BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:31 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 12:31 UK

Are there women paedophiles?

Boy with a woman

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Paedophiles are invariably thought of as men and they mostly are. But do women commit sexual abuse against children, and if so, why is it rarely discussed?

Colin never knew innocence as a child. His earliest memories are of his mother sexually abusing him. In the bath, in his bed and in the night. Until he was 13.

Twenty years later, after a young life derailed by truancy, drugs and violence, he is still deeply affected by what he says happened.

"It's only now that I realise the impact it has had on me. From the age of 14, as soon as it got dark I would have panic attacks and that fuelled my drug-taking because doing it, I felt safe again.

"I couldn't sleep at night and I'd get flashbacks of my mum on top of me. I couldn't hold down a job and I was scared of girls."

I found it hard to even say it was sexual abuse because of the way society views mothers

The fact the perpetrator was the person who gave birth to him made it harder for him to identify and accept it as abuse, he believes.

"I found it hard to even say it was sexual abuse because of the way society views mothers, and quite rightly - 99% are loving but I was just unlucky to get one that wasn't.

"That's what stopped me from getting help for a long time. I couldn't even acknowledge it myself and there was a worry about being believed and speaking out against my mother. I felt like I was doing something wrong."

It's a comment on how society views paedophilia today that the most shocking aspect of Colin's story is not the sexual abuse itself, but the fact the perpetrator was female.

Yet Colin is not alone in experiencing this particular kind of trauma, says Steve Bevan, who for nearly two decades has run a support group for male victims of all forms of sexual abuse. Out of 18 men currently getting individual and group support, five say they were abused by women, three of them exclusively so.

2007: Tennis coach Claire Lyte, 29 at the time, sentenced to two years in jail for sex with a 13-year-old girl
2007: Margaret Martin, then 47, put on probation for sexually abusing a 10-year-old
2003: Mother-of-four Joanna James jailed for having sex with a 13-year-old boy
2002: Hazel Hallam, then 36, jailed for sexual assault of two boys
1999: First woman goes on Northern Ireland's sex offenders' register after admitting abusing seven boys aged 11 to 14

"Over the years we've had lots of men abused by mothers, sisters, aunties and baby sitters," says Mr Bevan.

"It's hard enough for adult men to admit abuse but to admit to abuse by a woman is even harder because it challenges their masculinity, it challenges their sexuality."

Women can commit a wide range of sexual offences, he says, including rape. And their victims commonly experience sexual confusion and a fear of intimacy. Anger can manifest itself as violence towards a wife or girlfriend in later life.

By its very nature the true picture of child abuse is unclear. But with women perpetrators it's even more so. Convictions are thin on the ground and some believe the issue is an unhelpful distraction from the bigger problem.

Experts agree that women commit only a fraction of child sexual abuse but so much is hidden that it's difficult to be accurate. An influential study in the US in the 1980s suggested 20% of all offences against boys and 5% against girls were by women.

'Teen fantasy'

Professor Kevin Browne, who has been researching the maltreatment of children for 30 years, says between 5% and 10% of abuse against pre-pubescent children in the UK is committed by females, but only about 5% is thought to involve a woman acting alone.

"Stranger attacks by women hardly exist, so most female paedophiles are winning the trust of children first and either have a position of care working with children like a babysitter or they are a relative."

Female offences against teenagers (hebophiles rather than paedophiles) are more of a mystery, he says, because victims don't come forward, partly because in a patriarchal society boys are even expected to enjoy that kind of abuse, and not admit how scared they are by it.

If I was still bathing my 11-year-old son, people would think that was weird but if a man was doing that then people are more likely to think it was sexual abuse
Sharon Lambert

Some believe that society's different attitude to women offenders is reflected in the language of the media reporting it. They point out that teachers "seduce" pupils if they are female but "sexually assault" if male.

In 2005, the NSPCC raised concerns about how disbelief of female paedophiles was hindering detection. Its report said child protection professionals too often met allegations of abuse by females with incredulity, dismissing them as fabrication and allowing women to continue to offend.

It also said that victims suffered a peculiar sense of isolation and stigma because this form of abuse was not so widely recognised.

Eight-hundred victims of female sexual abuse have contacted Michele Elliott, founder of children's charity Kidscape, since she wrote her controversial book, Female Sexual Abuse of Children, in 1992. Three-quarters of the cases feature women acting alone.

Women can get away with it under the guise of being carer
Disbelief that women are capable
Victims reluctant because they think they must be odd
Source: Kidscape

"One of the issues of controversy is the thinking that if women do this, it's because men made them do it," says Ms Elliot.

"I disagree with that. I think there's no difference in the motivation between men and women, which is sexual gratification and power over a child. It's very selfish."

