to us to put aside deep-rooted myths about females, and more specifically mothers, in order to deal with the widespread problem of child abuse and more accurately expose all types of child sexual abusers.
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT 2010