Female sex offenders: Most were victims first

A UGA study that is the first to systematically examine a large sample of women child molesters shows that many were themselves victims of sexual abuse as children.

The finding has the potential to help break a vicious cycle. “This study informs us about the pathway to becoming sexually deviant for females,” said its author Susan Strickland, assistant professor in UGA’s School of Social Work. “With this knowledge, we can improve treatment and reduce the likelihood of future sexual assaults on children.

Strickland said that the sexual abuse of minors by women has been largely ignored by the public, the legal system, and academic researchers. Many people simply refuse to believe that women are capable of committing such acts, she said, and the molestation of boys by women is often dismissed as boys sowing their wild oats-or even being “lucky.” The truth is that boys and girls abused by female perpetrators often suffer a myriad of consequences that affect their future sexuality, relationships, and beliefs about themselves and others. Childhood sexual abuse also has been linked to a host of emotional and behavioral problems such as substance abuse and eating disorders.

Studies on female sex offenders have been rare, and most were descriptive in nature, used small samples, or lacked valid statistical measures or control groups. The true prevalence of female sexual abuse on children is thus unknown, but a commonly accepted figure is that women commit five to seven percent of sex crimes.

Strickland’s study, the largest of its kind, surveyed 130 incarcerated women-60 sex offenders and 70 non-sex offenders-and examined factors such as childhood trauma, substance abuse, emotional neediness, and personality disorders. While most of the subjects in both groups reported being victims of childhood maltreatment, the sex offenders were significantly more likely to have experienced serious and more frequent emotional abuse, physical abuse, and neglect.

“We’ve known that the majority of women in prison have had bad childhoods and that many suffered childhood sexual abuse,” Strickland said. “But the subgroup of female sex offenders has suffered significantly more.”

Sex offenders in the study, published in the April 2008 issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, also exhibited more social and sexual insecurities, inhibitions, and inferiorities. Strickland said the findings suggest that many female sex offenders struggle with relationships and lack the social skills to have their needs met with consensual adult partners. Therefore treatment for female sex offenders should address their past trauma and focus on developing appropriate social skills and the ability to effect appropriate sexual and emotional encounters.

Because victims are at increased risk of becoming abusers later in life, Strickland said their treatment should include “offender prevention therapy,” which addresses issues of power and control, appropriate sexual expression and boundaries, and cycles and triggers that may lead to offending behaviors.