This paper will attempt to evaluate someof the theories, causes and characteristics of female sex offenders that havebeen put forth by previous researchers. It considers strain theory, cycle ofabuse as social learning theory, cognitive distortion theory and feministperspectives as to why females become sex offenders and attempts to evaluatesome of the social and psychological theories in relation to female sexualoffending. Minimal research has been done investigatingthe causes and characteristics of female sexual offenders especially incomparison with male perpetrators.
Particularly because of the prevailing historicalsocietal belief that men are the only one’s capable of being sexual offenders andthe prevalent notion that women are incapable of being sex offenders due to femalesbeing viewed passive, nurturing and submissive nature (Denov, 2001; Vandiver,2006; Saradjian, 2010), due to our socialised gender roles. Secondly, since males are said tocomprise of about 90-95% of the offending population (Finkelhor et al., 1990;Knopp and Lackey, 1987), the actual number of female sex offenders hadpreviously been considered simply too small a sample to advocate research into(Finkelhor, 1984; Johnson and Shrier, 1987). Thirdly, it has been suggested the actualnumber of reported cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by females has also beengrossly underreported by victims (Allen, 1991) and often dismissed by lawenforcement and professionals (Saradjian, 2010), as well as not considered aserious enough issue by adults (Hislop, 2001; Strickland, 2008). Strain Theory One of the possible theories that couldexplain female offending is Strain Theory. It postulates the idea that deviantbehaviour in society is influenced by two main elements, culture and structure(Merton, 1938). Assuming this is true, the prevalent cultural norm is thatwomen are viewed as primary caretakers of children can be thought of as apossible source of strain which could lead to deviant sexual behaviour of women.
This is supported by the structural existence of a society that views femaleoffending as something that is non-threatening and incapable of causing harm.With both culture and structure backing the existence of women as caregivers,female offending could be viewed a direct response to the strain of these twofactors being true. Bem’s (1972) Self-perception theory putsforth the idea that individuals develop their attitudes by co-opting prevalentsocial and cultural norms by comparing their own behaviour in relation to itscause and effect, and hence co-opt prevalent social and cultural norms. Thistheory could be used to support the idea of strain theory, which allows femalesto justify their offending based on current socio-cultural norms of the generalpopulation considering females not being sex offenders as well as cause malesto not report female sexual abuse. Research supports the idea thatsocio-cultural factors having an influence on the readiness of victims ofsexual abuse to report and disclose it especially due to the fear, guilt, andshame felt by them (Terry, 2006). Male victims of female abuse are thought tobe hesitant to report their victimisation due to the fear of societal and peeremasculation for doing so (Terry, 2006). Strain theory offers a well-knittheoretical explanation of how society’s perceptions can affect the behaviour offemale sexual offenders.
Some research does show that it has empirical validity(Ackerman and Sacks, 2012) in explaining the actions of sexual offenders,although this study focussed on male rather than female offenders. However,some theoretical research supports the notion that there is only weak empiricalevidence supporting strain theory (Bernard, 1984) as well as it not explainingcrime based on gender inequality and not being very critical of socialstructures that cause the strain (Kornhauser, 1978; Bernard, 1984). Cycle of Abuse Theory One of the main social learning theoriesused to study female sexual offenders is Walker’s Cycle of Abuse/Violence (1979). Thistheory explains that prior victims of sexual abuse have a higher likelihood ofbecoming sexual abusers themselves and is also known as the ‘victim-to-offender’ cycle (Boyd andBromfield, 2006). In relation to social learning, children’s primarysocialisation is crucial in the learning of certain behaviours and thisincludes aberrant behaviour that is caused from either observational orphysical learning (Bandura, 1969). By experiencing prior sexual contact aschildren, it is likely that these offenders internalized the abuse as what theywould consider normal, acceptable and pleasurable behaviour (Briggs , 1996; Burton, Miller and Schill, 2002) and hence, increases thepossibility of victims to become instigators of abuse themselves. This theory is underpinned by research thatmentions a large majority of female sexual offenders have reported sexual ifnot physical and emotional abuse as children (Davis, 2006).
Other research alsobacks up the claim that prior childhood victimisation is a crucial influencefor female sexual offenders who prey on young victims (Harris, 2010; Warren andHislop, 2001) as many female sexual offenders use similar methods of abusingtheir victims as they were abused (Hislop, 1999). Wolfers (1993) asserts thatthe reason women offenders with past histories of abuse offend is to regainsexual control of herself that was taken away from her as a child, as well asasserting that one of crucial reasons for offending by women is a futileattempt to resolve traumatic childhood sexual trauma. There is a sizeable body of evidencesupporting the idea of abuse being a cyclic system of abuse (Carnes, 1997;Glasser, 2001; Schatzel-Murphy et al., 2009).
