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Offending women: conversations with workers

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Offending women: Conversations with workers
Department of Social Work, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia
April 1998

This work is reproduced on the SECASA webpages with the authors kind permission. No parts of this work may be reproduced in any way without the permission of the author.


This article draws together the thoughts and practice strategies of over thirty workers who work with or who are concerned about the issue of women sex offenders(1). In exploring the thoughts and practice experiences of workers, it is hoped that we will be able to further develop our understandings of and consequently our practice with women sex offenders.

The workers participated in focus groups in September, 1997 and the points raised during the focus groups were noted. In reviewing these discussions, three major themes emerged - the presenting issues, difficult questions and practice strategies. Within these major themes, a number of sub-themes have emerged which I have grouped together under the headings of workers, theory, offenders, victims/survivors and systems. There were a number of issues which intersected across all three major areas.

Prior to presenting the information which emerged from the focus groups, I will briefly present an overview of the current literature on women sex offenders.

Brief literature overview

The issue of sexual assault perpetrated by women has very rarely been broached in the second wave feminist sexual assault literature(2). This absence very clearly relates to the reality that 98% of perpetrators of sexual violence, are men. There are however, some workers and theorists who have started to engage with the issue of women sex offenders and I will briefly explore some of their insights.

1. It has been estimated that 97-98 % of sex offenders are men. Scc Finkelhor 1986, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1994, ABS 1996. These texts do not identify the statistical occurrence of women as offenders. Therefore, we can assume that women form the remaining 2 - 3 % of sex offenders.

2. Brownmiller 1978, Chesler 1978, Dworkin 1978, Griffen 1979, Finkelhor 1986, Russell 1986, Bass & Davis 1995.

A thoughtful contribution to the issue has been provided by Kelly (1991), who identified the theoretical and practical necessity of developing a feminist analysis of violence perpetrated by women. Kelly has sought to contextualise the choice some women make to perpetrate violence against others, and more broadly, has challenged feminists' failure to adequately identify and theorise this form of violence. Elliott's (1993) text is another useful addition to the debate. This edited text includes case studies on women offenders who have sexually assaulted children. One of the authors who contributed to Elliott's text (Young in Elliott (ed) 1993), argues along similar lines to Kelly, that feminism needs to deal constructively and thoughtfully with the issue of women sex offenders.

A new body of feminist theory which incorporates postmodernism, has asked insightful questions as to the nature of sex and the gendered identities of masculinity and femininity(3). These theorists are increasingly challenging the existing metanarratives and dichotomous categorisations of men and women, and in particular, the concepts of a homogenous masculinity and a homogenous 'passive' femininity. By questioning the conceptual boundaries of established 'truths', these new narratives are creating space for the articulation of an 'other' reading of sexual assault.

There is an important contribution to be made from the feminist psychological literature which draws upon at feminist analysis of mothering. Hollway (1988, 1997) offers us a critical analysis of the construction of women's subjectivity and a different reading of psychoanalytic theory in reference to women. Alongside this analysis is Welldon's (1988) work on the social construction of the mother as either a 'madonna' or 'whore'. Parker (1995, 1997) has written extensively on maternal ambivalence and the love/hate relationship that mothers experience with their children. Saradjian's (1996) text explores the identity, childhood experiences, relationships and motivations of women who have sexually assaulted children. Saradjian has developed a speculative theoretical model and some strategies for therapeutic intervention with women offenders.

3. See Flax 1990, Nicholson (ed) 1990, Butler 1993, Smart 1994, Connell 1995, Featherstone 1996, 1997 & 1998 and Featherstone & Trimble 1997.

Featherstone and Hollway (1987) have edited a text which explores the social construction of 'mother' and the ambivalence that they suggest mothers experience within this constructed role. Parker, Hollway, Best & Maynes and Featherstone all contribute to this text which draws upon a feminist and psychoanalytic analysis of maternal ambivalence. Within this text, Best and Maynes reflect critically upon their own counselling practice with offending mothers, whilst Featherstone explores the presenting issues for workers who work with abusive mothers.

