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Perspectives on Female Sex Offending: a Culture of Denial.

PERSPECTIVES ON FEMALE SEX OFFENDING: A CULTURE OF DENIAL. Myriam S. Denov. (2004). Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited. 225 pp. ISBN: 0754635651.

In their magisterial and encyclopedic books on male and female sexual behaviour, Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues provided little information on the topic of female sex offenders (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953). Fifty years on, one has the feeling that there is still a dearth of information on this subject. In 1990, Vernon Quinsey, a leading Canadian expert on sexual violence, wrote: "Female perpetrators of sexual violence are not discussed here because there are so few reported instances involving female aggressors and little information concerning them" (Quinsey, 1990, p. 563). This opinion was echoed by Mervin Glasser, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Portman Clinic in London, U.K., who claimed: "Though adult female sexual involvement with children has long been reported, information about such women is very limited and they rarely present at psychiatric clinics: for example, out of 288 patients seen for assessment at the Portman Clinic in 1976, two women were noted as having carried out paedophilic acts" (Glasser, 1990, p. 741). A different perspective is provided by Fedoroff, Fishell, & Fedoroff (1999) whose case series report on 14 women "who sought treatment for presumed paraphilic sexual disorders" provides valuable clinical information that will be referred to later in this review.

My goal is to introduce readers to Professor Myriam Denov's provocative, if ambiguously titled, book and to provide collegial comments on its strengths and weaknesses. Based on Denov's Ph.D. dissertation at the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge University, Perspectives on Female Sex Offending--A Culture of Denial has been edited to fit the procrustean bed of a series of books published under the aegis of the University of Wales, Swansea, School of Social Sciences and International Development. Inevitably, some valuable information, including the vexatious topic of false accusations of sexual abuse, bit the dust on the editing room floor.

Before plunging into a proverbial hornet's nest, a personal disclosure is necessary. The writer is privileged to have known Myriam Denov for many years. Her mother, Celia Denov, a distinguished social worker, has been a friend, colleague and a good neighbour for over 25 years.

About the Book:

The book's main concern is the under-reporting of female perpetration of sexual abuse and the negative consequences of this situation for the child victims. Denov claims that this under-reporting is the result of a social convention that regards all males as potential abusers and all females as victims. Denov provides a challenging and provocative analysis of the problem she identifies. While one has no inherent objection to missionary zeal, it must be said that her scholarly objectivity was, to some extent, blunted by a passionate desire to prove her case. Here is a trivial example. Denov claims that, until the last decade, female sex offenses have received very little scholarly attention. This assertion is contradicted by twenty pages of references to over 70 articles or books on this topic. As all of them are English language publications, it is at least possible that a search of the French and German literature would have revealed a similar number of relevant citations.

In addition to a feisty introduction, plus references and an index, Denov's book consists of seven concise chapters. At the risk of selectivity, I have chosen to make brief comments on topics and conclusions that are of particular interest to me.

The Prevalence of Female Sex Offending: Rare or Under-Recognised?

Denov's review of official statistics confirms that female sex offending, ranging from 1-2%, of reported cases, is relatively rare. However, she claims that social taboos deter many people, including the police, psychiatrists and social welfare workers, from reporting such events. Faced with these limitations, Denov turns to self-report studies which, for obvious reasons, may be revealing or unreliable. Nevertheless, it is clear that some populations, such as incarcerated male rapists and child molesters, self-report comparatively much higher rate of sexual assaults in childhood than do others offender groups. For example, in a study of 348 men convicted of such offences, Groth (1979), as cited by Denov, reported that 106 of the men claimed a history of childhood sexual trauma; 51% reported being abused by a male and 42% by a female. In a comparable survey, Allen (1991), as cited by Denov, reported that of 75 males and 65 females convicted of sexual offenses against children, approximately 36% of the male offenders and 72 % of the female offenders reported being sexually abused in childhood. Of the males, 45% claimed that they had been abused by a female compared to 7% of female offenders. If these data are accurate, it is not difficult to predict that a large proportion of this population was probably raised in multi-problem families in which poverty, disorganization, and the distress (usually associated with chronic alcoholism), were the norm.

