Not Always the ‘Gentler Sex’
Oct. 12, 2011
Last Saturday’s Post featured an interview with Shannon Moroney, the wife of a supposedly rehabilitated Jason Staples, who in 1988 murdered a woman in a fit of rage and spent 10 years in prison. A month after their marriage, Staples sexually assaulted and kidnapped two women. He’s back in prison as a “dangerous offender.”
Mentioned, but not elaborated on in the interview was the revelation that Staples had been sexually abused as a child. You’re not surprised. By his mother. Now perhaps, you are.
Most rapists were subjected to some form of sexual abuse in childhood. A startling amount is perpetrated by females. Peer-reviewed studies conclude that between 60% to 80% of “rapists, sex offenders and sexually aggressive men” were sexually abused by a female.
And yet it is commonly understood that, except in rare cases, women don’t harbour such impulses. As McGill professor of social work Myriam Denov, who did her PhD thesis on female sex offenders, notes, as recently as 1984, a study proclaimed that “pedophilia does not exist at all in women.”
It exists in spades. According to a 2004 U.S. Department of Education mass study of university students, 57% of students reporting child sexual abuse cited a male offender, and 42% reported a female offender. Interestingly, 65% of the survivors of female abuse who opened up to a therapist, doctor or other professional were not believed on their first disclosure. Overall, 86% of those who tried to tell anyone at all about their experiences were not believed.
According to a 1996 report from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN), about 25% of child sexual abuse is committed by women, but that figure may be low, because survivors are far more conflicted and shamed in admitting abuse by their mothers than by fathers. In one study of 17,337 survivors of childhood sexual abuse, 23% reported a female-only perpetrator and 22% reported both male and female. A U.S. Department of Justice report finds that, in 2008, 95% of all youths reporting sexual misconduct by staff member in state juvenile facilities said their victimization experiences included victimization by female personnel, who made up 42% of the staff.
Public acknowledgement of female sex abuse remains a social taboo. BBC Radio 4 broadcast a film called When Girls Do It, following which a TV show, This Morning, opened its lines to survivors of female sex abuse. The studio was overwhelmed by over 1,000 calls, 90% women, none of whom had ever before disclosed their secrets.
Dr. Paul Fedoroff, a forensic psychiatrist and co-director of the Sexual Behaviors Clinic at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, says that “there are a lot of women who do sexually abuse children, but they get away with it.” Daycare centres, schools and homes make propitious terrain for predators. One study found 8% of female perpetrators were teachers and 23% were babysitters.
There are three types of female sex offenders: those who are predisposed to it and will abuse very young children, exactly like men; those who are “male-accompanied,” like Karla Homolka (alive and well, and the mother of three children in Montreal); and the “teacher-lover” type, like the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau, who seduced and, after a stint in prison, married her former student.
While the first two types are universally detested, the third type is problematic, because it is often assumed, even by law enforcement, that older women cannot coerce sex, or that teenage boys are flattered and empowered by an older woman’s sexual mentorship. Boys do act out their confusion and anxieties differently than girls do, but that doesn’t mean many of them aren’t damaged by the relationships, or that the law should be applied to women abusers with any less rigour.
Even mental-health professionals and social service agencies avoid facing up to the phenomenon. I spoke at length with an adult survivor of a mother’s sadistic sex abuse. “Nina,” not her real name, told me that although she has attempted many times to deal with her past therapeutically, “I have never found any social service agency willing to acknowledge this or speak about it.”
Victorian chivalry and 21st-century feminism would seem to make strange bedfellows, but in their equally unrealistic characterization of women as the always “gentler sex,” they condemn both male and female victims of female-perpetrated abuse to silence and second-class social status.
To err is human. Are women fully human? Then stop treating them like saints or permanent moral infants.