Extending the discussion to the practice issues of working with women offenders, Featherstone & Trimble (1997) write about the issues that arise for women workers when faced with the often competing needs of children and their mothers within the context of domestic violence and child abuse.

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1. Presenting issues


There were a number of presenting issues for workers which emerged during the focus groups. These included the following. Workers expressed their concern as to the political, funding and theoretical paradoxes posed by the issue of women as sex offenders. First and foremost workers identified the need to protect children and prevent the perpetration of sexual violence regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. As one worker commented 'our society is based on the abuse of children - both historically and structurally.' Whilst another worker commented that 'the politics of childhood reflect the politics of the world.'

In addition workers commented that services have not generally responded supportively to women who identify experiences of violence perpetrated by women. Along side this point, other workers commented that both historically and politically, women's services have defined women in the role of 'victim' of male violence. This traditional definition has effectively silenced or prevented women from speaking out about their offending behaviour or their fears about potential assaults against their children. Within the acknowledgement that services generally deny women's offending behaviour, other workers commented that women's services have traditionally valued and supported women's strengths, resources and abilities to make informed decisions about their life. This point illustrates the dysfunction that workers identified. That is, although women's services acknowledged women's strengths and resources, it was usually those strengths that were apparent as a result of women's victim experiences. The issue remained for workers as to how they respond when women make active choices to abuse another.

Within the above acknowledgement, workers were very concerned about the potential losses to the feminist movement. Workers were concerned that the hard won acknowledgement that sexual violence is a gendered crime and one which emerges from a misogynist historical and social context may be lost within a 'woman blaming' ideology. Workers were very conscious of the current neo-conservative political and economic climate, a climate in which mainstreaming and the tendering and contracting out of human service delivery is having a dramatic negative impact upon women's services. This impact is being felt not only in terms of increased direct service loads but also in the reduction of resources for advocacy, community education and policy analysis which has been an integral component of feminist philosophy and practice within the fields of sexual assault, women's health and domestic violence. This conservative political and economic climate raised concerns for workers as to how research or information on women offenders may be used selectively by policy makers or government advisors to further mainstream or marginalise services for women and children who are victim/survivors of sexual or physical violence perpetrated by men. Additionally, workers were concerned that this information may be used to minimalise the hard won community acceptance that the majority of perpetrators of sexual and physical assaults are men. As one worker commented 'The boys will just say 'women do it too'. Within these legitimate concerns, workers acknowledged the reality that feminist workers need to engage with the issue of women's violence.


The discussion on the theoretical analysis of women's sexual offending explored a number of intersecting issues. These issues reflected a number of different theoretical understandings of women's behaviour amongst workers. There seemed to be a general consensus that women who perpetrate sexual violence against children and other women, are acting from a different social, familial and personal context than male perpetrators. Workers identified a number of different aspects within this context that included the historical and familial powerlessness and oppression that women experience. Workers acknowledged that many women may be victim/survivors of childhood sexual abuse and/or adult sexual and physical assault. Workers also reflected upon the social context whereby women as the primary care-givers of children, men, the aged and disabled, have rarely received social acknowledgement and economic support for their domestic labour.

In acknowledging this context of social and personal powerlessness and often experiences of abuse, workers had differing views on the question of women enacting 'choice' or 'agency' from this place of powerlessness. Some workers commented that perhaps the violence enacted by, women against their children, was an attempt to gain power or feel a sense of power. One worker raised the point that we could view the offending, behaviour as a 'cry for help', whereby women in crisis may hurt their children as a strategy to receive or access services.

