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Translated by Zoe Yarymowich
“Really, that exists?”
“No, that can’t be! It goes against nature.”
“Oh yeah? A woman can do that?”
A brief overview with the members of my entourage concerning women who commit sexual assaults on children led me to examine what the scientific literature insists on reminding us: it is urgent to explore this (Colson et al., 2013; Denov, 2001; Denov, 2004b).
It is clear that the magnitude of this reality is underestimated and the consequences for the victims are as important as when the assault is committed by a man.
The repercussions, ranging from relationship problems to suicide ideation (Denov, 2004b; Dube et al., 2005), can be even more damaging when the perpetrator is female (Denov, 2004b). This is because these victims do not dare to reveal themselves, fearing the reaction of healthcare professionals and the authorities (Hetherton, 1999), in addition to experiencing shame and guilt in the face of a situation that may seem unlikely in the eyes of their entourage (Saradjian, 2010).
There is a taboo and a persistent misunderstanding about female perpetrators of sexual assault against children (Denov, 2004b; Vandiver et al., 2008), although its veracity is undoubtedly supported by a multitude of statistics (Colson et al., 2013; Cortoni et al., 2017). The most recent data show that an even greater proportion of women than what one would have previously imagined may have committed sexual violence against children. According to the official data, 2% of sexual offences are perpetrated by women, however, in victimization surveys (based on the auto-reported data), they represent 12% of this type of offence (Cortoni et al., 2017). It would therefore appear that a large proportion of sexual crimes against children committed by women go unreported to the authorities, a significant gap in the data that needs attention.
What Are the Reasons for This Persistent Taboo Around Female Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse?
A revival of conceptions concerning female sexuality has taken place in recent years: it is increasingly more accepted that this sexuality can in fact be active; its existence is no longer being reduced solely to the passive expectation of being able to satisfy masculine desires. Despite this, the widespread conception of femininity attributes women to a reduced potential for sexual desire, and a reduced capacity to initiate a sexual act (Byers, 1996, Denov, 2003; Johnson, 1997; Lawson, 1991).
The very idea that a woman can assume a dominant position over others to force a sexual relationship is difficult to accept (Anderson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998; Elliot, 1994).
Sexual gender role stereotypes persist and tend to put women in the position of victims and men in the position of aggressors (Denov, 2001; Lawson, 1991). Unlike men, who in the popular imagination are associated with a desire to impose their power on their victim (Denov, 2001; Denov, 2003), the actions of female perpetrators of sexual assault on children are perceived as an excess of tenderness and benevolence (Denov, 2001). Indeed, the maternal instinct that sees to the protection of others remains one of the principal sexual roles associated with women; the Judeo-Christian cultural roots having tinted society with this idea of the chaste and maternal woman (Larson & Maison, 1987 cited in Chiotti, 2009). This persistent idea that women do not naturally have the potential to sexually assault has long influenced the recognition of this reality and, at the same time, the denunciation of such events. As a result, the statistical prevalence of assaults by women is affected, both in figures from official data and in scientific literature.
Ultimately, it is through this very rejection of the existence of this reality, based on sexual stereotypes, that the scientific community, mass media, justice system, and professional resources helping victims, have contributed to this phenomenon. Even today, it is taboo with indisputable negative consequences for victims.
What Does Scientific Literature Have to Say on the Subject?
Little scientific research targeting child sexual assault by women was done before the early 1990s and many are based only on small samples (Strickland, 2008), although cases of sexual assault committed by women have long been documented (Bender & Blau, 1937). While some authors have minimized the importance of this phenomenon by relying on its low prevalence (Mathis, 1972 cited in Hetherton, 1999; O’Hagan, 1989), others have denied the very existence of pedophilic behaviour in women (Freud et al., 1984). Within the fourth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), only one diagnosis of paraphilia includes women (sexual masochism), putting forward the idea that women are not fit to feel such sexual urges (APA, 1994, cited in Denov, 2003). However, the DSM-5 subsequently asserted that pedophilic disorder, even if it is only present in a small proportion, does, in fact, exist in women (APA, 2013). Furthermore, Colson et al. (2013), accuse the scientific literature of having appropriated preconceived ideas of old publications, relative to sexual roles of forming statistics and typologies based on these non-significant data, and of having gaps in terms of the clarity of typologies. The low official prevalence of cases of sexual assault against children committed by women (Cortoni & Gannon, 2011) and the low reporting rate explain the reduced number of studies on the subject (Vandiver & Walker, 2002). In the end, the literature has instead had a hindering effect in dismantling this taboo.
Criminology, without ignoring that a sexual crime can be committed by a woman, has until recently been limited to explaining the behaviours of female sexual delinquents based on their male counterparts (Blanchette & Brown, 2006). The factors leading to criminal behaviour were seen to be universal, independent of gender. However, it is essential to take an interest in it since differences exist (Blanchette & Brown, 2006), both in terms of the risk of recidivism (Cortoni et al., 2010) and in the types of problematic sexual behaviour (Blanchette & Brown, 2006).
Moreover, preconceived ideas concerning the role of women have had consequences on scientific writings: the idea that a woman can commit such an act causes cognitive dissonance leading some to seek external explanations (Hetherton, 1999) such as a major mental illness, the coercion from a man, or the mitigation of the severity of the consequences of the sexual assault by a woman on a minor (Cortoni et al., 2017; Ford, 2006). These explanations rule out the idea that women can assault on their own accord and that their victims experience the repercussions.
What Responsibility Does the Media Have?
