How Are Female Sex Offenders Different From Male Sex Offenders?

People have a tendency to think of child sex offending as being largely, if not exclusively, attributable to male perpetrators. This likely stems, at least in part, from the way such offenders are typically portrayed in the popular media. For instance, can you think of any episodes of To Catch a Predator or similar programs that showed even one female predator? It’s not just that female sex offending of this nature is rarely portrayed, though; it also appears to be taken less seriously than male sex offending in many cases. For example, it is not uncommon for people to refer to adolescent boys as “lucky” when an adult female (especially an attractive one) is caught having sex with them. In contrast, I have yet to hear of any cases in which an adolescent female is referred to as “lucky” when an older man is caught having sex with her.

Our tendency to view child sex offending as a male-only problem has an unfortunate consequence in that it may allow a large number of female offenders to avoid being detected. Perhaps this is why women represent just 1% of sex offenders in the United States prison system [1]. Thus, it may not be that women rarely commit such crimes—instead, it may be that women are not being caught or they are being punished less harshly. So just how common is it for women to commit sex crimes against children and adolescents? And in what ways do female and male sex offenders differ? A recent study published in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse sought to address these questions with the goal of providing a more complete picture of the people who commit sexual offenses against minors [2].

In this study, data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System were analyzed. The data included all reports from child protective services for 49 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico (Oregon is the only state not included because it opted not to participate in this program). Reports spanned the one-year period from October 1, 2009 – September 30, 2010. For purposes of this study, only those cases that featured substantiated claims of sexual abuse in which the gender of the perpetrator was known were analyzed, yielding a final sample of 66,765 cases.

The results revealed that 21% of cases involved a perpetrator who was female. This is consistent with other research showing that, while men disproportionately commit child sexual abuse, it is not uncommon or unheard of for women to commit such acts. In fact, there were 13,492 substantiated reports of women sexually abusing children in the US alone in 2010—hardly an insignificant number.

It is also worth noting that in cases where two perpetrators were identified for a given crime, women represented the co-offender in 42% of them.

The nature of female sex offenses differed dramatically from male sex offenses. For instance, with regard to victim age, female offenders were more likely to victimize younger children than male offenders. Victims of female offenders also spanned a wider age range.

Female offenders also showed a different pattern than men with respect to the gender of their victims. Whereas male offenders chose female victims 80% of the time, female offenders chose female victims 68% of the time. These numbers suggest that female offenders are not only more likely to target victims of the same sex, but also to show somewhat less strength in the gender preference of their victims.

Moreover, female offenders tended to have a different relationship with their victims than male offenders. For instance, when the perpetrator was a parent of the victim, that parent was much more likely to be female than male.  When the perpetrators were other relatives, unmarried partners, friends, or neighbors, they were more likely to be male.

A few other important differences were that male sex offenders appeared to begin their offenses earlier in life and continue them for a longer period of time than female offenders. Furthermore, female offenders were more likely than male offenders to be using drugs, to have physical and/or mental disabilities, and to be from homes in which other forms of domestic violence were occurring.

Altogether, these results reveal that sex offenses against children committed by women are more common than many people would expect. In addition, they suggest that female sex offenders may be distinctly different from male sex offenders in terms of both their own characteristics, as well as the characteristics of their victims. This research is of great social importance because it is only by obtaining a more complete picture of who the offenders are that we can most effectively work to stop and prevent child sexual abuse in the future.

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[1] U.S. Department of Justice. (2007). Female sex offenders: A project for justice pro- grams, U.S. department of justice. Silver Spring, MD: Center for Sex Offender Management. 

[2] McLeod, D. A. (2015). Female offenders in child sexual abuse cases: A national picture. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse24(1), 97-114.

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