Female child sexual abusers – how are they getting away with it in organisational contexts?
Hardly a week goes by nowadays when there isn’t a newspaper article covering the latest female teacher to ‘engage in a sexual relationship’ with a pupil. Examples can be found in the UK, US, Canada and Australia.
By female child sexual abusers in organisational contexts, I’m referring to those women in positions of trust with children and young people and abuse within the organisations and institutions in which they work, either in paid positions or voluntarily. This includes teachers, social workers, nurses, sports coaches, nursery workers, and care staff for example.
This type of abuse is significantly under-reported
The literature about female child sexual abusers has gradually increased over the last decade or so but many of the existing studies reflect samples with predominantly familial abusers. There is very little empirical research into women who sexually abuse in the course of their work, indeed, with exception of my previous study there is only one other I have been able to find. This is concerning deficit considering childcare provision has been deemed to be one of the most common contexts for female perpetrated child sexual abuse. A few studies have examined ‘educator sexual misconduct’ but have not discussed female abusers in any detail. With increasing public attention on institutional child abuse over recent years more victims and survivors are coming forward and there is a real potential for increased disclosure of female perpetrated abuse in these contexts.
During my years in professional practice working for various children’s workforce safeguarding schemes over the last decade such cases were not the rarity the public might have previously assumed. The fact that official criminal justice statistics reflect very low rates of female-perpetrated child sexual abuse convictions. Only 1.27% of cautions and convictions for child sex offences from 2001-2012 related to female offenders in the UK also reinforces this misperception (data from a Freedom of Information request by the author; FOI details available from the author). It is widely considered by researchers and academics in this field that this type of abuse is significantly under-reported, even more so that male perpetrated sexual abuse. Indeed Ian A. Elliott and Alexandra Bailey’s earlier nextgenforensic blog post discussed the specific public and professional minimization of the problem and sought to bring some theoretical structure to the issue.
Prevalence estimates suggest 5-31% of organisational child sexual abuse is perpetrated by women
My previous and current research turns the spotlight specifically onto women who sexually abuse children and young people they work with. Prevalence estimates suggest 5-31% of organisational child sexual abuse is perpetrated by women.
Media reports usually represent the often young and attractive female teacher in flirtatious, sexy poses taken from Facebook profiles and describe the abuse as a ‘romp’ between the women and her eager young male student or as an ‘illicit lesbian affair’ with her teenage female pupil. Their depictions of both the perpetrator and victim are usually selective, gratuitous and sensationalist and do little to inhibit the long-standing cultural stereotypes evidence suggests society still holds in relation to women who sexually abuse teenagers. Importantly, empirical evidence suggests victims of female perpetrated sexual abuse experience the same traumatic effects of male perpetrated sexual abuse, including substance use problems, self-injury, and sexuality problems, as some examples (see Therasa Gannon and Franca Cortoni’s chapter on female sexual offenders as well as Jacqui Saradjian’s chapter).
My current research explores the response to such cases by parents and caregivers; professionals; the criminal justice system and employers and professional regulators. A mixed methods study, it will include analysis of publicly available court reports, published records and decisions of professional regulators, media reports as well as interviews with key professionals and academics. Elliott and Bailey’s blog discussed professional and public responses in relation to female sex offenders in general, much of which is equally evident in relation to women who sexually abuse in positions of trust, so here I will concentrate on the responses of employers, criminal justice and professional regulators.
In many of the cases I saw in my professional practice there had been signs of a developing inappropriate relationship between the female worker and the child or young person which were dismissed as unharmful or brushed under the carpet in a way that wasn’t so evident when the case involved a male worker. Increasing social media and text contact outside of the childcare environment (often initially with legitimate reasons of supervision or support of the child) were not discouraged or acted upon. There was also sometimes evidence that other children or adult colleagues were aware of something untoward about the relationship, in a way Sullivan and Beech noted in their study of male ‘professional perpetrators’, but this was not reported. Alternatively even when it was, in many cases informal cautionary chats, or at the most disciplinary warnings by employers, with little evidence of subsequent follow up and monitoring whilst the contact continued and oftentimes escalated. Parents would notice the increasing out of school contact but would interpret it as welcome additional support for their child from a caring and dedicated teacher or carer. Where action was taken to remove the female employee this was often by a compromise agreement and some of the women went on to work with children elsewhere.
In cases where employers did report to the police these were not always appropriately responded to and, as I described earlier, very few cases progressed to charge and conviction. The specific sentencing of female sexual abusers working in organisational contexts is an area my research is currently focussing on but the existing literature with regard to court outcomes for general female sex offenders shows that: women are treated more leniently; are less likely to be charged and convicted and more likely to receive lower sentences than their male counterparts (Embry and Lyons 2012; Hunt 2006). These studies have predominantly shown support for the impact of chivalry theories in responses to female sex offenders. Very few studies have found support for the ‘evil woman’ hypothesis.
A further element to be covered in my study are the decisions taken by professional regulators (such as the National College of Teaching and Learning and the Health and Care Professions Council for example) with regard to sanctions and prohibitions limiting (or not) female sexual abusers’ ability to continue working with children and young people. It will be very interesting to determine if similar gender focused responses occur in this context such as those so clearly evident in the environments discussed above.
As Elliott and Bailey argued both the public and practitioners need to work in a gender-responsive manner when dealing with female sex offenders and I would argue that this is critical in work environments where women are afforded such close, often unsupervised, contact with children and young people, providing a prime opportunity for sexual abuse to occur.
Women are getting away with it because of gender-blinkered views
It appears then that in many instances these women are getting away with it because of gender-blinkered views. Culturally we still view such abuse as extremely rare (reinforced by low rates found in the criminal justice system) and think that when it does happen it’s less harmful to victims (reinforced by media portrayals). It also seems that we tend to think that this abuse only results from the mental instability of a few psychiatrically disordered women or the coercion of a weak and vulnerable woman by a dominant male. We wholeheartedly (and sometimes sadly mistakenly) trust employers, professional regulators, the police, and the courts to address it appropriately whereas existing evidence demonstrates this is not always the case. This highlights the necessity for us all, as parents, colleagues, friends and general bystanders to be open to the reality of female perpetrated sexual abuse, to take any identified concerns about behaviour seriously and to act upon them.
“There is a deeper sense of betrayal [with a female perpetrator]. It’s like there’s no safe place. How can a woman face a world that belittles and condemns us because we’re women . . . and still turn her hand against her own sex? That’s a bitter betrayal.“
Andrea J. Darling is Postgraduate Researcher in Criminology at Durham University researching women who sexually abuse children in organisational contexts. Her interest in female sexual abuse perpetrators arose from her professional practice work; prior to commencing her PhD in 2014 she worked as a senior operations manager in employment safeguarding schemes for 12 years dealing with a wide range of casework relating to the abuse of children and vulnerable adults. She is also a member of the Prevention Committee of NOTA (the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers) and a trustee of a sexual abuse counselling centre.
Darling, A. (2016, May 15). Female child sexual abusers – how are they getting away with it in organisational contexts? [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-d3.
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