Workers raised questions as to why the violence would be sexualised. One worker raised the possibility that a woman sexually assaulting a male child could be interpreted as representing a form of punishment against men. In this scenario, the son could be viewed as representing other men who may have assaulted the woman/offender in the past. A few workers raised further questions in reference to women's personal childhood experiences and the possible impact these experiences may have on how women parent their own children. Workers raised questions as to the development of a woman's sense of self esteem or identity if the attachment process between a parent and child is disrupted by abuse. One worker made the point that if the attachment process is altered, the adult may dehumanise the child and therefore define the child as 'worthless' or 'nothing'. Most workers agreed that the process of de-humanising the 'self' followed by the de-humanising of the 'other' is normal element in the mechanisms of minialisation and denial employed by a perpetrator.

Some workers raised the issue of women's involvement in ritual abuse and that within ritual abuse networks women play a major role in instructing, brainwashing and perpetrating serious crimes against children and other adults.

Another issue raised by workers included their analysis of how women manifest and act out their pain from past experiences. Workers acknowledged the defence mechanisms that women commonly use. These included the intemalisation of pain, eating disorders, self harming, blood letting and/or disassociating from their bodies. The knowledge of the different ways by which women express or repress their pain may be useful in theorising women's offending behaviour against their children or other women.


Workers commented upon the glorification and myths of 'motherhood' and 'women' which effectively disallows the acknowledgement of sexual violence perpetrated by women and especially mothers. As a consequence of this social context, workers were aware that women offenders are therefore pathologised as 'bad or mad" which has lead to the medicalisation or criminalisation of the individual. Linked to this systemic response, workers were aware that mental health services may be working with women offenders who may have been misdiagnosed as having a psychiatric disability.

A couple of workers reflected upon the fact that often accommodation services have failed to address the issue of young women who demonstrate inappropriate sexualised behaviour with female friends, children or workers. One worker raised the point that in her experience the term 'bi-sexual' has been used by young women to mask offending behaviour against other young women.


Workers were in consensus as to the devastating impact of sexual violence upon a child, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator.

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2. Difficult questions


Workers identified a number of issues that are major difficulties for themselves personally and professionally. Workers reflected upon their own identity as women who exercise and embody different levels of power within their professional and personal lives. Workers commented that they needed to use their existing awareness, judgement and perception as tools in their work. However, workers also acknowledged that they were required to move beyond the limitations of existing knowledge to ask different questions about their work with women, whom they may define as both offender and victim.

Workers also identified the need to constantly re-visit their practice and theoretical frameworks to ensure that their day to day work meets the needs of service users. Within this, workers asked questions about how to address the issue of safety for victim/survivors of women's violence, who may be entering a woman only service. A worker raised the point that workers and organisations cannot ensure that all women will feel safe within services, however that this reality, shouldn't stop services from working, towards this possibility. This raised questions for workers about how services are advertised and provided.

Workers also raised concerns as to how they would work with women who have acted outside the worker's own personal and professional values and commitments. As one worker commented 'it flies in the face of your own values, you can't divorce it like we can with male offenders'.

Workers discussed the statistical reality that the majority of victim/survivors do not perpetrate sexual violence against other people or their children. This raised questions for workers about the victim/offender dichotomy, the need for accurate statistics and also the need to clarify what makes some women chose to perpetrate sexual violence as adults.

A major issue which continued to emerge was the issue of how to work with an individual woman/offender within a critical analysis of that woman's particular social context. Once again workers explored their analysis of women's level of oppression and marginalisation and how to situate a woman's offending behaviour within this analysis. This issue remained a paradox for workers.


The discussion on theory formed a major component of the focus groups. All workers were in agreement that current theorisations of sexual violence were inadequate when engaging with the complex issue of women sex offenders. When discussing feminist theory, workers commented that there was little critical analysis of women's abuses of power and the complex intersection which occurs when women are both victims and offenders. Workers commented on the need for feminist theory to grapple with the reality of women who enact sexual violence. Some workers, who work with adolescents, commented on the absence of theory to assist in making sense of sibling sexual abuse or the sexual abuse of children by other children. Workers also commented on the failure of feminist theory to theorise the ways in which women may learn to use, misuse or express power and violence within their relationships in both the public and private realms.

