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