By Pamela S. Buchanan, Psy.D. and Linda M. Grounds, Ph.D.
Research regarding sex offenders has increased significantly in recent years, but the vast majority of the literature focuses on understanding the characteristics, risk factors, and effective treatment methods of male sex offenders, while almost completely ignoring women charged with sexual offenses. In fact, before 1986 there was no official data regarding female sex offenders. In this article, we offer an overview of current data and perspectives on women charged with sexual offenses and some of the psychological factors that should be considered in these cases. It should be emphasized that the following information is based on research which is only in its infancy and should be interpreted with that in mind.
The rates at which women are charged with sexual offenses are increasing, and, contrary to general assumptions, there is evidence that female sex offenders engage in a variety of behaviors, including rape and child molestation. In 2001 the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 1.2% of individuals charged with forcible rape and 8% charged with a sexual offense were female. In addition, the rate of female sex offending based on self-report studies is significantly higher than official reports. For example, some psychotherapists have estimated that over half of their psychotherapy clients reported having experienced some form of sexual abuse by a female during childhood.
Typologies. Typologies have been established to better understand and classify female sex offenders by their motivation to engage in sexual offenses, although it should be noted again that given the limited data in this area these typologies remain to be confirmed by additional research. That said, an understanding of the offender’s best-fit typology may be most helpful in assessing risk and areas of treatment focus for female sex offenders. Thus far, five main categories of female sex offenders have been identified in the relevant research: (1) teacher/lover, (2) predisposed molester, (3) male-coerced molester, (4) experimenter/exploiter, and (5) the psychologically disturbed individual. The “teacher/lover” sex offender views herself as an equal to her victim and usually does not engage in coercive behaviors per se. The offender has no feelings of wanting to harm her victim and does not regard her partner as a victim. Examples of this type of female offender include highly publicized cases like Mary Kay LeTourneau and Sandra Giesel. These women are often viewed as emotionally immature with profound difficulties maintaining intimate adult relationships.
The intergenerationally predisposed offender comes from a family where sexual abuse has often occurred for multiple generations. The offender was typically repeatedly abused as a child and may view sexual abuse as a normative family experience. The male-coerced offender is typically a passive mother who is dominated and coerced by her partner to abuse or participate in the abuse of her own children. These women are often characterized by dependence on men, low assertiveness, fearfulness and low intelligence, all of which are characteristics often found in women who commit non-sexual offenses with a male co-defendant. Although research is presently limited in this area, these characteristics may be indicative of dependent personality disorder/features and the role of pathological dependence among women charged with sexual offenses warrants further research investigation and may be relevant considerations when women charged with sexual offenses are being evaluated.
The experimenter/exploiter offender is usually a minor who exploits a younger child. These offenders typically victimize children they have access to, such as through babysitting or the neighborhood. Lastly, the psychologically disturbed offender has psychotic characteristics. The offender is unable to perceive reality and frequently has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
In general, there is some consensus in the field that most female sex offenders are motivated to meet their own emotional needs, re-enact their own abuse as a child, or obtain power and control.
Characteristics. In addition to typologies, there are several commonalities among female sex offenders. Between 72 percent and 90 percent of female sex offenders experienced sexual and/or physical abuse as a child. Female sex offenders often have high rates of psychopathology, with the most prevalent psychological disturbances being personality disorders, depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and poor coping skills. In addition, fully 22% of female sex offenders meet criteria for either borderline intelligence or mental retardation. The literature also suggests that most female sex offenders use less force and violence during sexual abuse than male sex offenders. Furthermore, female sex offenders tend to choose victims of either gender who were 10 years old or younger, contrary to what is often reported in the media.
There are also similarities among female sex offenders in the offending process. Many females use tactics such as grooming children and once the abusive situation has been established they overcome their inhibitions and guilt through cognitive distortions, similar to their male counterparts. Finally, the average age of a female sex offender at the time of arrest is often between 26 and 36 years old, whereas male sex offenders are typically several years older at the time of arrest. It should be emphasized that the age at arrest is not indicative of the age of onset of sexual offending by the woman.
Risk Assessment. As is generally the case in the field, the research on female sex offender risk assessments is very limited. However, several factors may be related to reoffending and should be considered by experts when conducting risk assessments of women charged with sexual offenses: their history of past offending, non-incest offending, solo-offending, antisocial attitudes and associates, substance abuse as a precursor to offending, problematic relationships, emotional dyscontrol, intellectual deficits, psychological factors (e.g., immaturity, dependency, psychotic symptoms) and deviant sexual arousal patterns. Often, polygraphs and penile plethysmographs are used to assess male sex offenders. While polygraphs may also be quite useful with female sex offenders, the vaginal plethysmograph (which measures vaginal blood volume, vaginal pulse rate, and amplitude and response duration to different sexual stimuli) is controversial at this time and has not been sufficiently researched. Furthermore, actuarial measures such as the commonly used Static-99 which examines static risk factors (i.e., criminal history, history of substance abuse, psychopathy, etc.) cannot be used with women charged/convicted of sexual offenses because there is no normative data regarding these women. Regardless of gender, dynamic risk factors (those believed to be changeable) should be assessed, e.g., antisocial attitudes, beliefs about children, etc.
Treatment. It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs for female sex offenders given the limited number of reported offenders and very little published data, but at this time it is believed that many may be amenable to treatment. The literature suggests that treatment with female sex offenders should address their history of meeting their emotional needs in destructive ways, which appears to be an integral offending pattern as many female sex offenders try to reduce their negative emotional states through sexual offending. Other targets of treatment should include addressing the woman’s own abuse history, interpersonal skills deficits, pro-offending attitudes, emotional loneliness, subassertiveness, and self-esteem issues. It may also be beneficial to address treatment needs based on female sex offender typology patterns and motivation, as well as enhancing the offender’s innate capabilities that provide a viable alternative to a criminal lifestyle and reduce future sexual offending.
Summary. As with non-sexual criminal charges, it is probable that increasing numbers of women will be charged with sexual offenses. There are a number of things to consider if you have a female client accused of a sexual offense. A thorough evaluation should include: clinical interview with the client, behavior observations, sexual offense history/characteristics, physiological tests (i.e. polygraph), dynamic risk factors, treatment amenability assessment, personality testing, risk management assessment, and intelligence testing (when necessary). In addition to specific case questions the attorney may have for the evaluator, a psychological assessment should also examine the following questions: 1) What is the probability of reoffense, 2) What degree of harm would most likely result from the reoffense, 3) Under what conditions is a reoffense most likely to occur, and 4) Who would be the likely victim of a reoffense.
It is our hope that attorneys, juries and judges can be increasingly educated about the current theory and science around female sex offenders and be able to use this information to inform outcomes in criminal cases in which women are charged with sexual offenses.
Denov, M. (2003). The myth of innocence: Sexual scripts and the recognition of child
sexual abuse by female perpetrators. The Journal of Sex Research, 40, 303-314.
Ford, H. (2006). Women who sexually abuse children. England: John Wiley & Sons.
Nathan, P. & Ward, T. (2002). Female sex offenders: Clinical and demographic
features. The Journal of Sexual Aggression, 8, 5-21.
Saradijian, J. (1996). Women who sexually abuse children: From research to clinical
practice. England: John Wiley & Sons.
Vandiver, D.M., & Walker, J.T. (2002). Female sex offenders: An overview and analysis
of 40 cases. Criminal Justice Review, 27, 281-300.