A s of 1995, 4,500 sex offenders were incarcerated in Canada – only 19 of these offenders were female. Could it be true that only 0.4 per cent of sexual crimes committed in Canada are committed by women? Is it possible that the proportion of women incarcerated is reflective of the proportion of women actually committing sexual assault in Canada? It is difficult to answer these questions concretely, especially since underreporting skews sexual assault research for both male and female offenders.
According to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), however, “many researchers consider [David] Finkelhor and [Diana] Russell’s (1984) estimates of the prevalence of female sex offending to be the most accurate to date. Their tentative evaluation is that females may account for up to 13 per cent of the abuse of females and 24 per cent of the abuse of males, either acting alone or with a partner. Finkelhor and Russell also estimated that approximately 6 per cent of sexual abuse against females and 14 per cent of sexual abuse against males is thought to be perpetrated by females acting alone.”
Even if we consider that these figures might be somewhat overestimated, it is safe to say that the proportion of females incarcerated for sexual assault is very low – especially considering that the number of males incarcerated for sexual assault is only a fraction of those who offend.
Joanne-Lucine Rouleau, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Université de Montréal, has only treated 15 to 16 female offenders in her career, compared with hundreds of male offenders. While Rouleau admitted that not enough research had been performed in the area of female sexual offenders to come to any substantial conclusions about the reasons for these disproportionate numbers, she offered a profile of the female sex offender that may shed light on the issue. According to Rouleau and other sources, the age of female perpetrators generally ranges between 22-35 years old, as opposed to 14-90 years old for male offenders. Female sex offenders generally target children and adolescents, both male and female, who have some previous relationship with the perpetrator. Female offenders make very few random predatory attacks, typically using their positions of authority – parent, teacher, babysitter – to gain access to their victims. (It should be noted that this is also the case for most or many male sexual offenders.)
Statistics also show that many of the victims of female sexual offenders are the perpetrators’ own children, a fact which may itself contribute to underreporting, since the perpetrator may act as a barrier between the child and a doctor or teacher who might be able to advocate on behalf of the victim. It follows that victims would be “reluctant to report sexual contact with a parent on whom they are dependent,” reports the CSC.
Furthermore, the age and professional positions of many female sex offenders contributes to the persistent gender stereotypes that block society from viewing females as potential assailants. Traditionally, women are mothers, teachers, nurturers, and victims – not the violent monsters that we imagine rapists to be. If women are seen predominantly as passive, how can they be capable of sexual assault? Research from the CSC elaborates on the effect of stereotyping on our perception of female sex offenders: “Women in general, and mothers more specifically, have more freedom than men to touch children. Therefore, a man may be more easily perceived as abusive when touching a child than when a woman touches a child in a similar manner.”
Sexual assault by female teachers in their thirties on male students in their early and middle teen years is one of the most common and most publicized forms of sexual assault by women. According to the CSC, the women responsible for these crimes have often been victims of sexual abuse, and are dissatisfied in their current romantic life, or are unable to form healthy age-appropriate relationships. Instead, these women tend to form what they deem to be loving relationships with their young male students, treating them as they would a boyfriend of their own age. The women often see little wrong with their actions.
The media uses language such as “relationship,” “affair,” and even “love” to describe these cases, showing a bias toward the position of the offender, and contributing to underestimation of the threat and damaging potential of female sex offenders.
A New York Times article reads: “Ms. West…then seduced the friend with Scooby-Doo boxer shorts and evening jaunts to sports bars and used her school authority to rearrange his classes around their sexual trysts.” There’s a playful tone in this quotation: the author calls the assault a “sexual tryst,” giving it a mysterious and even alluring air. Another article cites a woman being “charged with repeatedly having sex with an 8-year-old boy.” Employing the neutral term “having sex” to an assault makes the woman’s actions seem benign.
The attention and sympathy that these cases receive from the media is also a product of the attractiveness of many of the offenders, stemming from the notion that the “beautiful” woman cannot also be the predatory woman. Offenders whose faces have been made popular by the media, including Debra Lafave, Cameo Patch, and the smiling Stephanie Ragusa appear charming, harmless, and even vulnerable. It’s difficult, based on their appearance alone, to believe that their sexual exploits could be so damaging. This inability to view female sex offenders as threatening is part of a greater reluctance to criminalize women’s actions. Peter Vronsky, a history professor at Ryerson University and the author of Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters, explains that even in courtrooms, “we don’t recognize [women] as serial killers, we recognize them as something else entirely.”
But perhaps reporters’ choice of sympathetic and even affirmative language to describe these cases is not symptomatic of gender stereotyping, but is actually reflective of the tenor of the incidents. Haven’t there been women convicted of sexual assault who, upon their release from prison, have married their supposed victims? Examples like the famous and contentious case of Mary Kay Letourneau and her “lover,” Vili Fualaau, call the criminality of their “relationship” into question. Letourneau and Fualaau first began having sex when Fualaau was only 12 years old. Years later, and after extensive legal battles, the couple is married with a child. Although this outcome might prove the sincerity of their romance, the question remains: did Letourneau’s seduction of Fualaau at such an early age leave him unable to form healthy, new relationships?
