Sexual Assault by Women
Jo-Annie Spearson-Goulet, M.A., Ph.D. student in Psychology, Université du Québec à Montréal
- Sexual assault by women accounts for about 5% of all sexual offences.
- General and violent sexual recidivism rates for women are much lower than the rates for men: 1.34% compared to 17%.
- Studies of convicted female sex offenders show that about 50% commit their offences with a co-accused (often their dating partner).
- Convicted female sex offenders are more likely than their male counterparts to victimize boys.
1) What is the prevalence of sexual assault by women?
- Sexual assault by women is acknowledged to be a fairly rare phenomenon compared to sexual assault by men.
- In Québec in 2010, only 4% of people alleged to be responsible for sexual offences were female and they accounted for a total of 208 sexual offences.1
- According to a recent meta-analysis, the ratio of male- to female-perpetrated sexual assault is 20:1.2
- Based on the rate of intrafamilial sexual abuse reported to child welfare services in Québec in 1998 and in Canada in 2003, the perpetrators were the children’s mothers in less than 5% of cases.3,4
- A meta-analysis of convicted female sex offenders revealed that the average prevalence rate for female-perpetrated sexual assault is 5%.2
According to the findings of a major U.S. study,5 40% of men who were sexually abused in childhood reported that their abuser was female. In comparison, the rate was 6% for women.
- Retrospective studies of child and adult victims of sexual assault are another source of information on the prevalence of sexual assault by women.
- According to the findings of a major U.S. study,5 40% of men who were sexually abused in childhood reported that their abuser was female. In comparison, the rate was 6% for women. Among the victims, 20.8% of the males compared to 2% of the females said that the woman had acted alone. In the other cases, the abuse was committed by a woman with a male accomplice and 18.3% of the victims were male and 3.6%, female.
- Two retrospective studies on sexual victimization in childhood involving 365 adult victims6 and 511 victims under the age of 127 reported that women were the abusers in 3% and 5% of the cases respectively. These rates are similar to the most recent ones obtained from police and court records, suggesting that the phenomenon of female-perpetrated sexual abuse has remained fairly stable over time, despite being the focus of more in-depth research over the past decade.
- As for recidivism rates among female sex offenders, Cortoni et al.2 reported a rate of 1.34% over an average follow-up period of 5.9 years. This is low compared to the rates for male sex offenders: about 17% over a period of five years and 21% over a period of 10 years.8
2) What are the characteristics of sexual assault by women?
- Most studies on this subject have shown that there are more similarities than differences between female and male perpetrators of sexual assault. The main differences concern the type of offences committed and the fact that females are more likely to victimize boys.9
Female-perpetrated sexual abuse is often confused by young children with ordinary, day-to-day care and by adolescents with privileged access to sex.
- Offences committed by females involve sexual touching, masturbation, oral-genital contact, digital penetration, sexual intercourse, and so forth.10 These types of abuse may be imposed on the victim, demanded from him or her or committed in the victim’s presence.
- It is important to note that studies of convicted female sex offenders show that about 50% committed their offences with a co-accused (often their dating partner).2
3) What are the characteristics of women who commit sexual assault?
- Generally speaking, most of these women have a history of poly-victimization and serious family problems.7,9
- Psychologically, these women often experience major conflict because they are unable to reconcile their role of mother with that of wife. They see their child or adolescent as a threat to their relationship with their spouse (e.g. they consider their adolescent daughter to be a rival). Or they use their victims―often their own children―to fulfil their emotional and sexual needs by making them play the role of a substitute partner. This latter example is an illustration of the “teacher/lover” type.9
- Accordingly, despite certain similarities between female and male perpetrators, it cannot be claimed that the theories developed to explain the problem of male perpetrators also apply to women.11
- For instance, one study revealed that men and women (non-perpetrators) use similar types of sexually coercive behaviour. However, the main motivation for men is the desire for dominance and control, while the determining factors for women are invasive sexual thoughts and feelings of loss of control.12
Female perpetrator typologies
- The various typologies of women who have committed sexual assault are mainly descriptive and based on socio-demographic characteristics (e.g. single or married) and the characteristics of the crimes committed (e.g. gender and age of victims). Harris (2010)7 has identified common characteristics in currently existing typologies and incorporated them into the typology developed by Mathews and Speltz (1989 cited in Harris, 20107).
- The first type concerns women who sexually abuse adolescent males (often referred to as teachers/lovers): The abuse committed by perpetrators of this type is always extrafamilial. These women elevate the adolescent to adult status and view the relationship as being consensual. They are less likely than other types of female perpetrators to have been sexually victimized as children and they tend to have experienced verbal or emotional abuse in their childhood. Many may have had a distant or absent father.
- The second type concerns women who sexually abuse prepubescent children: These women usually victimize their own children, although they may also select victims outside the home. They are more inclined than other types of female perpetrators to use violence, have deviant sexual fantasies and display deviant sexual behaviour. It has also been noted that they have experienced severe childhood trauma, particularly sexual abuse over a long period.
