Women who commit sexual abuse are poorly understood, and this problem is a clear window into the assumptions about sex embedded in our social constructions of gender.
Alexa Sardina, in her PhD dissertation research (2016), interviewed a number of women convicted of criminal child sexual abuse. This is really important research because people rarely talk or think about women committing sex crimes. Granted it is less common than men committing sex crimes, but it still happens. And a lot of times, we don’t know what to think when it does, for a number of reasons.
Trigger warning: we’re talking about sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse. If this is a difficult subject for you, please take time and take care of yourself.
Imagine you’re a young teenage boy. An older woman wants to have sex with you. Now, as long as you’ve known what sex is, you’ve known that guys are supposed to want it. It is supposed to feel good, it is something some of your friends brag about, and it can even be kind of a rite of passage into manhood. You might not feel ready to have sex—in fact you know you’re not ready for it, you barely have even dated a girl yet. But what would your friends think if they found out you passed up an opportunity to have sex with a mature, experienced woman?
The way our society talks about sex puts pressure on males, especially young men and boys, to act and think a certain way about sex. Masculinity, oddly, makes boys vulnerable to experiencing unwanted sex. Similar to when girls acquiesce to unwanted sex because they don’t want to hurt the boy’s feelings or because it’s too hard to say no for any number of reasons, boys can find themselves involved in unwanted sex because of the pressures of masculinity and from their friends.
Boys usually grow up being more assertive and more vocal than girls. But when it comes to sex, that doesn’t always mean it’s easier for them to say no.
Another dynamic that surfaces when the sexual aggressor is female is the way society views victimhood. Men and boys, by way of masculinity, are supposed to be strong. They are not supposed to be victims. Of course, nobody should ever be a victim, but women and girls, by social construction, are already considered weak and vulnerable. The jump from female to victim is smaller, less significant, and more socially acceptable than from male to victim. To say it another way, if a girl claims that she was overpowered and abused by a man, the claim is seen as believable, plausible, possibly even obvious. Of course that’s what happened, people might say, because the claim fits the cultural model of masculinity as aggressive and femininity as weak.
Flip it around, though, and the dynamics are very different. If a boy, or certainly a man, claims he was overpowered and abused by a woman, the claim is likely to be met by skepticism or incredulity. In this case, the claim does not fit the cultural model. Men are supposed to be strong and aggressive, and women are supposed to be weak and docile. So how could it possibly be that a man was a victim or a woman was an aggressor? Because it doesn’t fit our cultural preconceptions, the claim is hard to take seriously.
It is so hard for some people to imagine a female sexual abuser that, until recently, sex crime laws in many jurisdictions simply did not comprehend the possibility. And in some places, the law still distinguishes between male and female sex acts in a way that one is defined differently from the other.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the crime of rape requires that a penis be used to penetrate another person without her consent. So, only people with penises can be guilty of the crime of rape.
In the United States, most jurisdictions have by now updated their laws to be either gender neutral or gender equitable. But, intentionally or not, laws very often treat female offenders differently.
These legal definitions and differences reinforce problematic gender stereotypes. According to one lawyer, they say that sex is not something people do together, but rather it is something that a man does to a woman (McKeever 2019).
Talking About Sexual Assault
Males have a challenge in talking about being sexually assaulted for two reasons. One is that it is hard to comprehend sex as being something a male wouldn’t want, or that he would be vulnerable to manipulation by another. The second is that it is hard for him to admit that he could be a victim of anything. So there is a social problem in seeing males as potential rape victims, and there is also an individual challenge in males seeing themselves as potential rape victims.
Now, a female can commit sexual assault against a female victim, too. Here things get even more challenging for society to understand, because the difficulties of seeing a female as an aggressor are combined with the general ignorance of any non-heteronormative sex. But misunderstanding non-heteronormativity is a topic for another episode.
Society has a hard time understanding victims of female sexual assault, but it also has a hard time understanding females who commit sexual assault. One reason for this is that women are seen as nurturers. When a woman touches a child, people generally assume that this is appropriate, affectionate, and loving. Even when it’s not. Men seen doing the same behavior might be considered more suspicious, their actions seen as inappropriate. Even when they are.
In fact, when Sardina spoke with female abusers, she found that many of them made no attempt to hide their inappropriate behavior. Even when a woman’s behavior is abusive, it was seen as normal or appropriate because of the assumptions about women’s roles in a family or around children.