Understanding Denial: The Transformation and Dialectical Processes

In the social sciences, a theoretical chapter is mandatory in most, if not all, Ph.D. theses. In this respect, Prof. Denov's book is not disappointing. To do justice to Denov's schema, I will use extended quotes from her introduction to Chapter 2 to convey the conceptual underpinnings of her views.
 To begin to understand the denial of women
 as potential sexual aggressors, it is necessary
 to place it within a broader social context.
 In this chapter, I provide a framework for
 understanding the emergence and
 maintenance of denial using two social
 processes- a transformation process and a
 dialectical process. The transformation
 process helps to understand how denial
 emerges. (p. 33)

 ... in order to allay the discomfort of a
 "deviant" reality--a reality that challenges
 the set of fundamental beliefs held by
 society, institutions and individuals--the
 deviant is realigned with more "acceptable"
 cultural beliefs and is ultimately transformed.
 This transformation process leads to a denial
 of the deviant reality. (p. 33)

 The dialectical process is used to illustrate
 how cultural values (and thus denial) are
 maintained and perpetuated in a given
 society. Three core elements are
 fundamental to the dialectical process--society,
 institutions and individuals.
 Although each of these three elements is
 important in their own right, it is their
 interconnecting relationship that is crucial
 to the discussion. The three elements work
 to simultaneously maintain and reproduce
 cultural values (and thus denial) in a
 dialectical and interdependent fashion. (p.

The Research Methodology

The sensitive nature of this inquiry and limited resources, led Denov to adopt a "qualitative" approach. She conducted confidential interviews, in two urban Canadian cities, with 15 survivors, 12 police officers and 10 psychiatrists. She also spent three months as a participant observer with a Police Sexual Assault Unit. Her interviews, which took between one and three hours, were audio-taped and later transcribed. In this manner, she harvested a large quantity of unscripted, in-depth and highly confidential information. Denov appreciates that her conclusions, while disturbing, are not necessarily applicable to a larger population.

Police Perspectives

Denov interviewed 12 police officers (10 male and 2 female) out of the 26 investigators (23 males, 3 females) employed in a Sexual Assault Unit (S.A.U.). Of the two women police officers interviewed, one was critical of her male colleagues. Over a period of about two years, the S.A.U. dealt with 2,600 cases. Of these, 35 (1.2%) involved suspected female perpetrators. Denov claims that due to exercise of police discretion, a much higher proportion of the female offender cases were deemed "unfounded". Thus, of the 35 female cases, 22 (62.8 %) were unfounded compared to 23% of the male sexual abuse cases. Denov claims this as another manifestation of "cultural denial." However, the police, who are responsible for providing the Courts with evidence, not intuitions, have a different perspective. Denov quotes her interviewees as follows:
 If you have been sexually abused by a
 women, you'd better have some damn good
 proof ... Your credibility is going to have to
 be really good.... A lot of evidence for sexual
 assault are things like penetration, sperm,
 DNA. They are male orientated ... it's more
 difficult to prove an assault by a female.
 Victims have to make their case in some
 other way. (p. 94)

 Important though it is, evidence or the lack
 of it, is not the only factor in determining
 whether charges will be laid. When an officer
 asked one of his colleagues to explain why
 a case had been classified as "unfounded",
 he responded, "You want to know why it
 was unfounded? The case was unfounded
 because she (the suspect) was damn hot (p.
 94). Denov's response is equally revealing.

 The offender's femininity and in this
 instance, her physical attractiveness, is the
 central theme from which the narrative is
 told. It sustains the view that "real" women,
 that is, women who are feminine and
 attractive, do not commit sexual offenses.
 (p. 94)

Psychiatrists' Perspectives

The conclusions from this chapter are largely based on selected interviews with ten psychiatrists (3 female, 7 male). Two were child and adolescent psychiatrists, the others, forensic psychiatrists. The duration of their professional experience ranged from four to 30 years. The recorded interviews were supplement by a modest review of the literature on the socialization and education of psychiatrists. However, Professor Denov's conclusions should be tempered by the fact that ten psychiatrists, cannot be said to represent the opinions of the 1,500 psychiatrists currently practising in Ontario nor the approximately 3,000 practising in Canada. Nevertheless, Denov found what she had anticipated in that the psychiatrists she interviewed had "never learned about female sex offenders" (p. 101). Among the examples of the beliefs held by her interviewees that might reflect their perspectives on sex offences by women, Denov includes:
 Female sexuality is not the same as male
 sexuality.... Women are not erotically
 attracted to children.... Unlike women, men
 are sexually aggressive.... Males experience
 a much greater intensity of sexual feeling....
 I'm sure that boys would get "a rise" out of
 being touched by an adult female. (p. 107-110)

On a more chilling note, Denov reports the comments of a male psychiatrist on a notorious case where the female offender was implicated in a violent sexual assault. He noted: "... despite the rather horrendous events that took place ... and the events that she (the offender) actually participated in, I do not see her as being a danger now or ever again to society" (p. 113). This response lends support to Denov's claim that, much like the police, psychiatrists strive to render female sex offenders "harmless." They do so in several ways. First, female offenders are viewed as posing no future danger or threat to society. Second, women who offend are transformed into benign victims who do not offend on their own volition but are coerced by aggressive men. Others may be excused from punishment by being judged to be mentally ill and not fully responsible for their actions.

