Women Charged with Sexual Offenses

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. Read more

Childhood Abuse and Revictimization of Adult Women

The experience of abuse is a pervasive problem within the United States. A 2006 study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services found that 1 million children in the United States experience abuse and/or neglect each year. Data collected by the National Institute of Justice along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that 1 in 6 women in the United States (18.2%) have experienced being raped, and fully 52% of women reported being physically assaulted as adults. (Tjaden & Thoennes,1998). A number of studies have looked at the consequences of child abuse, one of which is an individual’s increased risk of being victimized later in life, a phenomenon is known as revictimization.

A study conducted by Coid et al. (2001), found that women with a history of childhood sexual abuse (childhood sexual abuse) or childhood physical abuse (CPA) were two to three times more likely to be sexually revictimized after the age of 16. Messman-Moore and Long (2000) found that 20% of participants reported having been sexually abused as a child. Of these, 52% reported a minimum of one form of unwanted sexual contact as an adult, while 25% reported at least one incident of severe physical abuse or two incidents of minor physical abuse in adulthood. Based on this data, women with a history of childhood sexual abuse were found to be more at risk to experience abuse as an adult compared to women without histories of childhood sexual abuse.

Women who reported childhood sexual abuse were also more likely to experience forced intercourse as well as more physical and psychological abuse than non-victimized women. Gidycz, Coble, Latham, and Layman (1993) found that 32% of childhood sexual abuse survivors in their sample of college women experienced adult victimization compared to 13% without a history of childhood sexual abuse. Individuals who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were 11 times more likely to experience rape or attempted rape. In a review of the literature on revictimization, Arata (2002) found that most studies report that approximately one-third of women who experience childhood sexual abuse went on to experience repeated victimization and sexual abuse into adulthood. Arata also noted that most studies indicate that childhood sexual abuse victims are two to three times more likely to experience victimization in adulthood compared to women without childhood sexual abuse.

While few studies look at child abuse outside of childhood sexual abuse, one study by Widom et al. (2008) examined lifetime victimization in 892 individuals. Of this group, 55% had court-substantiated cases of three forms of child abuse (physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or neglect). Data collected in this study indicated that individuals who experience childhood victimization reported a higher number of traumas and victimization experiences later in life compared to those without histories of child abuse. Some of these revictimization experiences included being more physically harmed than individuals without a history of child abuse (75% versus 59%), being forcefully sexually assaulted (36% to 17) and witnessing another person being sexually attacked (8% vs 2.%). Overall, research has consistently demonstrated that women with child abuse histories are at a greater risk of experiencing adult abuse. Read more

New Data Analysis on Sample of 30 Women Charged with Embezzlement

We have continued the data analysis on our current sample of women who were charged with embezzlement, now including 30 women charged with fraudulently taking money that ranged in amount from a low of $3,000 to a high of $850,000. Eighteen women in our sample were charged in state court and twelve in federal court and their sentences ranged from probation to 6 ½ years. Only two of our sample of 30 women had any criminal history and both previous offenses were for relatively minor charges (i.e., DUI’s).

With respect to factors in these women’s personal histories, 47% lived in families where there was parental substance abuse and over 33% witnessed domestic violence between their parents. One third of the women experienced physical abuse prior to the age of 18 and half experienced sexual abuse before age 18. In addition, 17% of our sample also experienced sexual assault after the age of 18 and a whopping 53% percent had been involved in a domestically violent relationship themselves, many of which were concurrent with their offense conduct. Finally, 40% of the women we evaluated had what we call “the double-whammy” which is having experienced some form of childhood abuse and then were re-victimized by either sexual assault or domestic violence as an adult.

These women also presented with a variety of mental health diagnoses. A large portion of our sample met criteria for an Axis I diagnosis. For example, over half (63%) of the women in our sample were diagnosed with a depressive disorder, including Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia or Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. One third were diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder, including General Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, a Specific Phobia, or Anxiety Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder was present in 17% of these women. However, it should be noted that a much higher percentage of the women presented with significant symptoms of PTSD; the 17% represents the proportion of women in our sample who met the full criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD.

As we expected, a significant majority of these women (63.3%) presented with either features of or a full personality disorder.  Again, as we hypothesized, a significant number of our sample presented with features of either Avoidant Personality Disorder (43.3%) or Dependent Personality Disorder (46.7%), or features of both (30%). The dependent and avoidant personality features in these women clearly pre-dated their embezzlement and, in general, this was also true of the depressive and anxiety disorders.

What is clear thus far from our data is that there are patterns of exposure to parental substance abuse and domestic violence and sexual victimization in our sample of female embezzlers. As is very often the case for women exposed to childhood traumas, the women in our sample had significant rates of sexual assault as adults and over half had been in domestically violent relationships themselves. Similarly, over half of the women in our sample presented with passive, dependent and avoidant personality traits.