Like male paedophiles, many female offenders convince themselves they are not harming children, says psychologist Sharon Lambert who this month presented her research on the subject to the British Psychological Society's annual conference.

She contacted a number of people through a website specifically aimed at women. There were no indecent images posted but there were stories and poems about their sexual fantasies with children and a forum for women to discuss their feelings and how they could avoid detection.

"They would say they're not as bad as men because they're more loving with their impulses, and a male involved with a child is more abusive."

'Under the radar'

She began correspondence with six people who claimed to be women aged from 21 to 48. They all described themselves as heterosexual and five claimed to be married. They all said they fantasised about young girls but said they had not actually abused any.

"We can't be certain about the connection between sexual fantasies and actual offending. Some adults who fantasise about children may never offend but we can't be sure they won't act out their fantasies."

They all admitted their first sexual experiences came very early in life, aged about seven or eight, with other children their own age. They said they had never been abused themselves.

"There are things you can do as a woman that you can't do as a man," says Ms Lambert. "If I was still bathing my 11-year-old son, people would think that was weird but if a man was doing that then people are more likely to think it was sexual abuse. Women go under the radar."

Unlike Ms Lambert's studies, some perpetrators seem also to be victims. Colin's mother told him she was a victim of sexual abuse from her father, sometimes describing it to him in detail moments before indecently assaulting him.

"Maybe I reminded her of her dad and she felt like she was getting back at him, taking back some control that way, by taking it out on me," says Colin.

Below is a selection of your comments.

My mother abused me for years as a child, from the age of seven onwards. Sadly, later in life, I could talk about the emotional and physical abuse far more openly than the sexual abuse, and it took me until I was forty to be able to get help. The fact that I'm a girl made it, and still makes it, hard to get any support from literature on the subject. I am what they call an adult survivor of sexual abuse, but all the books on the subject assume the abuser is male, and that if it's a parent, that it has to be the father. I have found some excellent research in America on the subject that says female survivors of sexual abuse by their mothers don't come forward because there are so many taboos to face: incest and homosexuality within the family being added on to rape. And people rarely believe a woman is capable of rape, but that is because definitions of rape used to be very prescriptive. I have found counselling professionals are now very sympathetic, but my heart goes out to those who have suffered as I have and still have so few forums and people to share this with.
Anon, Birmingham

Undoubtedly I was abused by a matron at my prep school on the Dorset Coast in the mid 70s. It wasn't until my own children were of the same age as I was when the abuse took place that I realised how appalling it was. There was another boy involved as well and a few years ago I wondered whether we should pursue further but as he had never told his family we decided not to.
Craig, Belfast

I was subjected to sexually inappropriate behaviour from an older female relative when I was 10-12. This, along with neglect by parents, left me with a number of issues and messed up life. I've since spent time and my own money getting to the root of my problems. I'm now 40ish and am only just seeing off my bad past. The NHS do not provide help for this type of support for adults. Whilst it's no longer possible for action to be taken against the woman who did this, I have come to terms with that but why are sentences for paedophilic crimes carried out by women substantially less than if carried out by men?

My partner started having sex with a house-girl (cleaning lady) when he was eight years old. We spoke about it and he didn't once think consider it abuse - until I mentioned it to him. The woman was a mum and was the one always instigating the activity, but unfortunately at that age and even now many men would not accept that they had been abused.
Katherine, London

My mother always claimed not to know of the sexual abuse against us by our father. But I think she did, they both seemed to conspire to keep us isolated as children, also my grandmother never did anything and I knew she knew. I think not doing anything is as bad as the perpetrator. There's no excuse for it. I have a friend who is male and was abused as a child by a woman, it has affected him very badly throughout his life psychologically.
Lucy, UK

I did a law degree and as part of that did a dissertation that started off as a look at the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the impact it had on the crime of rape. Whilst carrying out my research I contacted convicted male paedophiles and rapists and found that approximately one third of those contacted had been the subject of sexual abuse as a child by a woman. The awful part was that they stated that they had been unable to report it as they thought no-one would believe them and those brave enough to do so had been laughed at and/or felt there was no support for them afterwards.
Catherine , Cardiff

I think you have to be very careful about some of the blanket statements made in this article. There should be a clear distinction made between adult offending and female/male members of a family/friends who are all underage. After all, most kids play doctors and nurses out of pure curiosity about their sexuality and also most people fantasise about sex with younger people.....caveat here usually older (16) teenagers and never act on it. Predatory adult female paedophilia is probably still quite rare, should be taken seriously but it's still rare and to be honest it isn't just men who are afraid to talk to children because of the possible label of paedophile, I as a single woman won't do it either, I don't want anyone calling me a weirdo either!
Anon, Wigan

