The third most popular link on the BBC News Magazine section at the moment is this: Are there women paedophiles?
The answer of course is yes, and it is important to highlight this so that victims are believed when they come forward. The past experience has been, too often, that their reports of abuse have been not just disbelieved but scorned, and female paedophiles have been left with unfettered access to future victims. The article is a sober and balanced piece, and the selected comments from survivors of abuse from women perpetrators are heartbreaking.
A large part of this societal disbelief regarding sexual abuse by women is of course gendered stereotypes about the passive nature of female sexuality and the supposedly innate caring capacity of women that is meant to make women incapable of such behaviour. While it is true that all reports indicate that female paedophilia accounts for far less than half of all alleged abuse (5-10% seems to be a consistent figure) this may be largely an indication of cultural inhibitions that women are not meant to initiate sexual activity holding the subset of susceptible women back from acting out their sexual fantasies, whereas men are bombarded with messages that their sexual urges should be pursued vigorously therefore the subset of susceptible men act them out more readily.
Female perpetrators also seem to overwhelmingly rely on manipulative emotional coercion rather than instilling fear through physical coercion which is a significant male perpetrator style – this difference means that female paedophiles are almost never the predatory stranger abuser, and again is likely to be largely due to culturally stereotyped behaviours – women are discouraged from early childhood from displaying physical force against anyone, whereas there’s a whole range of “masculine” sports that involve the use of physical force, with huge approval given to the boy who dominates others. No wonder that the susceptible subset of men are more likely to use physical force in acting on their paedophilic urges, and that women perpetrators tend to use “seduction”. Of course “seduction” is also a significant male perpetrator style of abuse, because there are always some men who eschew violence in favour of emotional manipulation as well. It’s just that the social conditioning against women using physical force is so pervasive that violent sexual abuse from female perpetrators is very very rare.
Back to the difference in perpetration rates rather than MO’s: that susceptible women might be better able to control perverse urges shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention – the social construct of femininity is all about women denying their urges – the urge to eat, or to speak more authoritatively than male companions, or to just throw in the towel and run away from the emotional work of motherhood being three of the most obvious (and the urges that women are socially encouraged to indulge are those of frivolous display (that incidentally showcases their husband’s wealth/status), not those of perverse sexuality (the “taboo” sexuality women are encouraged to display is all meant to be about titillating adult males, not their own true urges)).
This shouldn’t be read as a hypothesis that in a gender-egalitarian society women’s perpetration rates would rise to be equal to the current rate of male perpetrators, more a hypothesis that in a gender-egalitarian society the male-perpetrated rate would fall to be more in line with the female-perpetrated rate because the idea that men cannot be expected to show sexual restraint would disappear. While expectations of women’s sexual agency would rise above passivity in a gender-egalitarian society, they wouldn’t rise to the level of being so urgent as to imply the predatory sexuality so often ascribed to men (because that expectation would be simultaneously being extinguished), therefore predatory stranger paedophilia would remain vanishingly rare amongst women perpetrators. Also that a gender-egalitarian society’s higher openness and awareness about consent/assent issues would nullify many of the rationalisations that abusers rely upon, so that perpetration rates should fall even further.
This nullification of sexual-rationalisation aspect of gender-egalitarianism should hold for all perpetrators of sexual coercion, including those susceptible to raping adults whom they have manipulated into an isolated situation (e.g. she knew what I wanted and came with me, what’s the problem with letting my footy mates get in on the action?) or susceptible to raping adults who are too incapacitated to assent (e.g. he was only drinking like that so he could have sex without feeling responsible) – without the rationalisations to fall back on, far fewer would be able to actually act on sexually coercive urges.
