Female Offenders Driven by More Than Sex

What would drive a woman to sexually abuse a child? Experts say it's not just sex.

According to the Justice Department's most recent statistics, sex offenses are still very much a man's crime. Female sex offenders are very rare: 96 percent of the sex assaults reported in 1999 involved male perpetrators.

Women were most commonly involved in sex abuse cases involving victims under age 6, making up 12 percent of those offenders. Women were involved in 3 percent of the sex cases involving victims age 6 through 12, and 3 percent for victims ages 13 through 17.

Because they are so rare, experts are not able to draw an accurate profile of a typical female sex offender. However, some say loneliness drives female offenders more than sex.

"They don't seem to be pedophiles like men," said Hollida Wakefield, who has studied and treated sex offenders for more than 20 years at the Institute of Psychological Therapies in Minnesota.

"There are some cases where some people are in bad relationships or marriages and are just really lonely, and they find themselves in a relationship with these children," she said. "It isn't so much that women are sexually aroused. Keep in mind that the definition of a pedophile is someone infatuated with the idea of being sexually aroused by someone who has not come of age.

"And I would think it would be really difficult for a woman to become aroused by a boy — a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old — just beginning to be a young man," she said.

"Not all pedophiles are sexual offenders and not all sexual offenders are pedophiles," Wakefield continued. "A female being aroused by a 6-year-old, that's got to be pretty rare — it's rare in males generally, but it's even more rare in females."

Teenage female offenders, Wakefield said, typically commit their crimes when they are experimenting or discovering their sexuality. Many cases tend to involve women who are in a position of power over children, such as teachers.

In Utah, a female gymnastics coach awaits trial for allegedly raping and sodomizing a 12-year-old male student. A 24-year-old New York teacher is charged with having a sexual relationship two 16-year-old male students at the high school where she worked. And this past August, a former Bentonville, Ark., special education teacher pleaded guilty to first-degree violation of a minor for having sex with one of her 16-year-old students.

Double Standards Facing Suspects

But shock does not necessarily mean outrage. Male and female sex offenders may experience a double standard in the social perceptions of men and women. Male offenders may receive less sympathy because their cases are more common. The public, some experts believe, is always more shocked — but perhaps not as outraged — by stories about female-on-male rape because of women's perceived traditional roles in society.

"I think the first reaction is denial," said Gail Ryan, who has studied hundreds of sex offender cases. "Then people think, 'She has to be crazy.' I think the public feels that a woman who does such things must be mentally ill, as opposed to the whole population of men [who are sex offenders]. That's because women are regarded as nurturers and mothers."

No wonder experts say that Mary Kay LeTourneau, the former school teacher serving time for having an affair with one of her students (and ultimately bearing him two children), never would have generated headlines and a made-for-TV movie, if she had been male and her victim female. No wonder the general public is shocked by the case of Kristina Magnuson, a former Wisconsin social worker who goes on trial today of sexually abusing four boys over a 10-year period. See Story

Male Victims' Quandary

Still, abuse cases involving male victims and female perpetrators may be underreported because of the societal attitudes and myths surrounding boys' sexual development. One girl's rape may be a boy's "rite of passage."

"In society, it used to be that with a 13- or 14-year-old male, if his first sexual experience involved a 25-year-old girl who may well have taken advantage of him, his male counterparts may say, 'Hey, you lucked out,'" said Dr. Richard Gartner, who has treated male sex-abuse victims. "It was almost seen as a right of passage. That's the only group that later recalls such experiences as 'lucking out.' You don't find that in females. Today, that kind of behavior is regarded as sexual assault."

Male victims, some experts believe, can be more confused than females because of the myths. Because boys tend to be easily sexually aroused, Gartner said, adults can manipulate their victims into thinking they were equal and willing participants in sexual acts. Males can also believe that they allowed themselves to be abused and therefore are "sissies" or that they must be gay. Male victims may also believe they will be "turned gay," especially if the abuser is male.

Because of these various myths, male victims may not admit or even realize they've been abused until they reach adulthood.

"Adults can be very clever," said Gartner. "With female assault of boys, children, the abuse can often happen in the guise of something dealing with cleanliness, like during bathing. … There seems to be very little [in society] out there for a boy to feel like his betrayal is validated."