Of the 19 Canadian female sexual offenders the CSC studied, 14 had male co-offenders. It is tricky to discern whether these assailants were male-accompanied or male-coerced – the latter meaning that the woman had been forced by a husband or boyfriend, often through threat of physical violence or abandonment, to commit the assault. (The victims of these assaults were often the female perpetrator’s own sons and daughters.) “It is tempting to categorize all the female offenders who were involved in offences with males as male-coerced,” the CSC admits. “However, a closer look at their cases reveals that such a categorization does not accurately reflect their motives or behaviour.”
Only four of the 14 cases could correctly fall under the classification of male-coerced. In five of the 14 cases, women acted as primary aggressors, initiating the sexual assaults – they were not victimized or threatened by their male co-offenders. The tendency toward classifying female offenders as “male-coerced” implies the notion that behind every criminal woman there must be a criminal man: that a female would not, by nature, commit such acts if it weren’t for the love or the fear of a male.
There are few Canadians who don’t shudder at the mention of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Much debate remains as to what degree, if any, Homolka was coerced into partaking in the pair’s sadistic attacks, including the rape and murder of Homolka’s own sister. Videos that Homolka and Bernardo filmed of the assaults show Homolka engaging with full complicity in the acts.
Some perceive her plea bargain with the courts as a manipulative self-victimization. Her position is not uncommon: as Vronsky attests in recent cases of many female killers (although historically it has not always been true) “the females that acted with males oftentimes get a much softer deal, cloaking their case in the battered wife syndrome.“
There is no question, however, that Bernardo exercised extreme violence against his wife. Reports cite his beatings of Homolka as some of the most horrendous on file, the severity of the abuse leaving her close to death, with electrical cord lacerations to her neck, a detached retina, and spongy areas on her skull. It is difficult to claim that any degree of violence can account for the atrocity of the acts that Homolka committed, though it is equally difficult to imagine the atrocity Homolka endured living with Bernardo.
Stigmatized male victims
Gender stereotypes play a role in society’s perception of the male victims as much as they do female perpetrators. Until recently “men [have been] viewed as physically incapable of being sexually abused by women,” according to the CSC. Recent research, however, cites cases in which men respond sexually to many states of emotional arousal, achieving erection even from feelings of anger and fear. Despite the changing views of male victims of female sex offenders, social stigma continues to prevent these victims from speaking out. Society believes that men should want sex, that a boy should consider himself lucky if an older woman shows interest in him.
Darlene Hall, an employee of the West End Creche, a children’s mental health agency in Toronto, told the Globe and Mail that victims “of female abusers, especially boys, tend to be more traumatized than those victimized by men. It’s even more confusing for them…. It’s ‘I should have liked it.’ It’s the double whammy.” Though it is unproductive and problematic to create relative scales of trauma between victims, it is true that male victims of female abusers face the attitude that the abuse that they have experienced has been sexually educational, or in some way a rite of passage, making it difficult for male victims to seek help or report their abuse.
Rouleau concurs: “Younger male victims do not speak out. Of the incarcerated offenders that I have treated, 25 per cent were sexually abused by women and did not say anything at the time of the abuse.” She also highlights the additional danger of letting instances of female sexual offense go unnoticed. While Rouleau makes it clear that “everyone who has been abused will not become an abuser,” there undoubtedly exists a cycle of sexual abuse in which the abused become the abusers. In a controversial statement addressed to a conference organized by the Toronto-based Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse in 1991, Fred Mathews, a community psychologist at Central Toronto Youth Services, went so far as to claim that “by not acknowledging the problem of female sex offenders, we may be creating rapists, men who are angry at women.”
Issues of gender weigh heavily in society’s neglect of female sex offenders, and thwart our proper treatment of the victims of female sexual assault. In attempting to view cases of female sexual abuse with more objectivity, however, we should not err on the side of gender neutrality, in the courtroom or in the media.
Gender plays a critical role in understanding the life experiences of perpetrators: almost all women who end up as sex offenders have a history of sexual abuse, which is true of only half of male offenders; there are real cases in which females commit sexual assault out of fear for their lives; female perpetrators have different methods and patterns of abuse than do male perpetrators. In determining adequate sentences and constructive rehabilitation treatments for female offenders the issue of gender is inescapable. Indeed, the very way we treat female offenders belies our sexist assumptions. The persistent view of women as victims rather than criminals disempowers the offenders, absolving them of guilt because of their gender and perpetuating the power imbalances that underlie the cycle of abuse. We shouldn’t allow gender stereotypes to undercut the seriousness of sexual assault, nor to allow us to continue neglecting the problem of female sexual offenders.