A further thought: sexual abusers are not as simple as just being bullies with a kink, although that’s often the simplistic portrayal, especially of male abusers. The cycle of abuse is well documented, with so many abusers having been abused themselves as children, by family/neighbours/teachers whom they were supposed to be able to trust and rely upon for protection from harm. Indeed, the cycle of abuse is now so well known that it’s reportedly a major anxiety of survivors of abuse – the possibility that they could become abusers themselves, perhaps harming their own children. It’s important however to note that the figures indicate that most survivors of abuse will NOT go on to abuse others – it’s the minority who do become abusers in turn who then perpetuate the cycle.
The tendency towards empathy and compassion in most of us is strong enough to overcome even such horrible childhood traumas and the resultant emotional pain that lingers – our reaction is to protect others from the harm that happened to us, not perpetuate the same sort of harms (in “normal” families this is usually manifested as offspring swearing that they won’t make the same mistakes as their parents when they have their own kids – they of course end up finding new and innovative mistakes to make instead.) But taboos about not speaking about sexual matters undermine this normal empathy for abuse survivors, and stereotypes about what counts as real abuse make this even harder. Many books could and should be written about the harm done by the idea that men are so sexually rampant that women abusing young boys isn’t really abuse, that the boys are actually lucky to be sexually “initiated” at a young age. When what is learnt from society is that some forms of sexual abuse “don’t really count”, the groundwork is laid for two divergently damaging responses: a lifetime of feeling that one’s traumas are not important and that therefore not getting over them is a deep personal failure, or a deep denial that may lead to a susceptibility to repeating the abuse as a perpetrator oneself.
This is why dismantling destructive stereotypes about sexuality, particularly perverse sexual urges and open discussion and information about the point where these urges stop being harmless kinks and start being disordered thinking for which people need to seek help, are so important. In combination with dismantling destructive gender stereotypes that allow women perpetrators to fly under the radar and that encourage male perpetrators to accept that their urges are natural, we could see some real alleviation of harm done to children.
Categories: gender & feminism, violence
My (thank stars) X friend was having sex at the ripe old age of 13 with his mother’s “best” friend. He didn’t consider it abuse, he felt it was a conquest. I was forbidden to tell his mother about it though, so she never knew just why this woman received no approval from my quarter, and held it against me. This woman was in her mid 30’s at the time, and I still think that she was an abuser taking advantage of a child. Now that I’m older, I absolutely don’t see anything sexually attractive about 13 year old boys, and recognize that the woman I mentioned above must have been suffering from psychological problems. That’s no excuse though. I should have spoken up.
Awesome post and so not the post that I thought that it was going to be when I started reading. (I had assumed that you were going to be critiquing the BBC’s reporting). This is well thought out and I think that you are absolutely spot on in your conclusions. Now I think I’ll go check out the BBC story.
Fantastic assessment of the way societal expectations of “normal” behaviour impact on abnormal. It seems interesting to me that society’s expectations of the abnormal behaviour have much less impact on perpetration rates – male paedophilia is ostensibly reviled so much that a great number of average men are afraid to go anywhere near a child under the age of 13 for fear of being labelled a paedophile, whilst, as you point out, women are largely dismissed as just indulging a boy who thinks the whole thing is awesome. Something about how rewards are much better teachers than sanctions perhaps?
Ariane’s last blog post..From the flip side
There’s also a lot of cognitive dissonance about our constructions of male and female sexuality to cloud our views of paedophilia – how does our idea of passive female sexuality tie into the madonna whore dichotomy, how does our idea of aggressive male sexuality tie into the stud/animal spectrum vs the stud/dud dichotomy, and how do the intersection of all these simplistic constructions of sexuality play into how we view the possibility of paedophilic tendencies amongst those we know?
I think it’s tragic how so many men are discouraged from going into mentoring work because of the stigma about men who are in any way interested in socially engaging with children. I suspect that it’s tied into a rather nebulous idea that men actually aren’t supposed to be interested in women without the possibility of sex on the table, and children are women’s sphere, therefore to be interested in children must also somehow be tied up with sex. There’s an awful lot of kids missing out on avuncular relationships with older men because of this stigma, and that’s a sad thing to miss out on. I worry that the wider knowledge of women paedophiles will fail to swing the balance back towards a saner view that for adults to enjoy the friendly company of children is actually the normal state of affairs, and that we’ll instead just end up with people being as paranoid about female adults around children as they are about male adults around children.
