Female Sex Offenders in the Correctional Service of Canada, Case Studies


Although there is an increasing literature on male sex offenders, there is a noticeable dearth of information concerning female sex offenders. Most of the work in the area has come from three of the largest prison programs for female sex offenders in Missouri, Minnesota, and Kentucky.


For a variety of societal reasons, female sexual abuse is likely to remain unnoticed. Some researchers have found that the incidence of sexual contact with boys by women is much more prevalent than is contended in the clinical literature (Condy, Templer Brown & Veaco, 1987). Despite society's increasing concern about sexual assault, there may be several reasons for the under-reporting of female sexual abuse of both child and adult victims. Traditionally, society has held preconceptions of women as non-violent nurturers. Women in general, and mothers more specifically, have more freedom than men to touch children (Marvasti, 1986). Therefore, a man may be more easily perceived as abusive when touching a child than when a woman touches a child in a similar manner (Plummer, 1981). Further, sexual offences perpetrated by women are often incestuous in nature and children may be reluctant to report sexual contact with a parent on whom they are dependent (Groth, 1979). Health care workers are often unable to detect mother-child incest as mothers often accompany their children to the doctor's office. This may serve as a barrier to detecting sexual abuse of the child (Elliott & Peterson, 1993). The medical profession is only reluctantly becoming sensitive to the fact that females can, in fact, be perpetrators of sexual abuse (Wilkins, 1990; Krug, 1989).

Female sexual abuse of adolescent and adult men may also go unnoticed from a legal perspective. In general, men are viewed as physically incapable of being sexually abused by women, and the myth that females are exclusively victims of sexual abuse has only recently been challenged. Sarrel & Masters (1982) provide evidence contradicting the belief that it is impossible for men to respond sexually when subjected to sexual molestation by females. They present eleven cases of male molestation by females, indicating that the male sex response can occur in a variety of emotional states including anger and terror. Brown, Hull and Panesis (1984) report thirteen cases of females arrested for the rape of both female and male victims in Massachusetts between the years 1974 and 1978 as well as an additional seven cases from 1980 to 1981. Petrovich and Templer (1984) report that part of their sample of male inmates in a medium security penitentiary were molested by men or women when they were between the ages of 16 and 54 years of age.

Another reason why female sexual assaults of men may be neglected is that males, in general, are reluctant to report sexual abuse (Elliot & Briere, 1994). This is mainly due to the denial and shame associated with male victimisation. Therefore, the sexual assault of a man by a woman is likely to be unreported because of actual or perceived social consequences (Williams, 1995).


Due to the possible underestimation of female sex offending, the accurate assessment of the problem is difficult. Sex offences are generally thought to be committed by men against women or children and to date, most investigators believe that males make up the majority of sex offenders. Many researchers consider Finkelhor and Russell's (1984) estimates of the prevalence of female sex offending to be the most accurate to date. Their tentative evaluation is that females may account for up to 13% of the abuse of females and 24% of the abuse of males, either acting alone or with a partner. Graham (unpublished) validates Finkelhor and Russell's (1984) estimates by indicating that 24.62% of male sex offenders in his study had a history of sexual abuse by a female. Finkelhor and Russell (1984) also estimated that approximately 6% of sexual abuse against females and 14% of sexual abuse against males is thought to be perpetrated by females acting alone.

Although it is rare, it is apparent that women are capable of and do commit sexual offences against both children and adults. In 1991, Dr. Fred Mathews made the point that female sex offenders are a significant population worthy of attention. He states:

"[assuming that approximately 10% of child molesters are female]...if one, in seven Canadian men and one in four women were sexually abused as a child, as a study has indicated, that works out to be about five million people. Ten percent of that figure would mean 500,000 Canadians have been abused by girls or women; 1 percent would mean about 50,000. I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like a minor number" (Globe & Mail, October 30, 1991, pp. A1-A2).

As it is obvious that female sex offenders are largely a neglected but important population, research must place more focus on their development and criminal behaviour, in order to recommend appropriate intervention strategies both prior to and after incarceration.


Little research has been carried out in the area of female child and adolescent perpetrators of sex offences. This research may provide some insight into the development of the adult female sex offender (Fehrenbach & Monastersky, 1988). Although some researchers have found that female sex offending tends to occur in adulthood and not in childhood or adolescence (Wolfe, 1985; McCarty, 1986), other researchers have described female child and adolescent perpetrators of sexual abuse (Mathews, 1987b, Mathews, 1987c, Mathews 1987d; Fehrenbach and Monastersky, 1988; Johnson, 1989; Higgs, Canavan, & Meyer, 1992). Johnson (1989) described the behaviour of thirteen female child sex offenders between the ages of four and thirteen years of age. There was a correlation of 100% between perpetration of sexual assaults and prior sexual victimization. In contrast, Johnson (1988) found that 49% of male child perpetrators of sex offences had a history of sexual victimization. Similar findings for child female sex offenders were reported by Knopp and Lackey (1987) in a survey of 44 treatment providers of female sexual abusers in the United States. The survey revealed that, of 41 respondents who treated female sex offenders, fifteen treated those under the age of eleven. Once again, all the female sex offenders studied had been sexually victimized.

