September 7, 2014


Eight to 16% of the male population has been abused sexually in youth. Most at risk are poor, fatherless boys 13 and younger. A significant number of child sex abusers – estimates range between five and twenty percent – are women. According to a 2004 report published in the Children and Youth Services review, “In 1996, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN) investigated more than two million reports alleging maltreatment of more than three million children. More than one million of these children were identified as victims of abuse. Of the one million children, 12% were sexually abused. The sexual abuse of children by women, primarily mothers, once thought to be so rare it could be ignored, constituted 25% (approximately 36 000 children) of the sexually abused victims. This statistic is thought to be underestimated due to the tendency of non-disclosure by victims.”

But many people – even professional therapists – resist the very notion that women can harbor such instincts. A 1984 study reported that “pedophilia…does not exist at all in women.” Researching the subject several years ago, I interviewed an Ontario woman whose life, and that of her brother, had been blighted by the chronic sexual abuse they endured at the hands of their mother. As an adult, she sought therapy and was disheartened that she “never found any social service agency willing to acknowledge this or speak about it.”

Her experience is borne out in a 2004 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence by McGill professor Myriam S. Denov, “The Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse by Female Perpetrators,” in which Denov notes that “professionals working in the area of child welfare perceive sexual abuse by women as relatively harmless as compared to sexual abuse by men.” Denov found that this professional minimization and disbelief of patients’ allegations can exacerbate the original abuse’s negative effects, “ultimately inciting secondary victimization.”

The instinctive discomfort people feel regarding female pedophilia can be located in two sources. One is the universal image of the female as the “nurturing” sex. But even harder to combat is an ideology, currently dominant in our culture, in which men are associated with violence and women with victimhood. Any suggestion that women are as capable of predatory sexual behavior as men is viewed as social heresy. The ramifications of this sex-specific dogma can be seen in the double standards for men and women – notably in cases of domestic violence, but also in cases of child abuse – routinely applied by law enforcement and social services in assessing the veracity of victims.


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