Extending this discussion, a worker asked whether the traditional feminist analysis that the act of sexual penetration is the ultimate invasion of another's body, is an appropriate understanding of the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by women? This issue was not extended further in the context of these discussions.

Workers also expressed concern that often the rights of a child may be blurred or compromised by workers looking at the victim's experiences of a woman offender. There were a couple of examples which illustrated how women's violence becomes defined, sanitised and decriminalised within society. One worker described a situation where school yard bullying was defined as a 'relationship problem', to be resolved by both the perpetrator and the victim. Another worker reflected her concern that child sexual assault may re-defined as a parenting issue These examples typified workers concern that there is a lack of understanding of what constitutes abuses of power by both young and adult women.

Workers raised the possibility that perhaps we need to move away from defining power in gendered terms and move outside the traditional gender assumptions within a feminist analysis of violence. This lead to a general conversation as to how we view women's relationships with their children, how we understand women's spiritual and physical connection to children and whether this connection is fundamentally different to how fathers relate to their children.

One worker reminded us to be wary of defining a new 'truth' as to women's sex offending and to ensure that this discussion is part of a process of exploring the issues and coming to new tentative understandings.

A major component of the discussion focused on the fact that workers felt stuck within their structural analysis of women's oppression and how we theorise and understand women's choices to sexually abuse another. This theoretical paradox remained for workers. Workers commented that the issue is fundamentally not only about the powerlessness of women as a gendered group, but also includes women's ability to make choices about their individual behaviour and the need for women to take responsibility for their choice to offend. Workers agreed that we (as a society) are able to acknowledge that different women exercise different levels of power depending on cultural, age, class, geographic and ability grounds. The difficulty for feminist theory and women's services, seem to be in reference to the enacting of sexual violence by women against other women or children.

A number of workers raised the question as to how women's unmet needs are expressed or manifested in a woman's life. In addition, workers asked further questions as to how such needs were met? Some workers suggested that if a woman is unable to either identify or meet those needs, this may lead to the abuse of self or the abuse of an 'other' who is socially, familiarly or physically vulnerable.

In seeking to theorise women's experiences, workers raised the point that it is difficult to work through such issues when there was very little theory and few accounts from women. Such accounts would assist both themselves as practitioners and also the women they work with.

One worker raised the issue of cultural diversity and queried the need to explore diverse definitions of 'normal' child rearing practices across different cultural contexts. The example given by this worker included the normal practice within another cultural context of tugging on a boy's penis to make it grow bigger.


Workers identified the need to have clear statistics which would delineate specific forms of offending behaviour and help define the offender. Some of the absences within the current statistics included questions as to the percentage of women who are victims of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by men or women, who then perpetrate sexual offences against others as adults. In addition, there is the question as to the differences amongst women who may sexually assault children in their care and those women who sexually assault their biological children. Workers also raised queries as to the question of women who may offend as adolescents, who may then re-offend as an adult. Within the discussion of statistics and definitions, a worker queried the percentage of girls under the age of fourteen who are sexually abusing other children - both girls and boys?

Another worker raised the issue of women who have intellectual disabilities who may be offending against other people with intellectual disabilities. During this discussion, other workers raised the intersecting issues of class and culture which may determine which women are defined as having an intellectual or psychiatric disability and which women come into contact with the criminal, mental health and protective systems. This lead to a further discussion on the need to unpack and contextualise the 'bad or mad' labels placed on women. Consequently workers identified the need to critically engage with mainstream systems and institutions who define, punish and treat women offenders.

