Public and professional perceptions of female sex offenders

Ian A. Elliott and Alexandra Bailey

In a recently submitted book chapter, Alex Bailey of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and I took a policy-oriented look at public and professional attitudes towards females who perpetrate sex offenses against children. Franca Cortoni and colleagues [pdf] note that female sex offenders make up around 4-5% of all adult sex offenders and victimize children at a rate significant enough to warrant academic consideration. Alex and I sought to address the seemingly axiomatic view that public and professional perceptions of female sex offenders are complicated by the inconsistency between child abuse and pervading societal views of women as caring, nurturing, sexually passive, non-aggressive, and innocent, and that this leads to denial, minimization, and reconstruction of these individuals and their behaviors to correct for such incongruence.

I’ll pre-empt the hecklers and trolls here: “tell us something we don’t know”, right? This argument dates back to the early-1990s and still frames much of the debate around perceptions of female sex offenders. So… we tried to bring a little theoretical structure to the table. We used a recent paper by Pickett and colleagues to systematize that fundamental theme. Pickett et al. theorized that public approval for punitive sex crime policies are based on three overlapping concepts: victim-oriented concerns – solidarity with victims; stereotypes – conceptions of sex offenders as monstrous predators; and risk-management – concerns that sex crime is increasing and tough to prevent. We argue that these three concepts neatly outline precisely the reasons why female sex offenders are perceived in the way they are.

Firstly, there is evidence to suggest that neither the public nor criminal justice professionals alike demonstrate the same level of solidarity for all victims of all sexual abuse. Although, few differences have been found between male- and female-perpetrated sex offenses in terms of offense severity and impact on victims, a perception endures within the general public, the media, and the criminal justice system, that female-perpetrated sexual abuse is less harmful to victims than male-perpetrated sexual abuse. Similarly, abuse against adolescent male victims is often disregarded and not only are the actions of the female perpetrator denied or minimized it may be explicitly or implicitly implied to the victim that he should consider himself ‘lucky’.

Secondly, we re-conceptualized three gendered narratives offered by Sjoberg and Gentrymother, monster, and whore – as stereotypes of female sex offenders to demonstrate how public and professional perceptions are the result of cognitive reconstructions and rationalizations aimed to consolidate abusive behaviors with traditional stereotypes about women and womanhood. The mother narrative, that females are denied agency for socially-deviant behavior and that deviance is reconstructed as the woman ‘taking care of or avenging their man’ – is applied to the stereotype of the female sex offender as a passive participant under the tutelage of a dominant male accomplice. The monster narrative – that socially-deviant behavior is simply a result of a biological flaws and pathological deviance from prescribed feminine norms (i.e., ‘bad’ or ‘mad’) – is applied to the perception that female sexual abuse is so unnatural that it could only be perpetrated by ‘evil’ or mentally-defective women.  The whore narrative – that women are disproportionately vilified for perceived promiscuity and sexually-assertive women are considered predators – is applied to the notion that female sex offenders are simultaneously demonized and sexualized, resulting in the traditional media stereotype of the predatory ‘hot teacher’.

Finally, we argue, like others before us, that the small numbers of females detected and convicted of child sexual abuse fuels a misconception that the concept is so rare as to become nonexistent. Consequently the public and the criminal justice system are unlikely to consider the management of female sex offenders a priority policy issue [pdf]. This creates a vicious cycle: the public and professional minimization of female-perpetrated sexual crime generates policy (or lack of policy) that underestimates and discounts female-perpetrated sexual crime, which maintains its minimization in public and professional perception.

Alex and I concluded that there remains a need for criminal justice agencies to examine the impact of gender on their operations and ensure parity in the range of opportunities and services available to males and females alike. Policy-makers and practitioners should also be adequately trained to work confidently in a gender-responsive manner. Despite some progress, fully implementing policy reforms requires a larger shift in societal attitudes towards women, womanhood, and violent crime. What we hope, is that by providing a theoretical framework through which to frame this issue, we can focus systematic reform on recognizing victims, challenging stereotypes, improving vigilance, and balancing criminal justice outcomes.


Note: This work is due for publication in K. McCartan, P. Rumney, & N. Ryder’s forthcoming book “Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risks, & Responses”, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Alexandra Bailey, MSc., is a Trainee Forensic Psychologist at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a U.K. child protection organization specializing in the prevention of the sexual abuse of children. She is current undertaking her Doctoral studies with the University of Nottingham, U.K. Her role at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation has primarily focused on assessment and intervention with adult males who have committed sexual offences against children, including the Foundation’s ‘Stop it Now!’ Helpline. 

Suggested citation:
Elliott, I. A., & Bailey, A. (2014, March 19). Public and professional perceptions of female sex offenders. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


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