Julia Hislop, Ph.D.


Women exist who are sexually abusing children. Appalling, unfathomable, and incongruent with societal notions of femininity, this statement is nonetheless true. When children are sexually molested by women, they are at risk for a number of mental health concerns and disorders. Difficulty coming forward to receive help and protection is first among them. A number of researchers have noted the extreme reticence of victims of female sex offenders in telling others about their abuse (Mitchell and Morse, 1998; Myers, 1992; Rosencrans, 1997).

Several researchers and therapists have commented that when males are sexually abused they often experience a great deal of confusion, in that they have been socialized to welcome sexual activities (Hislop, 2001). One author noted that in the course of conducting a study, a family service agency sought to locate participants by running an advertisement for men who had been “sexually abused” in childhood. They received few replies until they changed the wording to request information from men who had “sexual experiences” in childhood. Over one hundred men responded, and most reported experiences that they had had with women (Crewdson, 1988).

Males may respond with physiological arousal under traumatic circumstances, which may create confusion for them concerning the issue of consent when they have been sexually abused. Sarrel and Masters (1982) were among the first to note cases of males who had responded physiologically when sexually abused by women. Despite panic, fright, and confusion, the men and boys had erections and several ejaculated. In one of the cases the victim responded physiologically in spite of having been bound, blindfolded, gagged, and assaulted by four women who held a knife to his scrotum and threatened castration.

Rentoul and Appleboom (1997) reviewed two small studies and concluded that it is common for men to ejaculate when they are being raped. McMullen (1990) similarly made this point, based upon case observations.

Paradoxically, while some believe that if a male has an erection, sexual abuse cannot have taken place, others believe that if a male does not have an erection that sexual abuse cannot have taken place. For many, “sex” denotes a penis in a vagina, and “sexual abuse” denotes a penis forced into a vagina. Because female sex offenders do not “rape” in the strictest sense of the word, their activities may not fit the paradigms of sexual abuse for their victims or for those in a position to protect. Several authors have commented that laws do not always recognize that males may be the victims of sexual crimes (Hislop, 2001).

Society has similar difficulty managing the notion that females sexually victimize females. A number of authors have noted that because physical intimacies between females are generally viewed as socially appropriate and non-sexual, that many female victims may have difficulty recognizing when abuse has occurred. Others have noted that when it is clear that abuse has occurred, the anomaly of the offense having involved not only same sex activities, but also a female offender, may cause confusion, humiliation, and a fear of provoking disbelief (Hislop, 2001).

Within the literature on the subject of women who sexually molest children, exist several accounts of children who were greatly disturbed by the molestation. Some studies, however, have found examples of men who retrospectively recall experiences with older or adult females as neutral or even positive, among others who recalled them negatively (Condy, Veaco, Brown & Templer, 1987; Finkelhor, 1979; Finkelhor, 1984; Fritz, Stoll, & Wagner, 1981; Haugaard and Emery, 1989). A number of researchers have speculated that men may not be willing to acknowledge related distress for a variety of reasons (Hislop, 2001), which may have influenced these findings.

A number of researchers have found that children who have been abused by females have often experienced significant difficulties. Shrier and Johnson (1988) noted in their sample of 11 adolescent boys reporting a history of molestation by females, that 73 percent reported the immediate effects of such molestation to have been “strong” or “devastating.”

Ramsey-Klawsnik, (1990) reported that in confirmed cases of child sexual abuse by a female, children of both genders receiving mental health evaluations demonstrated a variety of emotional and behavioral problems. These included intense fear, nightmares/sleep disturbances, sexualized behaviors, regressive behaviors, hyperactivity, aggressive behaviors, disturbed peer interactions, and preoccupation with death. Harper (1993) found that of seven boys who were molested by their mothers, behavior problems included aggressive acting out, sexual acting out, depression, cross dressing, and developmental delays.

In cases in which it is the mother who is an offender, severe consequences are often noted for the victims. Of 93 women surveyed by Rosencrans (1997) who were sexually abused by their mothers, forty-four percent reported that the sexual contact had been the most damaging experience of their lives. None reported that the sexual abuse had not been damaging. Among nine men abused by their mothers, forty-four percent of her subjects said that it was the most damaging experience of their lives.

In addition to emotional and behavioral problems among males sexually molested in childhood, some authors have noted social and relationship problems. Conflict among men sexually abused by females related to sexuality, and to intimate relationships or marriages has been noted by a number of authors (Etherington, 1997; Kasl, 1990; Lawson, 1991; Rinsley, 1978). A variety of sexual problems has been noted by several authors to occur among males who have been molested by females (Maltz and Holman, 1987; Rosencrans, 1997; Sarrel and Masters, 1982; Shrier and Johnson, 1987). Additionally, several authors have found sexual identity concerns, homosexuality, or bisexuality among small groups of males who were molested by females (Johnson & Shrier, 1987; Krug, 1989; Rosencrans, 1997). Parenting was found to be problematic by all of nine men molested in childhood by their mothers and studied by Rosencrans (1997).

The possibility that males who are sexually abused by women may later sexually abuse others has been raised by several authors (Justice & Justice, 1979; Maltz & Holman, 1987; Margolis, 1984; Rosencrans, 1997). Groth (1979a) noted that rapists are sexually victimized more by females than by males and suggested that this partially explains their sexual attacks against women. High frequencies of molestation by a female have been noted in the histories of incarcerated sex offenders by several researchers (Allen, 1991; Burgess, Hazelwood, Rokous, Hartman & Burgess, 1987; Groth 1979a; Petrovich and Templer, 1984; Ryan, Miyoshi, Metzner & Fryer, 1996).

A tendency to have been sexually offended against by a female has not been observed among populations of women who sexually offend against children, to the extent that it is seen among male sex offenders. Aside from this, females who are sexually offended against by women often have similar concerns to their male counterparts. Anger or aggression (Myers, 1992; Rosencrans, 1997; Swink, 1989), delinquency (Rosencrans, 1997), depression and anxiety (Mitchell and Morse, 1998; Myers, 1992; Rosencrans, 1997; Swink, 1989), dissociation (Mitchell and Morse, 1998; Myers, 1992; Swink, 1989), and body image distortion or confusion (Myers, 1992; Swink, 1989) have all been commonly observed. Additionally, difficulty establishing a sense of identity or esteem has been noted by several authors (Mitchell and Morse, 1998; Myers, 1992; Paiser, 1992; Ogilvie and Daniluk, 1995; Swink, 1989).

A number of women who have been sexually molested in childhood by females engage in a variety of forms of self-harm (Mitchell and Morse, 1998; Myers, 1992; Paiser, 1992; Rosencrans, 1997; Swink, 1989). A variety of physical problems have also been reported among this population (Mitchell and Morse, 1998; Myers, 1992; Rosencrans, 1997; Swink, 1989).

Many female survivors of female-perpetrated child sexual abuse report problems in relationships (Mitchell and Morse, 1998; Myers, 1992; Ogilvie & Daniluk, 1995; Paiser, 1992; Swink, 1989), and many researchers have also found sexual problems or dysfunction among women who were molested by women in childhood (Myers, 1992; Mitchell & Morse, 1998; Swink, 1989; Rosencrans, 1997). Several researchers have noted that women who have a history of having been molested by females often tend to have been sexually abused by other offenders as well (Myers, 1992; Paiser, 1992; Rosencrans, 1997; Swink, 1989), which may compound relationship concerns.

Among women molested in childhood by females, many report sexual identity confusion, and many also report their sexual identity to be lesbian or bisexual (Cameron, Coburn, Larson, Proctor, Forde, & Cameron, 1986; Mayer, 1992; Mitchell and Morse, 1998; Myers, 1992; Paiser, 1992; Rosencrans, 1997; Swink, 1989). Concerns about ability to parent have also been discovered among women who were sexually abused by women in childhood (Myers, 1992; Ogilvie & Daniluk, 1995; Paiser, 1992; Rosencrans, 1997).

When children are sexually abused by females, their stories are often kept from others who might protect them. Perhaps to a greater extent than is the case with the victims of males, it is common for these children to report isolation and confusion about their experiences. Currently available studies related to the concerns of victims have often been conducted among biased samples of subjects, such as college students, sex offenders, mental health clients, and so forth, which may tend to skew results. Some studies have found examples of individuals who state that they were not harmed by the sexual contact with women among others who report that they were.

When problems are reported among victims, they often include emotional problems such as anxiety or depression, or behavioral problems. Several researchers have noted a history of sexual abuse by women in the history of large percentages of sex offenders, leading many to begin to question the relationship between the two. Difficulty with self-esteem and identity are common among these victims as are a variety of problems related to relationships. Problems with self-harm, dissociation, body image, and physical problems have been noted, particularly among the female victims. Further research is needed in order to further assess the concerns of children who have been sexually abused by females.


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Presented at the 3rd East-West Conference on Child Sexual Abuse Sexual Violence and
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Prague, Czech Republic, September 15 -18, 2002

(c) 2005 Julia Hislop

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