Originally posted on April 11, 2013
Several years ago I read a book called Female Sexual Abuse of Children. Michele Elliot edited the book. As I recall, the book gave two different views of the issue: one professional, the other from the victims.
The book relied on a handful of testimonials — I believe four women and one man — to describe the ways women sexually abuse children. However, what they shared painted a picture far different from what people expect. These abusive women were not angels. The abuse was not pretty and harmless. These women were not victims of controlling men forcing them to act. These women were just as vicious, violent, and predatory as many male child rapists.
For obvious reasons, Elliott’s book prompted a great deal of backlash. Here is a dedicated sexual abuse researcher and a feminist writing about women committing child rape. Elliott recounts the responses people had to her findings in an interview.
I have written numerous times about female sex offenders. While there is not the same amount of research on female abusers as male abusers, there is a wealth of information proving that women do abuse. Granted, much of the research plays into gender politics and cultural assumptions. Many researchers will minimize women’s abusive actions by claiming that the women are acting out of misguided love or immaturity. Others will mitigate the affects of the abuse on children. Others will claim that women rarely abuse or that men force them to abuse.
Yet recent studies suggest that all of those are untrue. Women are more likely to use objects to sexually abuse a child. Women tend to act alone, just like male offenders. Women exhibit the same emotional tendencies as male offenders, although they seem more inclined to rationalize their actions. Women appear to commit at least 40% to 60% of the sexual violence against males.
As Elliott notes in the interview, this is something people have a problem admitting. We do not want to believe that women can commit such violence. Feminists in particular are hesitant to talk about this issue, even when discussing something as basic as teaching girls to ask for and respect boys’ consent.
People simply do not want to talk about this issue because it rides against our cultural beliefs. We believe that women are innocent, inherently loving, and maternal. As Elliott mentions, people would not think twice about allowing a woman they barely know to watch their children. Women committing abuse, let alone child abuse, let alone sexual abuse, completely dismantles that.
Those attitudes create a dynamic that not only allows for abuse, but also excuses it:
Anderson and Aymani (1993) stated that males reported being recipients of female aggression more than females admitted to being aggressors. The largest difference between male and female reports (41.1%) was recorded on a question measuring female adults’ initiation of sex with male minors. The next largest difference was observed on the question asking each gender their account of a woman initiating sex with a man when his judgment was impaired by alcohol or drugs (30.2%). Discrepancies were concluded to be the result of sexual socialization of women and sexual stereotypes of men. Women were believed to have answered the survey partially focusing on socially desirable responses and partially on the myth that men will never turn down a sexual opportunity.
In a follow-up study, Anderson and Sorensen (1999) concluded that men reported significantly more events of adult women initiating sexual contact with them while they were minors (OR=10.9), by getting them drunk or high (OR=3.7), and by threatening to end their relationship (OR=6.3) than women reported. All questions, except the one assessing mutually consenting sexual activity, showed some difference in the expected direction (i.e., men reported that women were more likely to initiate or be aggressive than women self-reported). The authors concluded that women may interpret their sexual aggression as more normal than do men.
This is hardly surprising. One finds the same dynamic in reverse. Women will report more instances of abuse by men than men will admit to doing. The problem is that we do not discuss women’s violence on a social level. We do not talk about how women mask their behavior in ways that men cannot. Most of the people I know who were abused by women recount those women using benign situations to initiate the abuse. This ranges from women changing a baby’s diaper to measuring them for new clothes.
We also do not talk about what these women do. Elliott mentions an account in the interview of a woman sticking a thorn-covered rose stem into a girl’s vagina.
While those explicit details may be uncomfortable to read, they are things we need to know in order to get it out of our heads that women’s sexual violence is something harmless and pretty. In my personal experience, it can be very physically painful. The sex toy always hurt more than any finger or penis. Those are attached to someone’s body, and if the person gets too rough they risk injuring themselves as well as me. A dildo, however, has no feeling. It is much easier to push it into someone’s body without feeling the pain one is causing.
Likewise, a person engaging in rough or forceful sex tends to have to use their entire body to do it. A person using a sex toy may only need to prop up their arm. Acts like oral sex can be painful. I think most men can attest that teeth do not feel good on their penis, and neither does rough sucking, biting, or chewing. Having a woman use her legs to pin a person’s head down on her vagina can hurt if the woman is forceful, and it can also suffocate the person because they cannot lift their head to breath.
Again, this may be graphic, but this is the type of thing people need to know. That certainly is not the limit for what abusive women — or men — can do. However, our perception of sexual abuse is so skewed that as a culture we make it difficult for people to come forward. When I told a social worker about the things done to me, she did not believe me. She stated she did not believe me. She believed some of what my father and uncles did, but not all of it, and completely dismissed anything I said about women.
People also do this on a broader social level. Unless a woman is dragged into the bushes, we do not think it is rape. Unless a man anally or orally penetrates a boy, we do not think it is rape. Short of a woman putting a gun to some man’s head, we do not think it is rape.
What made the Sandusky case so different than others is that we heard the details. We could not simply write off what he did as “molestation.” We heard exactly what he did, down to how the boys reacted. That detail changed the way people responded. That is a new thing. Ten years ago, people may not have cared. Yet during that time, we heard about what happens to boys, and that reshaped how people responded.
We need to do the same thing with female abusers. We need to talk about what they do, how they do it, how they cover it up, how they excuse it, and how they rely on cultural norms and political agendas to get away with it.