The next step in our work on this topic is to take a very close look at the extent to which the “double whammy” of childhood and adult abuse is a risk factor for the poor problem-solving that leads to embezzlement as a means of solving financial crises. We are also going to attempt to identify any patterns that might exist between the historical and mental health factors seen in these women and the various motivations for embezzlement described in previous posts as well as the sentencing outcomes and risks for recidivism.



Historical/Intergenerational Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Trauma that affects entire cultural groups

Historical trauma, also called intergenerational trauma, is conceptualized as a “collective complex trauma inflicted on a group of people who share a specific group identity or affiliation – ethnicity, nationality, and religious affiliation. Essentially, intergenerational trauma refers to the impact that historical traumas continue to have on subsequent generations of a given population. For American Indians, historical trauma is the result of hundreds of years of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and forced acculturation. Researchers are beginning the examine the question of how intergenerational trauma might contribute to the presence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, especially among Native cultures, but others as well.

Although researchers have only begun to explore intergenerational trauma with American Indian/Alaska Natives relatively recently, studies of different populations who have experienced historical traumas (e.g., survivors of the Holocaust and their children) suggest that effects of a trauma can be transmitted from parents to children, similar to the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and culture.

Boarding schools provide an example of how traumas experienced by previous generations of the population continue to impact current generations of American Indians. Children were removed from their parents and placed in boarding schools, with the intention of acculturating the children to European traditions. Forced enrollment in these boarding schools severed children from their families, resulted in the loss of native tradition and language, caused malnutrition, subjected the children to violence, etc. Read more

Forensic Psychological Evaluations of Women who Embezzle

When compared to the extensive psychological study of criminal behavior in general, there is comparatively little psychological research on white collar crime, which includes such non-violent crimes as fraud, insider trading and embezzlement. Although increased public attention is being paid to wide-scale corporate malfeasance (e.g., the savings and loan crisis, the Enron scandal and Goldman Sachs’ role in the recent financial meltdown in the United States), there is very little psychological data about the individuals responsible for these events. There is even less research focused on the much more common forms of embezzlement, i.e., stealing money from one’s employer. Similarly, despite the fact that the rate of increase in the numbers of women arrested and convicted of crimes during the last several decades has significantly outstripped that of men  research literature on criminal behavior by women lags far behind that focused on men’s criminal conduct.

Available crime rate statistics indicate that women are arrested for embezzlement at higher rates than men. For example, one recent study found that women represented almost two-thirds of the individuals charged with major embezzlement (over $100,000) during 2010. Despite this, there is very little research regarding the psychological characteristics of women who embezzle. What little psychological data that we do have about women who embezzle suggest that the motivations of women who embezzle and the rationalizations that women use to justify their embezzlement may differ notably from those of men who embezzle (Coleman, 2002). For example, Cressey (1973) found that his sample of male embezzlers typically needed money as a result of individual problems that were brought on by their own behavior and that this was the motivation for their embezzlement. Cressey’s male subjects often rationalized their crimes by telling themselves that they “were only borrowing” the money. In contrast, Zietz (1981) observed that women were more likely to justify their conduct in terms of the needs of their children or spouse. In a study focused on motivational differences between male and female embezzlers Klenowski (2008) referred to this as the woman embezzler’s “appeal to higher loyalties,” specifically the needs of their families, to justify their behavior. Read more

Problem Gambling and Women who Embezzle.

Women in the United States are developing problem gambling, which sometimes reaches the level of Pathological Gambling, a diagnosable mental disorder at rapidly increasing rates. Recent research efforts have increased the understanding of the psychology of problem gambling, including the roles played by depression and anxiety, personality variables, cognitions and biological factors. According to Toneatto and Millar (2004), research results have indicated that there is a correlation between problem gambling and depressive symptoms, symptoms of anxiety and obsessive compulsiveness and impulsivity. Research focused on gender differences (Grant and Kim, 2003) suggests, “Women are more triggered to gamble by feelings of loneliness and dysphoria (depression) as compared with men. Further, women’s motivations for gambling include escape from personal or family problems, whereas men gamble more for excitement and to win money.”

There is some evidence that women who develop gambling problems are more likely to be living with someone with a gambling or drinking problem, but to have fewer alcohol and legal problems themselves (Ladd and Petry, 2002). In addition, a 2009 research study (Afifi, Brownridge, MacMillan and Sareen) suggests that the presence of marital violence is “associated with higher rates of gambling.” Lesieur and Blume (1991) hypothesize that gambling may be a very specific activity that women use to deal with, especially distract themselves, from marital abuse. Further, a study by Scannell (2000) indicates that, “Women employ more emotion-focused coping strategies such as avoidance and self-blame, which in turn lead to reduced control over gambling behavior.” Read more