Although sexual assaults committed by women are mediatized, they are disproportionately represented when compared to males. According to Chiotti (2009), whose study examines the portrayal of female sex offenders in the media – and not just crimes committed against children – 45% of all publicized cases of sexual assaults are perpetrated by women. However, studies show that in reality, they represent 10% of the cases brought to court, and between 20 and 40% are self-reported cases (Chiotti, 2009). Therefore, there is an over-representation of sexual assaults committed by women in the media.
According to Chiotti (2009), the media interest in these women is explained by the double derogation they commit. On the one hand, they are committing a reprehensible act in the eyes of the law by sexually assaulting; on the other hand, they do not correspond to the sexual roles expected by a patriarchal society, this is to say, being passive and vulnerable (Boyle, 2004; Denov, 2003), sexual assaults being more associated with male characteristics of being sexually active, dominant and aggressive (Allgeier & McCormick, 1983; Byers, 1996; Denov, 2003).
According to this perspective, women who have committed sexual assaults have characteristics that provoke strong reactions for listeners, thus being a golden topic for obtaining a large audience. The disproportionate media coverage of these sexual assault cases also reinforces gender stereotypes by reaffirming the norm of passivity that women must conform to (Chiotti, 2009). On the one hand, when a perpetrator is a man, attention is paid only to the sexual crimes with a particularly high level of violence. On the other hand, the crimes committed by women entitled to media coverage are usually not very violent (Chiotti, 2009).
By extensively exposing women whose behaviours transgressed their gender roles, media sensationalism reaffirms the importance of not violating these roles (Chiotti, 2009).
The aspects brought forward during media exposure also persist to differ depending on the gender of the sexual assailant (Chiotti, 2009). While for men, the idea that the victim is unknown to the sexual perpetrator is put forward, for women, the emphasis is on the transition from a maternal and protective woman to a woman who commits a crime (Chiotti, 2009). Media discourse, therefore, focuses on the poverty of the sexual perpetrator, her marital status, and physical appearance (Collins, 2016) and uses terms such as “in love” and “emotional” to present a link with the victim (men being more demonized by the terms used) (Chiotti, 2009). The media thus exposes the sexual delinquency of women more accordingly to personal and social characteristics than if it were a man in question.
Although the media are discussing it, the issue of women who assault is overemphasized and focuses on specific aspects that paint a picture far from reality. As a result, the media undermines the establishment of a just and legitimate conception of female sexual perpetrators and reinforces the prescriptive patriarchal structure of sexual norms (Chiotti, 2009).
What is the Impact of the Health Professionals' Approach?
Key players in the process of disclosure and treatment of victims are health professionals, who are also influenced by sexual role stereotypes that are propagated by society and lead to the de-dramatization of assaults committed by women (Denov, 2003; Denov, 2004a; Saradijan, 2010). These professionals play an important role in supporting a victim in their decisions about whether or not they will seek justice, which also influences official statistics.
In a study by Denov (2001) on the perspective of psychiatrists and police officers, these professionals tend to neutralize psychological discomfort and cognitive dissonance (Denov, 2003) by transposing these women into sexual roles that are more acceptable for them (Denov, 2001).
This is done, for example, by explaining sexual assault in which a woman allegedly commits on a young boy by determining, instead, that she was playing the role of the sexual initiator. In this way, the role of the maternal woman offering a lesson to others is respected. The assault committed by the woman is then perceived as being less damaging for the victim and is therefore treated less seriously (Denov, 2001; Kite & Tyson, 2004).
A Canadian comparison of sexual assault cases on children found that when a man is the perpetrator of an assault, the majority of victims referred to the justice system come from professional services, compared to only a third of victims when it is a woman (Peter, 2009).
In short, being front-line actors and professionals who work with victims and their attackers, must be sensitive to this reality, by recognizing their biases and providing adequate care.
Where Does the Justice System Fit Into This?
Beliefs stemming from gender roles also have consequences for the justice system, since it does not tend to recognize that a woman can in fact act as a sexual offender (Denov, 2003), nor that a man can be the victim of a sexual assault (Hislop, 2001). Consequently, the number of cases reported by official agencies suffers and leads to an under-representation of female child sexual offenders (Denov, 2003).
Female sexual offenders are more often referred out of the justice system for a variety of reasons (Vandiver & Walker, 2002), including being referred to healthcare services long before being reported to the justice system (Saradjian & Hanks, 1996). At the same time, a study carried out in 2002 (Aylward et al., 2002 cited in Gannon & Cortoni, 2010) affirms that the conditions of release are much more flexible for women than they are for men. In particular with regard to restriction of contact with minors: this restriction affects 71% of male perpetrators while it only constrains 53% of women who have committed the same crime. The justice system, therefore, tends not to impose the same penalties depending on the gender of the individual, possibly under the effect of social stereotypes that tend to minimize the consequences of such a crime committed by a woman.
Recognition of female perpetrators of sexual assault is a process whose progression is recognized thanks to the latest scientific advances. These overturn previous results by demonstrating the high prevalence of this phenomenon (Cortoni et al., 2017) and the common characteristics of these women (Colson et al., 2013; Elliott et al., 2010). There is a general call for social recognition of the existence of sexual assaults committed by women, specifically among healthcare professionals who have a key role in the lives of victims. However, the literature that addresses the question of the taboo and its impact dates back to more than a decade and is repeated in most recent studies to justify this still persistent taboo. It would be relevant to look again at this problem and to assess how it is developing within the justice system, healthcare professionals, and the population in general.
Failure to recognize that women may be perpetrators of sexual assault risks further isolating and stigmatizing the victims and exacerbating the consequences of sexual aggression on them.
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To cite this article :
Mallais, M. (2018, February 6). Female Sexual Crimes: From Taboo to Recognition. Les 3 sex*. https://les3sex.com/en/news/10/la-delinquance-sexuelle-au-feminin-de-tabou-a-reconnaissance