When we think about sexual offenders, most of us might easily assume they are men. While this assumption is understandable considering that many cases of sexual offenses have involved men, women can also become sexual predators. Research suggests that between 1% and 9% of those who offend sexually across the world are women. Most estimates settle on 5%. However, their cases are widely unrecognized and underreported.
Last April, Laura F. McCollum, 62, the second woman in the US determined to be a sexually violent predator and the first female to be civilly committed to McNeil Island, was released in Spokane. According to Spokesman, a daily broadsheet newspaper in the US, McCollum was convicted of raping a Tacoma infant in 1990. She even admitted to having as many as 15 victims. McCollum was arrested during the same year after she admitted to her therapist that she had repeatedly sexually abused the infant she was babysitting.
While the psychologist who interviewed McCollum determined she still suffers from the pedophilic disorder, multiple mental health experts could not prove she was likely to re-offend. The court’s decision to release McCollum was a shock to Sylvia Peterson, author of the 2014 book “Laura and Me.” Peterson believes that she should never have been released after numerous interviews with the sex offender.
“That’s a dangerous pedophile. If she would do that under strict conditions, she would certainly do that under no conditions,” she said. McCollum’s case is only one of the many examples showing women can also be as dangerous as men. However, female sex offenders are not easily identified because they don’t usually fit the stereotypes of male sex criminals. For instance, it is rare that they offend against strangers or stalk serial victims. At the same time, an exclusive sexual preference for children is also rarely seen among women.
Female Sex Offenders: Statistics
In previous surveys about people who have been victims of sexual abuse or assault, 3% of female victims and 21% of male victims report that the perpetrator was female. Statistics provided by the US Department of Corrections revealed that females represent a small number in the crime statistics. While women made up over half of the population in 2001, they made up only 20% of all recorded apprehensions, 17% of convictions, and 4% of those given a custodial sentence.
Official data of arrest and conviction rates, however, may underrepresent the number of female sex offenders. As a result, they are less likely to be arrested and convicted. If they are convicted, they receive shorter sentences than male offenders. Various studies have been cited as “proof” of an extreme underreporting of sexual offending by women. There are several factors that can influence prevalence rates, including methodological choices such as the data collection method, the definition of sexual abuse utilized, and the target populations.
A 2010 study of 75 males and 65 females convicted of sexual offenses against children, for instance, found out that 36% of the male offenders and 72% of the female offenders had been sexually abused as children. Of these figures, 45% of the males and 6% of the females reported that their sexual abuser had been female. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children also reported that 5% of girls and 44% of boys who contacted the childline reported having been sexually abused by a female.
The researchers interviewed 1,145 men and 1,481 women as their final example in their study on the prevalence of child abuse. The findings revealed that 16% of men and 27% of women had been sexually abused as a child. While the majority of perpetrators were men, 17% of the victimized men and 1% of the victimized women reported a female perpetrator.
The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey also revealed that while women were vastly more likely to experience abuse perpetrated by men, among men reporting other forms of sexual victimization, 68.6% reported female perpetrators. The findings based on the data gathered in the years 2010 through 2013 found out that female perpetrators acting without male co-perpetrators were reported in 28% of rape or sexual assault incidents involving male victims and 4.1% of incidents with female victims.
According to The Atlantic, an online site that covers news, politics, culture, technology, health, and more, through its articles, podcasts, videos, and flagship magazine, female predators were reported in 34.7% of incidents with male victims and 4.2% of incidents with female victims. “These surveys have reached many tens of thousands of people, and each has shown internally consistent results over time. We, therefore, believe that this article provides more definitive estimates about the prevalence of female sexual perpetration than has been provided in the literature to date,” the authors said.
Why Female Predators Are Widely Unrecognized
For many decades, a significant number of women have committed sex offenses against infants, children, teenagers, and adults using varying degrees of coercion and violence––a truth that’s hard for us to swallow. The lack of attention to female sexual offending is a result of sociocultural views that describe women as nurturing, protecting, nonaggressive, and most importantly non-sexual. Most of us see them as generally good people, incapable of harming others.
Thus, acknowledging that women might willingly choose to sexually abuse children creates cognitive dissonance. Often, it is resolved by reframing this abuse as, for example, misguided attempts at intimacy. Accepting that they can willingly and purposefully engage in sexually offending behavior against children or adults also means challenging our long-standing perceptions about women. Despite clear evidence of physical and psychological harm brought by female predators, sexual offending by women is often considered harmless.
The truth is, just like men, women engage in a broad range of abusive acts, although females appear to proportionally engage in less penetrative behaviors than their male counterparts. Since our society mostly ignores the fact that women can be as predatory as men, they aren’t punished properly. Laws protecting individuals from sex crimes have not historically considered female offenders.
For instance, rape often carrying more severe penalties than other forms of sexual abuse has traditionally been defined in terms of forced vaginal intercourse. Thus, females have often been legally incapable of committing rape.
Overall, authorities must recognize that females can and do commit serious sex crimes just like men. Their victims can be seriously harmed, and denying their capability to do such harm can be extremely dangerous in the long run.