South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Introduction

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In the past two decades the truth about the sexual violation has been spoken over and over. Finally, the magnitude of this problem is being recognised. Volumes have been written about the prevention of and intervention in child services (although inadequate) have been established. Sexual abuse, and sexual abuse by women until recently, has been treated as a taboo subject. The knowledge that the overwhelming proportion of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by males left the issue of female perpetrators unexamined. Having only recently made progress in a hard-fought battle to place gender and male power at the centre of an analysis of sexual abuse, practitioners and theoreticians are understandably reluctant to focus any attention on female abusers. However, it is now becoming clear that a significant minority of victims are abused by women and it is essential that no child should be silenced by ideology which denies the reality of abuse by females. This article examines the controversies surrounding the issue of female sexual abuse and the struggles which we have in confronting this abuse. An explanation of sexual abuse by women within feminist understanding is proposed. Current evidence on the prevalence of female sexual abuse and characteristics of perpetrators is outlined. Practice practitioners working with child victims or adult survivors are explored.

A few years ago, it would have been unimaginable to publish a paper on childhood sexual abuse by female perpetrators. Political and practice imperatives urgently focused attention on the predominance of male abusers, and concepts of power and patriarchy, as we sought to understand and intervene in childhood sexual abuse. This analysis remains of paramount importance for work in childhood sexual assault, yet the context has altered sufficiently to allow my willingness to write such a paper. What has changed? Renee Koonin is a Lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

First, I have developed a deeper understanding of my own experience and its political implications. I am an incest survivor. When I recalled that I was sexually abused by my stepfather as a child, I was devastated, but I was, not surprised. When I remembered that my mother had also abused me sexually, my world fell apart. Nothing I believed, none of my work as a social worker, educator and activist had prepared me for this truth.

A feminist understanding of incest and childhood sexual assault, gained from my years of practice and research as a social worker and academic, led me to maintain my focus on the abuse of male power as the cause of my predicament. I labelled the intense and different feelings I experienced about my mother's abuse as personal and idiosyncratic, and felt even more isolated as I felt more shame, more responsible for having been a victim of such a rare occurrence as sexual abuse by female perpetrators. That was until I met other women who were victims of sexual abuse by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and female cousins and carers. My personal experience was also shared.

At the same time as I began to realise that my experience was not unique, emerging research confirmed that sexual abuse by women may well not be as infrequent as we have previously understood. While the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by male offenders, our responsibility to child victims and adult survivors of female offenders means that we dare not overlook this significant minority.

Finally, and most importantly, I believe that an exploration of sexual abuse by women provides an opportunity to enhance our comprehension of sexual abuse and that this is not contradictory with a feminist analysis. Such insights will ensure appropriate help for adult survivors and the children for whom we care. There are both children and adults who are disbelieved when they first disclose sexual abuse by a woman. Clearly, practitioners face uncertainty and discomfort as so many of their fundamental beliefs are challenged. In spite of these difficulties, theory and practice lessons need to be drawn from our experience.


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