I am female and was sexually abused by a married woman when I was a teenager. It started when I had just turned 14 and was babysitting for her, and the relationship continued until I was 20. Her husband became involved in the abuse shortly after she first 'seduced' me and the relationship with both of them completely took over my life and robbed me of a normal adolescence. I participated not through lust but because I was besotted with the woman and was prepared to have relations with her husband if it meant getting closer to her. Neither of them saw themselves as paedophiles because they didn't 'see me as an innocent child but as a mature young adult' and this is how they justified their behaviour. After the relationship ended I went through a 10-year period of not knowing who I was, what I was, of feeling used and abused and ashamed. When I was 30 I told my GP about it and he referred me for counselling which was the best move I ever made - it really helped me to achieve perspective and make peace with myself and with my past. I have a 13-year-old daughter myself now and the thought of anyone doing to her what was done to me sickens me beyond words. It was only when I got older (and become a parent myself) that I realised how I'd been so callously used, abused and manipulated when I was still far too young and innocent to handle any kind of sexual relationship.
Anon, Hampshire

I was abused as a child by my babysitter, a young girl of about 15 or 16. I was between ages of six and eight. I thought that I actually liked it as it was our secret. Now I feel sick that I thought it was OK. I grew up very confused about my sexuality, but I am now in a relationship with a man and I'm very happy.
Jenny, Dorset

I was abused by my mother at bath times, I think I was under the age of 7 at the time. It happened several times. I've tried to talk to her about it, but she just denies it, which makes me even more hurt. I was also abused by an older girl at the age of 10, she was about 12. That may have just been stuff that children experiment with, but she seemed to know what she was doing. It's even more of a taboo than when men are the perpetrators. I don't think I've ever been taken seriously when I've tried to talk about it.
Anon, London

As somebody that was sexually abused by a female, admittedly when an adult, but when I reported it to the police I was laughed at and warned not to waste their time. It's no wonder it never gets reported.
Anon, Salisbury

I can confirm that this type of offence and offender do exist, having recently given a talk to a national conference on this very subject. It is right that the perception of many professionals is that a female could and would not sexually abuse a child. From cases my team have investigated I can confirm that they most certainly do, and as serious as any offending committed by a man. The work of CEOP to raise the profile of female sexual offenders within agencies working with children will hopefully ensure that the disbelief is suspended, and female offenders dealt with in the same robust manner we expect of male offenders.
James Larkin, Northampton

I'm 21 years old and for most of my childhood, I was abused by my father. I recently found out that whilst I was 18 months old, my mother watched as he hurt me time and time again. I was placed into foster care for about two months and then went back home. It continued to happen and I spent the rest of my childhood being made to believe that it was right for parents to do this as they were showing some love. I believe that people like that have experienced the trauma themselves, but what is wrong is that most young girls and boys are being abused by the people who we are supposed to trust.
Toni, Greater Manchester

As with so many problems within our society, the tabloid press are so much to blame. Obviously not for the abuse itself, but for perpetuating the stereotypes of male and female sexuality. The comment about the 'seducing' done by women and the 'sexual assault' carried out by men really highlights this.
Chris, Bristol

Hang on, I think we need to put this into perspective here. Female sexual abusers are very rare. I'm not saying we should ignore their existence and deny the victims but lets not whip up a media frenzy and start fearing every old lady on the bus who hands out sweets to kids.
Sally, Manchester

I'm a 53-year-old man and I suffered when I was a young lad by abuse from my gran. I'm a virgin, never had a relationship and I'm a drunk so YES - It does happen and its affected me my whole life. I've never told anyone and I have to say I'm now close to a panic - light headed, heavy breathing
T, Brighton

I'm slightly worried that people will read something into this article that isn't there - in the bit about these women who fantasise about young girls having had their first sexual experiences early, with children of the same age. I'd just like to point out that that is far more normal than most people think, and it most emphatically does not lead to paedophilic urges as an adult. Most people don't like to admit to it because they think they were somehow odd to be interested in sexual things that early [when in fact it's been proven that babies masturbate even in the womb] and especially because a lot of this happens between siblings, due to their spending so much time together, and this leads people to wonder whether they're incestuous.
Pic Akai, Birmingham

I think that is true. I know if men like me just start talking to children nicely, people will think I'm a paedophile but if a lady does it they won't say anything.
Bilal, Leicester

I agree with Bilal. Unless I'm with my partner, I simply won't talk to kids who appear to be under the age of about 16, for fear of people around me thinking I'm a paedophile. Sad, but true. Now, what's the difference when my partner's there? Well, she's a woman, and women can't be paedophiles - can they?!?
Anon, Manchester

Yes they do exist. My old maths teacher made headline news after sleeping with pupils. Non of which were over 15. I even witnessed her allowing pupils to grope her on school trips!

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