A couple of workers raised the issue of peodophile networks. This was a controversial issue as workers raised the fact that some women don't have access to the resources and freedom of movement associated with male peodophile networks. Linked to this issue, a worker who works with women offenders, stated that women did not speak about gaining sexual pleasure from the offending. Instead women are more likely to speak about their sense of isolation, alienation and marginalisation within mainstream society. In contrast to this point, another worker who works with adolescent girl offenders, commented that one of her service users, explicitly described her experience of sexual desire and pleasure when sexually abusing a child. This issue illustrates the differences amongst women offenders and also the need to explore the issues in detail, as we seek to understand them. The issue of the constructed nature of sexual desire and its place within the sexual abuse of children and other women by women was unresolved. Some workers raised this issue as requiring further research.

Other workers raised the issue of women who are coerced into offending behaviour by violent male offenders or who fail to take action when a male offender assaults a child. A worker described an example of this when a women may be in the bed along with the male offender, however may not enact sexual abuse against the child themselves.

Another worker commented that current programs for women sex offenders mirror male sex offender programs and queried the appropriateness of this program duplication.

The majority, of workers agreed that it would be important to ask women offenders as to how they understand their own experiences and behaviour.


Some workers raised the point that more recent feminist literature has been seeking to grapple with the issues of women's offending behaviour, however this literature is still on the margins of the mainstream sexual assault literature.

A couple of workers commented on the severe effects of sexual violence perpetrated upon a child who is pre-verbal. Workers also discussed the difficulty experienced by a survivor if they experienced sexual pleasure during the sexual abuse perpetrated by either their mother or another woman.


The difficult questions that remain can be neatly identified as emerging out of the organisational and systemic responses to Women's violence. The majority of workers were in agreement that women's organisations have historically denied the existence of women's violence. This denial has a number of consequences for women who may present as victims and later disclose offending behaviour. Workers were also concerned about the possible funding, philosophical and practice implications if an agency began to provide a service for perpetrators. Workers were very concerned about the possibility that resources may be diverted from services for victims of violence.

Linked to these concerns, workers also raised the need for agencies to develop protocols, policy, referral networks and processes for the sharing of information to address this complex issue. Workers also commented on the impact of contracting and tendering for services on the time and resources available to participate in advanced training or skill sharing amongst workers.

As reflected in the previous discussion, all workers agreed that the mainstream systems which intervene in women's lives work in a paradoxical manner with the issue of women's offending behaviour. This paradox is evidenced in the reality that systems fluctuate between denying the existence of the offence or defining women offenders as monsters and consequently punishing them to a far greater degree than male offenders. Examples workers identified include workers in the mental health profession defining women's stories of offending behaviour as 'delusions', contrasted to the lengthy custodial sentences for women convicted of sexual offences or as co-offenders. Workers also identified that the legal system often fails to 'hear' experiences described by children and women who come in contact with the criminal justice system.

There was general consensus amongst workers about the enacting of systemic abuse or secondary abuse upon women who are identified as offenders. This abuse may be a reflection on the definition of women offenders as monsters within the systems that intervene in women's lives. The neglect of the legitimate needs of women offenders within various systems was a suggested outcome of such systemic abuse. An example raised by one worker related to the unmet therapeutic needs of women sex offenders incarcerated within the Melbourne Metropolitan Women's Prison at Deer Park.

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3. Strategies

Practice strategies

A number of the practice strategies reflect a feminist philosophical framework and practice base, therefore they would be familiar to most workers in the field. However, the difference within some basic practice strategies that workers are familiar with, lies in the nature of the issue. Therefore these fundamental components of ethical and thoughtful feminist practice need to be considered carefully by the worker - as they emerge from a body of discursive and practice knowledge that traditionally has not engaged with the issue of women's agency and choice to perpetrate sexual violence.

To reiterate some of the fundamental points: listen critically, refer people to literature and other resources, use supervision to resolve personal responses, create a safe space, name the violence, provide space for women to own their violence. This position lead to further discussion as to the need for workers to identify whether they are working with the woman and her experiences of victimisation or her offending behaviour. It was suggested that workers not to make assumptions about the gender of the perpetrator when talking to victim/survivors of sexual abuse.

