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South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Current evidence on sexual abuse by women

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The information we have about women who sexually abuse is extremely limited, partly because of fewer numbers and partly because we do not have the rich literature of survivors' accounts that exists in the case of those abused by men. Published accounts of sexual abuse by women include SOW (Schreiber 1973), When You're ready (Evert and Bijkerk 1987) and Ordinary Wonders (Green 1992).

Current statistics indicate that sexual abuse by females is rare. David Finkelhor and Diana Russell (1984) estimate that five per cent of abuse of girls and 20 per cent of abuse of boys is perpetrated by women. A section of the 1990 report of the British National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) stated clearly that their figures did not support the tip of the iceberg debate on women abusers. Russell (1984) examines a range of self-report studies which indicate that 27 per cent or less of boys and ten per cent or less of girls were sexually abused by a woman. There are exceptions that reveal a higher incidence but in each case the data are not generalisable (for example, studies of the childhood experiences of incarcerated sex offenders) or the original data have been lost and the validity of the analysis questioned (Russell 1984). Terry Macdonald Director of Child Protection Services at the Adelaide Children's Hospital estimates that ten per cent of the children they see have been sexually abused by a woman (Crisp 1991). Hanks and Saradjian (1991) report on seven studies which indicate a much higher percentage of female abusers (ranging from 25 to 60 per cent), but in these cases the population studied was a clinical sample of imprisoned sex offenders, incest offenders, serial rapists and male adolescents attending a health centre (Hanks and Saradjian 1991).

There is a word of caution necessary in discussing sexual abuse by Women. In examining any research, it is vital to consider language and definitions clearly Forbes 1992-93). Some studies include abuse by girls under the age of I8. While this abuse is no less damaging for the victim, to call a child of seven or eight a perpetrator presupposes knowledge, intent and comprehension beyond her years. Further, what constitutes abuse must be examined and some researchers extend definitions of abuse far beyond that presented in this article (Forbes 1992-93). One strategy used to exaggerate the prevalence of abuse by women is to point out that they have access to children in their care and it is alleged that everyday actions such as having the baby sleep in her bed, or touching the infant's genitals while changing a nappy may be abusive. (Crisp 1991; Groth 1979). Groth (1979, p. 192) concluded that sexual victimisation of children by women may not be as infrequent an event as might be supposed from the small number of identified cases' in spite of the fact that he encountered only three women out of 253 adult offenders in his professional work prior to 1979. These allegations are disputed by Finkelhor and Russell (1984). Russell (1986; 1984) further challenges the notions that sexual abuse by women is underreported because it may be perceived as less abusive than that perpetrated by men; that women mask abusive behaviour, that it may be unmeasured and unnoticed, less likely to be reported, and that because males are more frequently the victims, they are less likely to disclose.

While it is essential to work with the most recent available research and not inflate figures through dint of emotion or ideology, it must be remembered that a couple of decades ago, abuse by men was considered rare. At least we have to be open to the possibility that sexual abuse by women may be more prevalent than we currently understand, and hence provide the opportunity for disclosure (Renvoize 1993). Is there any evidence to challenge current thinking on the prevalence of female sexual abusers?

It was courageous women speaking out about their abuse as children that first alerted us to the staggering incidence of sexual victimisation of children. Similarly, adult survivors of sexual abuse by women are coming forward, saying that until now they have felt doubly silenced. After the National Conference on Female Sexual Abuse in London, the radio program, 'This Morning' opened a hotline inviting callers to talk about abuse by women. In one day, they received over 1,000 calls, 90 per cent of whom stated they had never told anyone (Elliott 1993). In April 1993, a television program called 'Unspeakable Acts', was screened by the BBC. The Broadcasting Support Services Helpline received I60 calls by women abused as children by females immediately after the screening. National self-help groups for survivors of female abuse have been established in America and the United Kingdom. Closer to home, a group for women abused by females in childhood was established after the Incest Confest held in Sydney in July 1992. None of this gives us incidence or prevalence figures, but we are hearing from people who were silent until now.

Is there any direct evidence from children that the incidence of sexual abuse by women may be higher than we currently believe? ChildLine is a national helpline for children operating throughout the United Kingdom. In the seven years since the organisation was established, 300,000 written case records have been documented. There are 2,700 calls received daily and it is estimated that 10,000 calls per day do not get through. Of these calls, 15 per cent relate to reports of sexual abuse of which ten per cent of children report a female as the abuser. In the period April 1990 and March 1991, 8,663 children rang ChildLine about sexual abuse. Of these, nine per cent reported a woman as the perpetrator with boys more likely to be abused by women, one per cent of girls, 12 per cent of boys (Harrison 1993).

Christine Lawson is critical of the research into female sexual abuse. She asserts that the survey approach may be an unreliable method of assessing repressed experiences, and that most of the documented cases come from clinical literature. She argues, therefore, that prevalence studies must be designed specifically to address the diversity of behaviours surrounding the experience of this abuse (Lawson 1993). Finkelhor (1979) agrees that surveys which ask specific questions about female abuse yield a higher prevalence rate than general questions. Renvoize concludes that 'although most of the material presently available shows that comparatively few females are involved ... it seems just as likely that the truth about female abuse may be very different. Just as the late 1960s when Henry Kempe wrote about what was then called "baby battering" and no one wanted to accept that mothers gentle Madonna figures that they were could possibly ever deliberately harm their own children, so today there is the same reluctance to believe that mothers could sexually abuse their own offspring. ... Now, many years on, it seems possible that [we] ... may have to accept that perhaps as much as 25% of sexual abuse is directly committed by women' (Renvoize 1993, p. 115). It is essential in this debate not to make unsubstantiated claims about incidence or prevalence and some evidence is contentious (Forbes 1992-93). What is vital is that our research and practice is conducted in such a way that we do not close off potential sources of information.

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