South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

What do we know about women abusers?

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Again, because of fewer numbers, knowledge about women abusers is sketchy and frequently contradictory, so it is difficult to draw conclusions. Kathleen Faller published a study on 40 women, 14 per cent of abusers seen in one program during 1978-87. Her research revealed a different pattern of offending than that found for men. Nearly three quarters of the women abused alongside men (compared with 18.5 per cent of men in this category). In 24 of the 29 cases, the children's report of the abuse suggested that the men had initiated the abuse, that the children experienced the female abuse as less intrusive and/or that the women did not want to participate in the abuse. However, Faller cautions us about accepting the leadership role of the male unquestioningly. Children evidence more emotional distress in recounting instances when women abused them, and since over three quarters of these women were the child's mother, it was possibly more threatening to admit that their primary nurturer was an abuser. Fifteen per cent of the women who abused were single mothers who were defined as 'merged' with their children, relating to them as surrogate partners, and ten per cent defined as psychotic (Faller 1987). Kelly (1991) questions whether these latter two categories are acceptable forms of explanation, since they have been rejected for men. Does pathologising women make them less responsible? Faller includes adolescent abusers in her study which, I would argue, requires separate analysis and discussion. Only one of the women who abused was a non-custodial abuser. Thirty-four (85 per cent) of the women were mothers to at least one of the children they abused while 55 per cent abused only their own children. The 40 female perpetrators abused 63 victims, with twenty-four (60 per cent) victimised two or more children (Faller 1987).

In their research into women abusers, Helga Hanks and Jacqui Saradjian (1991 - 1992) identified a number of categories and characteristics of abusers. They may be women who initiate abuse with their own children, women who abuse in conjunction with men women who abuse as part of a married couple, lesbian women, women who abuse children with learning difficulties or disabilities, women who abuse adolescents as well as women who participate in ritual abuse. Common to all these groups is the fact that almost all of them were abused as children and other forms of maltreatment, particularly emotional abuse, are present. Mothers who abuse children commonly see the child as an extension of themselves.

Matthews, Matthews and Speltz (1989, cited in Hanks and Saradjian 1991) found three distinct categories of women abusers in their research:

  • Teacher/lovers who are usually involved with adolescent and/or pre boys. They want to teach them about sex.
  • Male coerced offenders who initially abuse in conjunction with a male but may later abuse independently. This type of abuser is extremely dependent and non-assertive
  • Predisposed offenders who have been sexually abused themselves from a very young age. They initiate the abuse themselves and usually abuse their own children. Their intention appears to be non threatening emotional intimacy.

Jane Kinder Matthews and Ruth Matthews developed a program for working with female child sexual offenders and have analysed their work with 36 participants (Matthews 1993). In common with male offenders, they come from chaotic, abusive backgrounds, feel they do not belong with and have a low status among their peers. They are often friendless, and will do almost anything for acceptance. But there are differences. None of the women they worked with coerced others to offend. They use force or violence less frequently, and to a lesser degree than males, and are less likely to use threats to silence their victims. They found that fewer women deny the abuse initially and are more willing to take responsibility for their behaviour. In contradiction to this, Rina McCary, working in Glasgow, finds that because of women's investment in the nurturing/caring role, denial can be greater. Men generally start abusing at an earlier age (only two of the 36 women with whom they worked acted out as teenagers). Women also tend to act out on themselves via self-punishment and self-destructive behaviour such as starving and cutting themselves, prostitution and placing themselves in very dangerous situations (Matthews 1993).

Knowledge about the responsiveness of women offenders to intervention is also clouded. Reporting on a group work program with six women offenders imprisoned at Styal in the UK, Jane King (1989) concludes that the participants' responses varied from total denial to shame and regret, with commitment to changing their behaviour. Matthews (1993) found that women tend to find it more difficult than men to forgive themselves, and take longer to move out of the shame and guilt. Women's anger towards themselves tends to be more deeply entrenched. They are quicker in developing empathy for their victims.


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