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.