The abuse crisis that rocked, and still tarnishes, the Catholic Church taught us all that venerable, respected, even supposedly-divine institutions can hide the most unconscionable crimes.
The scandal sparked a noticeable cultural awakening, both to the reality of childhood sexual abuse and the depths to which powerful organizations will sink to maintain that power. But as a culture, we have yet to confront the reality of sexual abuse by women, which is very real and probably far more common than we could believe.
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Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the very possibility of pedophilia was unthinkable to the average American.
Today, it’s not uncommon to read statements like, “child sexual abuse is a pervasive public health problem.” That sentence begins the National Sexual Violence Resource Center‘s 2012 report, which quoted a 1990 study that found nearly 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys were sexually abused before turning 18.
In just over 30 years, childhood sex abuse went from unthinkable to pervasive. But understanding the true prevalence of this abuse is very difficult, especially when we’re concerned specifically with abuse committed by women. Many of our most accurate statistics come not from medical researchers, but from the criminal justice system. Relying on police rates and conviction rates, however, is impossible. Only 32% of sexual assaults of any nature are reported to the police, says the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. That proportion can only be lower when children are the ones being abused, often by adults on whom they rely for survival.
Reporting from state child protective services is spotty, too, but the numbers are worth looking into. Between 1973 and 1987, around 20% of child sex abuse cases confirmed by protective service agencies involved female abusers, according to the American Humane Association. This picture of the problem, perhaps our most accurate to date, is marred by the fact that some states don’t even specify the gender of an abuser in their reporting.
More isolated studies have found even higher rates of female-committed abuse. In 1981, undergraduates at the University of Washington were surveyed about their recollection of sexual contact during childhood. Of 952 subjects, 60% of male respondents and 10% of female respondents recalled improper contact with a female at least 5 years older than themselves.
Most studies on female sex abuse are extremely small, and thus their results are difficult to generalize across a large population. In 1987, a New Jersey health clinic published a report on 25 male teenagers who reported a history of sexual molestation. 11 of the boys had been abused by females. In the same year, a study of 582 men at large colleges found that nearly 78% reported being abused by female offenders during childhood.
To some extent, the absence of accurate statistics on female sex abuse can be blamed on fragmented reporting systems and differing definitions of abuse, which have been found to alter reporting drastically. But deeper, and far more pernicious, is a general inability to see females as potential abusers in the first place. Female sex offenders live in a cultural blind-spot, one that seems to occlude the vision of America’s health community and its court system.
Despite the testimony of these study results to the contrary, “women don’t abuse” remains a common refrain. Even survivors of this abuse, as Charlotte Philby showed in her startling article “Female sexual abuse: The untold story of society’s last taboo,” are met by silence and denial.
Sharon Hall, who suffered continual sexual abuse by her mother throughout childhood, says her doctor was less than receptive to her disclosure: “don’t be silly, mothers don’t sexually abuse children.” Hall was 30, and newly pregnant, when she first disclosed her abuse. Apparently, Hall’s doctor chalked her self-reports up to a psychological trick, saying, “you’re understandably worried about becoming a parent yourself, but don’t let your imagination run away with you.” Now 47, Hall told Philby: “every moment I feel the effects of what I went through. I’ve been trapped by my past for all these years.”
After a male patient told his therapist about abuse suffered at the hands of his mother, the doctor wound himself into a Freudian knot. The man hadn’t been abused, but was actually fantasizing about his mother, and the only cure for his Oedipus complex would be “more therapy,” Philby writes. This trend, of rationalizing female sex abuse through psychological explanations, extends to female sex offenders. More often than not, their crimes are explained (and explained away) as the result of severe mental disorders. That ushers women who abuse children out of the criminal justice system, and into hospitals. Male abusers, on the other hand, are considered fully-rational actors, in charge of their behavior and thus inherently responsible for their crimes.
Hilary Aldridge, chief executive at a UK foundation that works solely with female abusers, told Philby that fully 60% of the child sex abuse committed by women occurs at home. Mothers are involved in the vast majority of these cases, whether committing the abuse themselves or complicit in the acts of others, says Michele Elliot, a child psychologist and founder of the charity Kidscape. Perversely, abuse committed by mothers is often woven into basic care-giving tasks, becoming a persistent feature of a child’s daily routine, from bathing to changing diapers.
That some women do abuse their own children flies in the face of our assumption that mothers are first and foremost nurturers, in contrast to men, who are seen as detached “providers.” This goes to explain the utter shock most people feel at learning about such crimes: we allow our preconceptions to stand in the way of demonstrable facts.
When psychologist Laurie Goldman attempted to find female sex offenders for her doctoral dissertation, several Boston health clinics told her that no female offenders were receiving therapy at their offices – even though Goldman knew that was a lie. Eventually, she resorted to hanging posters about her project around town. Within 2 days, all of the posters had been torn down. In all of 8 months, petitioning mental health clinics and therapists, Goldman could locate only 1 female sex offender willing to participate in her doctoral research.
So instead of studying female sex offenders, Goldman decided to write her dissertation on our society’s denial that female sex offenders exist. Her research quickly revealed that this denial is systemic. In Massachusetts, reports of female offenders submitted to child protective services never found their way to the Attorney General. In Washington, one judge dismissed a case filed against an alleged sex offender with the words: “women don’t do things like this.”
Priests, of course, are men, and since the Church scandal opened our collective eyes to the sexual abuse of children, it’s not surprising that our society has latched on to an understanding of abuse as a distinctly male phenomenon.
But there are, of course, female pedophiles and not everyone who abuses children is a pedophile in the first place. In fact, sexual abuse is usually explained with reference to power, aggression and violence. Abusers commit their crimes out of a desire for power, we’re told, and that desire is usually just as much a motivating factor as sexual urges, if not more so.
That may be true, but once entwined with society’s prevailing views on gender, which picture women as passive, demure and non-confrontational, a theory of sexual abuse rooted in power hides more than it reveals. Power, aggression and violence – traditionally, these are “male” characteristics. If we believe that women don’t desire power (or at least don’t seek power through aggressive tactics), and sexual abuse is a crime intimately tied to power and aggression, the conclusion that women don’t abuse children appears logical.
We’re also doing a disservice to our young men. When teachers have sex with male students, the idea that young boys enjoy the advances of older women is always trotted out, as Anna North noted on Jezebel. Somehow, that’s meant to serve as a mitigating factor, exonerating statutory rapists of culpability.
Passive women, active men. Cleaving to this archaic dichotomy doesn’t help our understanding of female abusers, and it consigns the survivors of abuse to a life in the shadows.