- The third type concerns women who commit sexual abuse with a male accomplice: Fear of physical or sexual reprisals and an extremely dependent relationship with the accomplice seem to be the factors that motivate this type of female perpetrator. Their victims are often their own daughters.
- The fourth type concerns women who sexually assault adults: This type of perpetrator is less well known than the other three types. The vast majority of women in this group target female victims exclusively and they may also be involved in criminal activities. In addition, they are perhaps reported to the police less often than the other types of female perpetrators.
4) What are the main issues related to sexual assault by women?
A general prevention measure that can be implemented by adults is to ensure that the relationship between a woman and her child is healthy, i.e. that the woman pays enough attention to the child’s welfare and that the relationship is non-sexual, non-exclusive and free of violence or excessive control.
- The fact that sexual assault by women is trivialized and underestimated continues to raise the question of how well currently available research findings reflect the actual situation.
- Representations of the role of women―related to social and cultural constructions― continue to emphasize the nurturing and protective aspects of this role as well as women’s non-aggressive sexuality, and this may lead to a reduction in the detection and disclosure of sexual offences by women.13,9 Nonetheless, statistics obtained from sexual assault victims and maltreatment surveys show that women are capable of sexually aggressive behaviour and offences.
- Often, women who sexually abuse young children are not referred to the courts but to support or treatment services by youth protection workers.
- The female perpetrators discussed in most current studies already have a criminal record. Women who victimize young children are underrepresented in these studies and, thus, very little is known about this particular group.9
- The lack of data on women who abuse young children (under 6 years of age ) is worrisome and increases the risk that youth protection workers will not recognize the early signs of victimization or will make erroneous generalizations on the basis of existing data.
- Research on young victims should study ways to better identify the signs of sexual abuse by women (mothers, baby-sitters, etc.) that are often confused by young children with ordinary, day-to-day care and by adolescents with privileged access to sex.
- Lastly, parents, like other adults, should know that women who sexually abuse young children or adolescents have ambivalent feelings about their current and potential victims. A general prevention measure would be to ensure that the relationship between a woman and her child is healthy i.e. that the woman pays enough attention to the child’s welfare and that the relationship is non-sexual (e.g. during hygiene care), non-exclusive (fosters socialization), and free of violence or excessive control.
Last update: November 2012
- Ministère de la Sécurité Publique du Québec. (2012). Infractions sexuelles au Québec : Faits saillants 2010. Québec: Gouvernement du Québec. (Available in French only)
- Cortoni, F., Hanson, R.K. and Coache, M.E. (2009). Les délinquantes sexuelles: Prévalence et récidive [Female sexual offenders: Prevalence and recidivism]. Revue Internationale de Criminologie et de Police Technique et Scientifique, 62: 319-336. (Available in French only)
- Tourigny, M., Mayer, M., Wright, J., Lavergne, C., Trocmé, N., Hélie, S. et al. (2002). Étude sur l’incidence et les caractéristiques des situations d’abus, de négligence, d’abandon, et de troubles de comportements sérieux signalés à la Direction de la protection de la jeunesse du Québec (ÉIQ) (Research report). Montréal, Canada: Centre de Liaison sur l’Intervention et la Prévention Psychosociales. (Available in French only)
- Trocmé, N., Fallon, B., MacLaurin, B., Daciuk, J., Felstiner, C., Black, T. et al (2005). Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect – 2003: Major Findings. Ottawa, Canada: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
- Dube, S.R., Anda, R.F., Whitfield, C.L., Brown, D.W., Felitti, V.J., Dong, M. and Giles, W.H. (2005). Long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse by gender of victim. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28(5): 430-438.
- Kendall-Tackett, K.A. and Simon, A.F. (1987). Perpetrators and theirs acts: Data from 365 adults molested as children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 11: 237–248.
- Dubé, R. and Hébert, M. (1988). Sexual abuse of children under 12 years of age: A review of 511 cases. Child Abuse & Neglect, 12: 321–330.
- Harris, A.J.R. and Hanson, R.K. (2004). Sex Offender Recidivism: A Simple Question(User Report 2004-03). Ottawa, Canada: Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada.
- Freeman, N.J. and Sandler, J.C. (2008). Female and male sex offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23(10): 1394-1413.
- Tardif, M., Auclair, N., Jacob, M. and Carpentier, J. (2005). Sexual abuse perpetrated by adult and juvenile females: An ultimate attempt to resolve a conflict associated with maternal identity. Child Abuse and Neglect, 29: 153−167.
- Harris, D. (2010). Theories of female sexual offending. In T.A. Gannon and F. Cortoni, eds., Female sexual offenders: Theory, assessment, and treatment. Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Schatzel-Murphy, E.A., Harris, D.A., Knight, R.A. and Milburn, A.A. (2009). Sexual coercion in men and women: Similar behaviors, different predictors. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38: 974-986.
- Saradjian, J. (2010). Understanding the prevalence of female-perpetrated sexual abuse and the impact of that abuse on the victims. In T.A. Gannon and F. Cortoni, eds., Female sexual offenders: Theory, assessment, and treatment. Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell.