by Molly Borowitz
We already know that gender-based stereotypes can be extremely dangerous in sexual-abuse situations, but usually we assume that they endanger the woman involved (her jeans were too tight—she wouldn’t be wearing clothes like that if she didn’t want to—she was asking for it—no really means yes—girls like to tease—and so on). But what happens when such stereotypes actually protect women and instead endanger their victims?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I hear the word “pedophile,” I picture a man. Indeed, the sexual abuse of children is societally understood to be a crime perpetrated by males—in general, I think, we assume that women are extremely unlikely (and maybe even incapable) of sexually abusing a child. Traditional stereotypes of women as nurturing, inherently maternal, instinctively sympathetic toward children, and (perhaps more insidiously) less sexually active or sexually violent than men, all contribute to this belief. And yet the BBC reports that Childline, a British organization that offers support and counseling for child victims of sexual abuse, has seen a steady increase in the number of calls from young boys who have been abused by women—in fact, in the past five years, the number of children reporting sexual abuse by a woman has risen five times faster than the number of those reporting abuse by a man.
Historically, sexual abuse by women is vastly underreported because it carries such stigma. According to Dr Lisa Bunting, a researcher for NSPCC (a part of Childline), there is even greater guilt and shame attached to being the victim of a female abuser: “We get a lot of stigma with any type of sex abuse, but this is particularly the case in the participation of women.” She says victims are more likely to “internalize” the abuse than to report it, not only because they fear that their stories will not be believed, but also because they have difficulty coping with the sheer fact of the abuse—they struggle to believe that a woman would be capable of such a crime.
The professionals who treat and care for child victims of sexual abuse often exhibit the same disbelief about female perpetrators (which only serves to reify the victims’ fear that their experiences will be dismissed as false or exaggerated). Childline suggests that professionals are more reluctant to acknowledge sexual abuse by a woman, especially in cases where the abuser is the child’s mother—which account for about two-thirds of female-abuse claims made on their helpline—but also that the British policies, guidelines, and practices for child protective services and the management of sexual offenders do not deal adequately with the circumstance of a female offender. Dr Bunting explains, “If you don’t think females are capable of committing sex offences, then you are never going to be looking for that.”
Fortunately, Childline thinks that the drastic upswing in claims of child abuse by women does not reflect an increase in the rate of abuse, but in the rate of reporting. They wonder whether this trend might be connected to the recent Vanessa George scandal, wherein a British nursery worker was revealed to have abused children under her care and to have participated in an internet pedophilia ring. With sexual abuse specifically by a woman coming to occupy a prominent and acknowledged place in the public consciousness, Childline thinks (and hopes) that perhaps victims feel more comfortable and less stigmatized in acknowledging that they have undergone a similar experience. However, they highlight the necessity of further research about sexual abuse by women—of developing a better understanding of its circumstances and characteristics—and of continuing to raise public awareness about female offenders.
I suppose one could interpret this post as anti-feminist, given that it construes a (very small) group of women as dangerous, morally suspect, detrimental to society, etc. What is a post about female pedophiles doing on a feminist blog? In my opinion, this story offers yet another extremely compelling reason to continue the fight against traditional gender-based stereotypes—which we already acknowledge to be harmful to women, but which (we are herein reminded) can be harmful to others as well.