Two workers who work with offenders were very clear about the need to identify the limits to confidentiality that could be expected within their contact with a service user if they have a reasonable belief that a child has been abused or a child is at risk of abuse. These workers commented that clarifying their role and responsibilities in relation to the protection of children, can assist women in disclosing their offending behaviour. Within this context of limited confidentiality, women know that workers can be trusted, that they will not collude with the abuse and are clearly identifying their duty of care to the children.

Workers also discussed the need to ask different questions of children and hear children's descriptions of their experiences and their stories in a more critical way. Within this re-learning, workers also suggested asking different questions and to listen in a different way to the narratives of women. Workers suggested that if a woman discloses her fear of assaulting another person, that this fear is acknowledged, supported, contextualised and explored in greater detail.

If workers are co-facilitating a group for women, they need to actively engage with the issues if they arise. Workers may need to revisit group rules to contain the discussion and maintain a safe place for group members.

There were some specific strategies that were identified by a worker who works primarily within an offender program. These strategies include: looking at the cycle of offending behaviour, looking at the history of offending behaviour - what the offender started with, when and how it has escalated and critically question cognitive distortions and errors - for example: denial, minimalisation and victim blaming. This worker commented that from her experience, these cognitive distortions appeared to be the same as for male sex offenders. The worker also commented on the need for workers to look at grooming behaviour which seemed to distinguish girls from boy sex offenders. The worker commented that boys usually use threats of physical violence whilst the girls use, what could be defined as 'nuturing' behaviour. In addition to the grooming behaviour, the worker identified the need to explore the targeting of victims. This worker gave an example whereby she was working with an adolescent female sex offender. Within their counseling, the worker had sought to develop some victim empathy in the offender and had clarified that a four year old child would remember the abuse perpetrated against their body. Later the worker discovered that the offender had then decided to target babies, as the offender rationalised that a baby wouldn't remember the assaults.

Workers identified a number of tools that they use to assist in their own work. These included using symbols and visual aids to assist in telling stories, art and body work for healing, inner child work, healthy food and activities, role modeling and parental education.

Workers also acknowledged the need for workers to do a lot of personal work. This work should include exploring personal experiences of power exerted by women, personal experiences of abusing or using power over other women, children or men, owning a desire to be dominant, destroy or alienate 'others', acknowledge individual and professional abilities and needs. Workers also called upon organisations and funding bodies to provide training and supervision to assist them in dealing with difficult issues. Workers also suggested that professional associations and organisations should develop better mechanisms of accountability.


One worker commented that 'Can we start by saying that these services are needed' This set the context for further discussion amongst workers about how to ensure that organisations respond more appropriately to these issues. Some of the strategies included the following: applying for research grants, documenting the experiences and difficulties as experienced by workers and service users and for this documentation to be presented to the funding bodies. In addition, workers commented that agencies should ensure that the issue is reflected in staff training, agency policy and documentation, procedures, supervision and service user pamphlets. Workers also reflected on the need for agencies to look at the informal culture that operates and how services are delivered. Workers also reflected on the need for agencies to be clear about their legislative mandate for the protection of children. Paralleling the issues named above, workers reflected on the need for a number of interrelated systems to name the issue within the public discourse. This strategy would also be assisted by various systems looking at the issue of parenting education and pro-active responses to the issues of sexual violence perpetrated within the community. Workers also believed that different systems need to look at long term recommendations about how to work ethically and appropriately with women sex offenders.

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This article has sought to reflect the diversity of ideas, thoughts and practice strategies of over 30 workers who have explored the issues relating to women as sex offenders in a number of small focus groups. There are a number of issues raised by workers in reference to their current theorisations and practice strategies when working with women offenders. These issues would benefit from further discussion and research.


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The South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault acknowledges the traditional Aboriginal owners of country throughout Victoria. We pay our respects to them, their culture and their Elders past, present and future.