Adolescent female perpetrators of sex offending have also been examined. Knopp and Lackey (1987) examined 44 treatment providers of female sex offenders and found 35 treated female sex offenders between the ages of eleven and seventeen years. Both Mathews (1987b, 1987c, 1987d) in the Phase adolescent female sex offenders' group in Minnesota and Higgs, et al. (1992) present individual case studies. In addition to these researchers, Fehrenbach and Monastersky (1988) report a history of early sexual victimization of the female sex offenders studied.

Fehrenbach and Monastersky (1988) provide an interesting contrast to the notion that female sex offenders often co-offend with males. In examining a sample of adolescent female sex offenders, they indicate that these women, unlike adult female sex offenders, tend to commit offences without any coercion from male co-offenders. As with other studies on female sex offenders, Fehrenbach and Monastersky (1988) caution about generalizing from their sample to other populations. Clearly, research is needed in this area in order to better understand the processes which influence the development of sexual deviance in females. The current literature strongly suggests that past sexual victimization plays a significant role in the development of female sex offenders.


Although at least one researcher claims that female sex offenders are generally psychotic (O'Connor, 1987), a larger literature refutes this claim (Wolfe, 1985; Marvasti, 1986; Grier, Clark & Stoner, 1993). Female sex offenders tend to be young, ranging in age from approximately 17-24 years (Brown et al., 1984) with low socio-economic status and poor education (Mathews, Matthews & Speltz, 1989). They also generally deny or minimize their behaviour (Wolfe, 1985) and have substance abuse problems (Mathews et al., 1989). This is generally consistent with research on male sex offenders.


Females are capable of several forms of sexual abuse on a variety of victims. Travin, Cullen and Protter (1990) classify female sex offences as either involving or lacking physical contact. Generally, offences tend to involve physical contact (Knopp & Lackey, 1987). Although very few researchers have studied females committing offences such as exhibitionism or fetishism, a few studies have described such cases (Grob, 1985; Hollender, Brown & Roback, 1977; Zavitzianos, 1971). Female sex offenders are also unlikely to use violence against their victims (Marvasti, 1986; Johnson & Shrier, 1987).

Laury (1992) discusses a rare form of offence involving the sexual abuse of male patients by females employed in health care. They state that although this form of abuse is rare, health professionals cannot ignore its existence.


Due to the paucity of research, there are no well-formulated theories of female sexual offending. A major setback in research on female sex offenders is small sample size. Researchers have attempted to develop typologies of female sex offenders based on observable characteristics of these offenders and their offences. In general, studies have reported individual cases. For example, Faller (1987) classified female sex offenders as: single parent, polyincestuous, psychotic, adolescent, and non-custodial abuse. McCarty (1986) categorized female sex offenders as co-offenders, accomplices, or independent offenders. Furthermore, Sarrel and Masters (1982) suggested classifying female sexual offenders as: forced assault, baby-sitter abuse, incestuous abuse, and dominant woman abuse. Although, Faller (1987), McCarty (1986) and Sarrel and Masters (1982) have classified female sex offenders by offence characteristics, Mathews et al. (1989) have developed a female sex offender typology,: teacher/lover, male-coerced, and predisposed, based on the offenders' motivation to commit sexual offences. Atkinson (1995) agrees that this typology is the most useful of those described.


The teacher/lover offender type is an adult woman who acts as the initiator of the sexual abuse of an adolescent; usually a male. She has a difficult time accepting her behaviour as criminal as she has no hostility toward her victim. This type of sex offender acts in a position of power through her age and role in the adolescent's life. The teacher/lover is seeking a loving sexual expression in her interactions with the victim. She feels that her sexual favours are an act of kindness towards the victim and she believes the victim's experiences with her are positive expressions of love.

The teacher/lover is usually a victim of severe emotional and verbal abuse as a child. Her family environment is likely to have been dysfunctional, with her father distant and verbally and physically abusive towards her. She is typically a victim of extrafamilial sexual abuse as an adolescent. The teacher/lover has often had a history of sexually abusive relationships with her lovers.

The teacher/lover tends to be defensive and denies the reality of her actions. She also minimizes the negative impact of her actions on the victim. She may be acting out her anger. This type of offender is also likely to have a drug or alcohol addiction.

Male-Coerced/ Male-Accompanied

A male-coerced offender is influenced by a male to participate in sexual abuse. Usually the victim of this abuse is the offender's daughter. These women are likely to endorse traditional roles in a relationship, taking the position of homemaker and mother/wife and their mate as the "breadwinner." Male-coerced sex offenders fear their husbands and feel powerless in interpersonal relationships. They are commonly subjected to the threat of physical punishment by their partner. These offenders are likely to join in sexual abuse which their partner has previously committed on his own.