Talking With Abusers
So, to get into Sardina’s research, she interviewed a number of women who were in prison or on parole for child sexual abuse. So she’s looking specifically at women who committed some sort of sex crime against children. She ended up interviewing a total of seven women. This is a pretty low number, but there were a pretty low number of women who had the kind of criminal conviction she was looking at, so this is everyone she could find. Plus, it’s not always important to have a large sample size. A lot of useful information can be gathered from even a few good sources.
Sardina wanted to understand how the women understood their actions. She wanted to see if female sex offenders had thought processes similar to those of males. She found that there are some significant differences.
Since I’m interested in how we communicate about sex, I want to focus on a couple differences that have to do with how we understand sexuality at a social and cultural level.
One important difference is that female sex offenders seem to be much more likely to have experienced abuse themselves. This is probably not surprising, since women in general are more likely to be abused. And it’s also been shown that sex offenders, male or female, are more likely to have experienced sexual abuse than people in the general population. Sardina talks about a pattern that is more deeply rooted than this, though. She quotes numerous studies that show “that the victimization histories among female sex offenders are particularly severe.” According to at least one of the women she interviewed, sexual assault was such a normal part of her life that assaulting someone else hardly seemed significant or troubling.
Another factor is almost unique for female offenders. They are more likely to be accomplices to an assault. They may have been in a relationship with an abusive man, and they aided in abuse of children not for sexual gratification directly, but to please their partner. This line of thinking fits right in with our social assumption that in a heteronormative relationship, the man is in charge, and it is the woman’s duty to make him happy. If the man wants to abuse children, the woman might feel social pressure to go along with it or even to facilitate it. Where men might be more likely to engage in criminal sex because they are unsatisfied or unable to have a fulfilling relationship with an acceptable partner, women seem more likely to engage in criminal sex because of a long term relationship with a partner who is violent or abusive.
Sex As Abuse
Both male and female abusers often have what the psychologists call cognitive distortions. Most commonly, an offender might think that the victim “wanted” it or was being seductive. Some of these distorted thoughts might be more prevalent in female offenders. For example, they might say that the child seduced them, or that the child wanted it, or enjoyed it.
On the one hand, this is unsurprising. I am personally convinced that there is very little true evil in the world, that most people commit crimes because they think it is the right thing to do in the circumstances. So it makes sense to me that a sexual abuser would think that he or she was doing something that was mutually desired. Or maybe she was even doing a favor for the child.
Of course, this is exactly why it is called a cognitive distortion. Just because someone thinks something doesn’t make it true. Thinking about my own criminal past for a moment, I never would have caused the harm I did if I thought, at the time, that it was harmful. It was because of my distorted thoughts—the fact that I believed something that was simply not the case—that led me to harmful behavior.
On the other hand, there is a presumption a lot of times that because an activity is illegal that it must be harmful. And so when criminologists talk about cognitive distortions, I have to ask where is the distortion? Are the beliefs of the criminal distorted in thinking that the child wanted sex or enjoyed sex? Or are the beliefs of the researcher—and all of society—distorted when they refuse to acknowledge the possibility that a fourteen-year-old child may actually have sexual thoughts?
I have mixed feelings about this. Because from one perspective, the law says that a child cannot consent to sex. And the law is not completely ridiculous on this point. Very good arguments can be made that a fourteen-year-old child does not have the same cognitive capacity as an adult, especially when it comes to long-term consequences of a complicated decision. But at the same time, a fourteen-year-old is not completely helpless. They have preferences and desires. They can choose many things in life. And they are also very much sexual beings: in fact, I would argue that adolescents, in their flood of hormones and newly-acquired sexual realities, might even be the most sexual of humans of any age.
All this is not to say that fourteen-year-olds should be having sex. That is not my suggestion at all. But what I’m saying is that for someone to think that a fourteen-year-old might flirt, or might think he or she wants sex, that sounds to me like it could be completely reasonable. It might not be a distortion at all.
So here’s the problem. A criminologist starts with the premise that a certain sexual activity is illegal. The train of thought goes from there: It was deemed illegal because it is presumed to be harmful, therefore because it is illegal it must be harmful. And because it must be harmful, it could not be desirable or wanted. Finally, if someone ever thought that it was wanted, they must be delusional.
