Sexual abuse by women is still being
overlooked despite recent research on the issue. But, as with male
abusers, working with young people is the best strategy for
changing behaviour – which means acceptance of the facts is all the
more urgent, writes Natalie Valios.
For many, the word “paedophile” conjures up a
picture of a suspicious-looking man in a dirty mac lurking around
the school gate. Few would expect it to be used to describe a
But how else would you depict a woman who
fondles children, has intercourse or oral sex with them, or
penetrates them with objects? It makes for uncomfortable reading,
which is precisely why the issue of female sexual abusers continues
to be swept under the carpet and disbelieved. A society that now
accepts the existence of male paedophiles finds the concept of
female abuse too repugnant to accept – particularly when the abuser
is a mother.
According to one book on this issue: “Females
are generally viewed as recipients rather than instigators of
sexual behaviour and the ideology of women as essentially passive,
as mothers, nurturers, carers and moral arbiters within the family,
combined with the notion that sexual abuse is a male activity,
makes acceptance of the fact that women sexually abuse children
painful and perplexing.
“Given the struggles to accept that children
sexually abuse children and that women sexually abuse children,
acceptance that female children sexually abuse other children
requires an enormous shift in thinking and
Generally, sexual abuse by girls and women has
the same foundation as that committed by boys and men – they have
experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse or domestic
“People think it’s a sexual act, but it’s far
more complex than that. It’s about getting power, emotional
feelings and some control,” says Tink Palmer, principal policy
officer for child sexual exploitation at Barnardo’s. Humiliation
and sexual gratification also play their part. While males
generally use force to abuse and keep their victims silent, females
are more likely to coerce and seduce.
Michele Elliott, director of children’s
charity Kidscape, has written a book on the subject.2
She says: “Why do we think that women who were abused themselves
would be immune to recreating what happened to them as a child?
It’s a politically correct nonsense that many of us, including
myself, have been tied up with for years.”
The Kaleidoscope project in Sunderland is a
child protection partnership between Barnardo’s and the NSPCC. It
works in seven local authorities in north east England, taking
referrals of children up to the age of 17 when they have shown
sexually harmful or abusive behaviour. The project’s youngest
referral was four years old.
All the young people it works with have
experienced some form of abuse, though not necessarily sexual
abuse, although every girl it has seen has been sexually abused,
says children’s services manager Paula Telford.
So, not only do you have a perpetrator, but
quite often, a victim as well, be it child, adolescent or adult.
But how many people would care if a male paedophile, such as Roy
Whiting, had been sexually abused as a child? Would that fact have
altered public anger at their crimes? Would it have stopped the
Paulsgrove demonstrators taking to the streets of Portsmouth? Would
it alter the tone of media coverage of paedophiles’ crimes?
Society is, however, more disposed to make
excuses for a woman. People try to justify what a woman has done by
highlighting the fact that she was abused herself, or by
introducing the idea that it was a seduction or affair,
particularly if the victim is a teenage boy, says Elliott.
But if it’s not an excuse for a male child
sexual abuser, why should it be any different for a woman? Elliott
has no qualms about using the term paedophile to describe a woman.
“It may be that they were sexually abused but that doesn’t excuse
them,” she says.
In the mid-1990s, research by the Kaleidoscope
project revealed why it was only receiving referrals of boys from
social services. Girls who had shown sexually abusive behaviour
were referred to services for victims recovering from sexual abuse
– indicating a belief that their behaviour did not need
challenging. It now receives referrals of both sexes from social
But although some may grow out of it, Palmer
suggests early identification and appropriate treatment is the best
deterrent. “If we work with them at that age, they are in touch
with what has happened to them and what they have done. You can
work with them before they have ingrained patterns and cycles of
Another justification used for women is the
co-offending theory; that is, they acted as a result of male
coercion. Elliott is infuriated by this, particularly because of
the 800 adults who have contacted her about being sexually abused
as a child by a woman, in 75 per cent of cases the woman acted
“Women are forgiven more for doing this,” she
says, “unless it’s a small child where they are vilified even more
than a man.”
Elliott herself finds maternal abuse hard to
stomach. But she says it’s naive for people to agree that women may
physically abuse and even kill their children, but not accept that
they can sexually abuse them.
Mothers have the opportunity and the cover
that no other group has, says Elliott. “It’s more subtle. They can
finger their child while washing them and groom them by the age of
Just like male paedophiles, women infiltrate
jobs that give them easy access to children, becoming teachers,
nurses, nuns, and health visitors – and arguably it is easier for
them to manoeuvre into these positions than it is for a man.
Some consider sexual abuse by a female to be
more damaging to the victim than abuse carried out by male, because
the abuse of trust is thought to be so much greater. And many
believe that maternal abuse is the most damaging of all child
sexual abuse. Certainly, those who have been sexually abused by
their mothers are some of the most damaged people that Elliott has
ever met. The most basic bond for a child is with their mother, she
says, and when that bond becomes a sexual bond and abuse of power,
it destroys the child.
As a society, we aren’t really ready to hear
that women and girls commit these offences, which makes it all the
harder for a victim to disclose the abuse. Their allegations can
also be perceived as less credible. A BBC1 Panorama programme
broadcast in 1997 revealed that 86 per cent of survivors of female
sexual abuse were not believed.
An estimated 10 per cent of child sexual abuse
victims are harmed by females, but the area is under-reported.
ChildLine figures for the year to March 2001 reveal that of more
than 9,800 children who called about sexual abuse, 6 per cent of
those who identified the perpetrator said it was their mother. A
further 3 per cent said both parents sexually abused them, 1 per
cent named sisters, stepmothers, aunts and female acquaintances.
Step-sisters, grandmothers, foster mothers and foster sisters
accounted for less than 1 per cent.
“The question for people in social work is
whether they are impartial about allegations of abuse or do they
instantly think it’s a man, because abuse by women forms such a
small percentage,” asks Elliott.
She cites the case of one man who wrote to her
saying that he had contacted his local social services department
to report that his wife was sexually abusing their daughter, only
to be investigated himself. Even when the daughter confirmed her
father’s allegations, it was initially met with instant disbelief
by social workers who believed she had been coached by her
The end result? Although there was not enough
evidence to prosecute, the father was granted custody, while the
mother was allowed supervised access visits. The daughter has
refused to see her.
1 M Erooga, H Masson,
Children and Young People who Sexually Abuse Others,
2 M Elliott, Female
Sexual Abuse of Children: the Ultimate Taboo, Wiley,