Characteristics of these offenders include: low to average level of intellectual functioning, passivity, underassertiveness, anger and antisocial tendencies, low self-esteem and difficulty believing that others can care about them. Along with overdependency in relationships, these women also tend to have alcohol and/or drug problems. In an earlier classification of female sex offenders, Mathews (1987) distinguished between male-coerced and male-accompanied offenders. Male-coerced offenders are reluctant to participate in abuse but fear punishment, whereas male-accompanied offenders usually participate more actively in sexual abuse.


Predisposed sex offenders independently initiate sexual abuse. They themselves, have been victims of severe sexual abuse in childhood. Furthermore, they have typically been abused by family, strangers and acquaintances throughout their lives. Predisposed offenders come from families where sexual abuse has been common throughout generations. Their victims tend to be family members, often their own children. In addition to being sexually abused, victims of these offenders are also often physically abused and neglected by the offender.

Although they may escape their childhood sexual abuse in adolescence, it is rare for these offenders to be involved in a healthy sexual relationship. Instead, they have a tendency to become involved with abusive male partners. These women may also have sadistic fantasies that can be triggered by anger. This anger may result from concern about their ability to control acting on their urges. Predisposed offenders tend to commit offences which are violent in nature and involve young victims (under six years of age). These offenders are also chronically suicidal and self-injurious.

Predisposed sex offenders have "low self-esteem, passivity, extreme anger, and acting out behaviour, accompanied by what would be identified as psychopathology (i.e., extreme distrust, anguish, nervousness, distorted thinking, feelings of persecution, and dependence on drugs, alcohol, food or dependent relationships with men)" (p. 39, Mathews et al., 1989).


Females are more commonly victims of female sex offenders than males (Mathews et al., 1989, Faller 1987, Brown et al., 1984). Furthermore, victims tend to be children known to the offender (Wakefield & Underwager, 1991; Knopp & Lackey, 1987; Brown et al., 1984; Elliot, 1993). Many of the victims tend to be the offender's own children (Lukianowicz, 1972; Faller, 1987; Allen, 1990). In general, the literature regarding mother-child incest has been presented as individual case studies (Wahl, 1960; Shengold, 1980; Margolis 1984; McCarty, 1986; Marvasti, 1986; Banning, 1989; Lawson, 1991). Although Chasnoff, Burns, Schnoll, Burns, Chisum & Kyle-Spore (1986) report cases of maternal-neonatal incest, it is believed that victims of female sex offenders are rarely infants. Chasnoff et al.'s (1986) study reported three sexual abuse cases by women participating in an addiction program for women and their infants.


To date, the major treatment programs for female sex offenders are in Minnesota. In 1984, a treatment program for female sex offenders was developed by the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee in response to the increasing number of women incarcerated for sexual crimes. The original program components included intensive group psychotherapy, and additional couples and family therapy. An intensive two-day Sexual Learning Seminar (repeated two times a year) was later added. In addition to this, a weekly support group, ten-week sex education groups, intensive two day treatment marathons, prison staff training, and an extensive research component including program evaluation and case analysis were also added. The program also offers outpatient services through program therapists' private practices. These services are offered to female sex offenders and women who are fearful of committing a sexual crime. Often these services act as an aftercare program for women who have left prison (Mathews, 1987g).

A second program, Genesis II, began in Minneapolis in May 1985, just months after development of the program at the womens' correctional facility. This program offered outpatient treatment for female sex offenders. The driving force for this program came from referrals from the court system, of women who had been convicted of sex crimes but who were not incarcerated. In addition, referrals were provided by Child Protection social workers and private therapists of women who had admitted to sex abuse or were suspected of abuse. Victims of these women were, for the most part, their own children (Mathews, 1987g).

Length of involvement in the program is dependent on treatment goals, but is on average, fifteen months. The majority of females that are involved in the sex offender treatment program also participate in Genesis II's comprehensive day treatment. Women attend the program with their pre-school aged children six hours a day, for a period of eight to twelve months. This day-treatment provides participants with additional individual and group therapy, independent living skills training, parenting education, adult education, sexuality education, and developmental day-care (Mathews, 1987g).

The broad treatment goals of Genesis II include: taking responsibility for the sexually abusive behaviour, gaining an understanding of and empathy for the victim, gaining awareness of one's own emotional and psychological processes that led to the abuse, and establishing a way to meet one's own sexual and

interpersonal needs without victimizing others (Mathews, 1987g). These are also treatment goals for male sex offenders.

However, there is a need for more gender specific programming for female sex offenders. Among special needs for female sex offenders are: coming to terms with their own sexuality, moving away from shame, and, at times, dealing with male dependency (Mathews, 1987e, 1987f).