Social learning theories like thecycle of abuse are another interesting perspective that can provide somevaluable insight into the possibilities and causes for female sexual offending,as they introduce the idea of environmental influences being an importantfactor in sexual offending, which is contrary to most other cognitive andpersonality theories that are of the notion that these behaviours are intrinsicto individuals. However, it must be noted that it is atheoretically dangerous notion to assume that prior sexual victimisation is anabsolute cause for future sexual offending as there is a significant populationof victims of childhood sexual offences by females that do not go on to becomeoffenders themselves (Glasser, 2001). Cognitive Distortion Theory Another theory that could possiblyexplain female sexual offending is the cognitive distortion theory (Ford, 2010),which explains that an offender’s thoughts can influence their behaviour. Cognitivedistortions are thought to be exaggerated or irrational thought patterns thatare thought to cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately (Burns,1989). Females are often found to commit childrelated sexual offenses in collaboration with males.
This theory could possiblyexplain the high prevalence of male-coerced female sexual offending withregards to children. In relation to male-coercion, female offenders could holdthe cognitive distortions and thought patterns that they are entitled or evenjustified to be controlled by their male partners and their abuse of childrenis justified (Harris, 2010). There is some fairly strong evidence thatsuggests that unlike male offenders, sexual gratification is not the mainmotivating factor in relation to female sexual offending (McCarty, 1986; Travinet al., 1990; Vandiver, 2006; Giguere and Bumby, 2007). This could imply thatwomen commit sexual offences more due to male manipulation, coercion and fear(Crawford, 2013). Other research also mentions that female abusers commit actsof sexual offence due to extreme, unstable dependency with their coercers andfear of abandonment by them (Giguere and Bumby, 2007; Cortoni, 2010).
Thesecould be viewed as cognitive distortions themselves and can be a possibleavenue of explanation used to explain why females commit sex offences. It has been proposed that these cognitivedistortions act as a framework that allows female offenders to justify or evendeny their behaviour and minimize the impact of the offence on the victim(Harris, 2010) and do so by blaming the victim or other individuals (Harris,2010). Cognitivebased theories serve as the basis on a large majority of sexual offendertreatment systems available today. There is some evidence that shows both maleand female sex offenders do appear to show cognitive distortions and thinkingerrors, (Matthews et al., 1991; Miccio-Fonseca, 2000) as well as the idea thatthese thoughts could drive deviant sexual behaviour. But the main issueconcerning cognitive theories of offending is that it does not explain what theroot of these cognitions are and it is difficult to validate if the cognitionsprecede the offending behaviour (Beech, et al., 2009).
Secondly, it is unable to explain thedifferences between female sex offenders with cognitive distortions andnon-sexual offenders with similar types of cognitions (Stinson, Sales &Becker, 2008). Feminist Perspective Feminist theory poses an interesting questionin relation to female sex offending. Some basic tenants of feminist theory havebeen partly responsible for the prevalent perception that females cannot besexual offenders. Feminists believe the patriarchal organisation of society bythe system of patriarchy causes the constant state of oppression of women bymen has the been the primary explanation for most forms of female offending(Featherstone, 1996). Feminist therapy has co-opted thispatriarchal centric view of sexual abuse and Marecek (1999) found a strikingdouble standard amongst feminist therapists working with sexual trauma victimsrefused to apply feminist principles whilst working with men. He suggests thatactions like this cause men and women to be stereotyped into the dichotomousand binary perception that women are blameless victims and men are evil,coercive and always the perpetrators of sexual offences (Marceck, 1999).
Denov(2005) also provides another personal instance of feminists refusing to acceptthe existence of female sexual offending, found that whilst in the process ofrecruiting volunteers for her research on female sexual offending found thatseveral social services agencies were refusing to participate due to their ideathat research in this field was purportedly ‘anti-feminist’. This supportsYoung’s(1993) statement that feminists considering the idea of female sexual offendinga threat to the feminist movement itself. However,some feminist theorists acknowledge female sex offending is caused due to the imbalanceof power between men and women and that women are perpetually victimized inevery facet of daily social fabric (Hovey, 2005), and this constant state ofvictimization could be the primary reason for female offending. Motz (2014) arguesfrom a feminist psychoanalytical perspective that female sexual offending stemsfrom a lack of maternalism in relationships between mothers and their childrenand a female who sexually abuses her own children does so due to a poorrelationship with their own mothers in the first place.
Despite some acknowledgment of theexistence of female offending from feminists, there is not enoughscientifically valid research to support the idea that power imbalances betweenmen and women and patriarchy being the actual or direct cause for femaleoffending. Conclusion This paper explores theories of femalesex offending from what Harris (2010) coined as single-factor theories that areviewpoints that try to offer singular explanations rather than multi-facetedones. The list of theories in this paper is by no means exhaustive in its nature inexplaining female offending and although all perspectives propose someconceptual interpretations of offending, there is scant literature providingabsolute answers as to why it occurs. Recognising the mere existence and harmthat female sex offending causes is an important first step to take bothlegally and culturally. Recent researchhas even suggested that the actual proportion of sex offenders who are femalebeing much higher than previously thought (Cortoni, et al., 2016).
It is apparent that most female offendersseem to be committing these crimes due to a combination of factors andcorollaries of abuse, mental instabilities and trauma themselves and doingfurther research into the reasons why can only help transform the idea thatfemales do not commit these kinds of abuses in addition to finding methods oftreatment that fit female offenders themselves. It is crucial to find methodsand typologies to explain and treat female offenders as much as research has interms of male offenders. Lastly, further research into this topic can only helpchange the prevalent societal notion that females cannot be sex offenders.