Again, I’m not saying that this is necessarily not the case. But my point is that we ought to be able to interrogate our assumptions about sex. Let’s not assume that someone’s thinking is distorted simply because it doesn’t line up with our assumptions about sex and crime. It is entirely possible that the assumptions could be what is distorted.
Child sexual abuse is often considered abuse simply because it is sexual. Meaning, even without coercion, force, or any kind of violence, sex with a child is legally presumed to include all of those things almost by definition. However, in real life things are more complicated. Especially with female sex offenders, it is common for the victim to think that they are actually in love with their abuser. In fact, in at least one high-profile case, a woman was imprisoned for having sex with a boy and, after the criminal justice system had its way with her, she got out and married her victim who was, by then, a man. Even as an adult, he continued to believe that they were in love.
So, where was the cognitive distortion there?
Of course, love or no love, the sexual activity in this example was criminal. And, in one form or another, it was harmful. One could even say it was abusive. But I would argue that the harm and the abuse has more to do with social norms around sex, and with the criminal justice view on sex, not on the physical (or emotional) act itself.
Harmful to Minors
Judith Levine is another researcher who has been studying sexuality and the way we talk about sex when it comes to children. In her book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, she points out the absurdity of the notion that children are assumed to be asexual until they reach an age of majority (sixteen in Michigan). At that time, equally as absurd, we assume that they instantly develop all the cognitive reasoning skills required to navigate adult sexuality and sexual behavior decision-making.
In reality, sexual development is a process. It requires sexual education, experimentation, and relationship skills that build over time. Sexual agency is not something that shows up overnight, but is built over a lifetime of experience.
Talking about Sex
The way we talk about sex can cause as much harm as the sex itself. Imagine yourself a fourteen-year-old again. You are filled with hormones. You have all these feelings about sex. If you are a male, you are told that you should want sex, and lots of it. And this probably aligns with your experience of desires and sensations that are all sexually charged.
But at the same time, you are told that you are a child and that children are not sexual. That it is wrong, even criminal, for children to be involved in sexual activity. So you have these feelings, desires and urges. But to act on them would mean that a crime would be committed. So what do you think? There must be something terribly wrong with you if you can’t stop thinking about criminal activity.
The way we frame sexuality can be harmful in itself. Whether or not the fourteen-year-old in your imagination engages in sex, the psychological damage from those contradictory social pressures is already done.
So what do we do then? We have to find ways to talk openly and honestly. Understand feelings and desires. Talk about them. Normalize them.
Understand harm. Talk about it. Make it OK to experience things that are not great, without having to be labeled a victim, and without the shame associated with the idea that somehow you did something wrong because you were unable to protect yourself or whatever.
Flip Rodriguez introduced me to a talk show called Red Table Talk, with an episode about the “gray area of consent.” The women at the table spoke about this culturally challenging phenomenon where women find it difficult to communicate and are pressured into unwanted sex. That pressure might not even be in the form of coercion from an aggressor. It could be as complicated and confusing as a social or cultural expectation to be accommodating, pleasant, and sexual. The “victim” might not say no, but she might not say yes either. Or the “victim” might even say yes, but only because she felt like she had to, or she was expected to.
This is a serious problem of communication. Without placing blame on one side or the other, women should feel empowered to speak their preferences, to say “no” or “yes” without fear of consequence or stigmatization. At the same time men should ask and listen for the response, and refuse to participate in the pressure that our culture may apply when it comes to sex expectations.
Flip made an excellent point to add to the conversation, though. This problem has little to do with sex: male or female. The problem of communication goes both ways. And as we saw at the beginning of this episode, boys and men feel very similar pressures to say “yes” to sex whether they want it or not.
Communication goes both ways. It doesn’t matter the sex of the victim or of the aggressor. It doesn’t even matter if there is an aggressor. We have to learn to talk more honestly about sex.
In a very real way, we are all victims of sex because of the way sex is simultaneously stigmatized and glorified in our society.
Thanks for listening.
- Natasha McKeever, 2019. “Can a Woman Rape a Man and Why Does It Matter?” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11572-018-9485-6
- Flip Rodriguez, 2020. “Get Uncomfortable Tuesday.” https://www.twitch.tv/videos/776723374
- Alexa Sardina, 2016. “A qualitative study of convicted female child sex offenders: Examining motivation and attribution of meaning.” Indiana University Department of Criminal Justice.