Pedophiles aren't always men

The number of children reporting sex abuse by women has risen an astonishing 132 percent in the last five years

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 9, 2009 3:10PM (EST)

When we think about a child abuser, it’s usually just as easy to imagine a woman as a man – to envision a sadistic schoolmarm or the tormenting mother of “Precious.”

Yet when it comes to sexual abuse, the default assumption, regardless of the gender of the victim, is that the perpetrator is male. Now a new report by the British charity ChildLine is challenging that perception. The organization says that the number of children reporting sex abuse by women has risen an astonishing 132 percent in the last five years. And two-thirds of those complaints were against the children’s mothers.

What’s behind the apparent sudden spike? ChildlLine noted that sex abuse reports overall are on the rise, and that “more boys are calling than previously.” Last year the agency handled 16,094 reports of sex abuse, over 2,000 of which were directed at women. Those stats, though alarming, can actually be interpreted as an encouraging sign – that children are becoming better equipped to advocate for themselves and that the horrible stigma surrounding molestation is being eroded. Nevertheless, headlines this morning in Australia screamed that “Sex attacks by women on children soar” and Britain’s Channel 4 reported that “Child sex abuse by women 'has doubled'" and accompanied the story with an ominous hoto of a woman holding a pink-clad child’s hand.

Though the reporting of molestation remains distinct from the perpetration of it, the ChildLine report is yet another sadly illuminating story in a year of bombshell revelations. Earlier this year, Britons were stunned when daycare worker Vanessa George was arrested for sex abuse and child pornography. George, a mother of two, has admitted molesting children in her care, some barely a year old, and taking “hundreds” of “indecent” photographs of them. And when Tyler Perry wrote candidly on his blog last month of his own childhood sex abuse, he told of both a male neighbor and the mother of a friend. "She put the key inside of herself and told me to come get it, pulling me on top of her."

Sex abuse claims directed at men still far outnumber those aimed at women. A 2007 United States Department of Justice report noted that females are responsible for less than 10% of sex crimes and less than 1% of all forcible rape arrests.  They also have a different modus operandi than male offenders -- including a higher likelihood of committing their crimes in caregiving situations and in concert with a male partner. But the uniqueness of female perpetrators can make it harder for victims, particularly boys, to come forward. The DOJ report noted “sexist beliefs that depict males as controlling all sexual encounters and females as passive and submissive recipients… Misperceptions exist about the ‘ability’ of women to sexually victimize males.” And the jokey cliche of a boy seduced an older woman muddles the seriousness of the crime.

The new information is a potent reminder that pedophilia doesn’t neatly confine itself to one gender, and that you don’t need a penis to be a rapist.  As Dr. Lisa Bunting, a senior researcher at the UK National Society for the Protection of Children told the BBC today, "If you don't think females are capable of committing sex offences, then you are never going to be looking for that."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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