This was an interesting and informative read. Thanks for sharing.
I know this might make me sound really fuckin’ ignorant (not that I particularly care) – however, this is actually the first time I’ve read that most abuse survivors don’t actually go on to become abusers themselves. This is especially awesome news to me, as a survivor of abuse and someone who’s totally paranoid they could end up doing similar damage one day. Thanks so much ❤
Aileen, I’m not surprised that you wouldn’t have necessarily known that. All the dramas about paedophiles emphasise that they were mostly abused themselves as children, but perpetrators are still very much a minority of survivors.
From a Myths, Facts and Statistics site re childhood sexual abuse:
That particular study was apparently only about male victims/perpetrators, and I haven’t found the original cite, but this is where the importance of therapy to identify and restrain disordered thinking becomes critical. The disordered thinking that can result in survivors feeling urges to perpetrate festers and grows in silence and denial.
Yeah, I always find statements like that interesting seeing as my abuser (well, the ones when I was a child at least) were other children, usually the ones who were just about to head off to primary school.
But I shall have to read that study when I finally finish this assignment on the skeleton heh.
Thanks very much, you’re always so informative and honest 🙂
As the person who helped sort out the BBC interview with ‘Colin’, I am more than proud of him for agreeing to speak out about an issue that is often hidden away
‘Colin’ is not the only guy in group sessions here in Swindon, that has been abused by females, so my thanks for your blog and for nor dismissing it as a made up story
Thanks, Steve. You are doing good work there at AMSOSA.
If you would like to take the opportunity to drop some links for adult survivors of sexual abuse, whether male or female survivors, please feel free. It’s so often not easy for anyone who has suffered this abuse to speak up, the more links to support and resources the better.
Any guys out there needing a site for male survivors, are more than happy to check us out at
We have UK, USA. AUS and NZ members and I have also been there to help out too, in the past, and coming back too
[Steve, this got caught by our spaminator. I only just found it – sorry for the delay in publication. ~tigtog]
To Aileen and anyone else in a similar position: the principle “non-perpetrators told about the abuse, and were believed and supported by significant people in their lives” applies to all kinds of abuse, including non-sexual. The biggest factor in whether you grow up to be a survivor or a perpetrator is whether, when you were suffering, even one adult took your side and affirmed “That’s not fair. They shouldn’t be doing that do you. You don’t deserve that.”
What about those who were not believed, affirmed and supported as suffering children, Rozasharn?
I certainly want to hear that therapy at a later age, which includes the belief, affirmation and support that they should have had as children, still has some benefit for suffering adults in restraining and eradicating disordered urges.
I suspect that it’s tied into a rather nebulous idea that men actually aren’t supposed to be interested in women without the possibility of sex on the table, and children are women’s sphere, therefore to be interested in children must also somehow be tied up with sex.
I actually suspect it has more to do with homophobia. Men who want to work with children are seen as doing ‘women’s work’, and as such their gender and their sexuality are suspect (the two being linked, because ‘real men’ only ever desire women). And the association between the ‘perversion’ of homosexuality and pedophilia is pretty strong in contemporary discourse. It’s tragic, of course…
Good point WP.
Thank you tigtog, it’s that sort of writing that tells me, that all will be well.
You are speaking my language.
I would like to add, in regard to the fear of sexual offending, as a survivor. Fear of rejection features more strongly in my experience. Also, suicide is, I believe, a far more likely post traumatic response to child hood sexual abuse, than becoming a pedophile. And finally, what has not been mentioned here, is that there is a not insignificant number of child sex offenders that where never abused as children.