In addition to complaining about the naivete of psychiatrists in this area, Denov argues that the formal culture of psychiatry, encapsulated in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, (DSM-IV), also provides misleading information about female sexuality. Perhaps due to faulty editing, a portion of the offending passage on which she based her complaint was excluded in printing. The section should have read (missed text in bold): "Except for Sexual Masochism, where the sex ratio is estimated to be 20 males for each female, the other paraphilias are almost never diagnosed in females, although some cases have been reported. "(DSM-1V, 1994, p. 524)

In their clinical case series of 14 female patients who sought treatment for presumed be paraphilic sexual disorders, Federoff et al. (1999) concluded that 5 cases (35 %) involved pedophilia. One case was complicated by pedophilic sadism. Other offenses listed in the case summary included attempted sadistic rape, exhibitionism, frotteurism, and zoophilia. The mean age of this series was 34 years. Seven women 50%) had a family history of psychiatric disorder and nine (64%) of alcoholism. Four (29 %) had prior non-sex offenses, eight (58%) had personal histories of substance abuse, four (29%) of alcoholism, and three (21%) were incest victims. Apart from the assessment of paraphilia in 12 of the 14 patients, ten of the 14 (71%) had one or more psychiatric diagnoses. In light of these observations, Fedoroff et al. (1999) also ask why it is that "so few reports of females with paraphilias have appeared in the literature to date?" (p. 136). In this respect, they are unlike the psychiatrists cited by Denov who appear to explain away the possibility based on presumptions about female sexuality. Consistent with Denov, they observe that,
 Since the majority of academics, physicians,
 judges, and indeed women themselves do not
 consider the possibility that females can
 harbour paraphilic interests, they are highly
 unlikely to recognize women with
 paraphilias. (p. 136)

Victims' Perspectives

In Chapter 6, Denov analyses the experiences of 15 victims of sexual abuse by an adult female (8 female; 7 male). The victims were between 3-9 years old at the time of the initial abuse, 10-59 years of age at the time of the interview, and had experienced abuse over different periods of time (one case appears to have been a single incident of simulated intercourse, others carried on over years). The perpetrators in ten of the 15 cases were mothers; two of the other cases, both involving boys, implicated babysitters. From the standpoint of methodology, the case descriptions highlight challenges common in this type of research including the time elapsed between someone offences and interview, accuracy of recall, the impact of counselling or lack thereof, and the representativeness of the subjects.

Concluding Observations

Despite my concern about some of Prof. Denov's assumptions, I found her final chapter to be lively, level-headed and challenging. Having been involved in research on dangerous sexual offenders, and family violence, for over 25 years, it must be said that my encounters with female perpetrators of sexual abuse, were exceedingly rare. However, I am convinced by Denov's research that, while there is no epidemic, these offenses are frequently overlooked and ignored. At present, the large majority of sex offenses by females involve children and take place in the privacy of the family home. An indication of the complexity of gaining access to objective data is provided by Trocme et al. (2001) in the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect. The study reports that 681 (4.7% of all case reports) of an estimated 14,406 child sexual abuse investigations involved mothers as the suspected perpetrators. Among these 681 complaints, 79% were unsubstantiated. Step-mothers were implicated in an additional 345 case reports (2.4% of all cases). These data illustrate the extreme difficulty of identifying child sexual abuse by mothers of other female caretakers, a dilemma that is further complicated by the uncertain outcomes of decisions related to punishing an offending mother and/or placing the child victim into foster care. Many hundreds of Child Abuse Inquiry Reports over the past three or four decades have revealed that this is a very inexact science. As we cannot guarantee that our interventions will always be in the child's best interest, even the best intentions are sometimes not good enough.

In the preface to her book, Denov reports that the topic of female sex offending often evokes surprise, disbelief, shock, intrigue, or utter revulsion. These kinds of reactions, which she experienced in various degrees of resistence to her research within the medical, social service, and academic spheres, convinced Denov that this topic needed to be explored. We should be grateful for her perseverance in bringing her work to a successful conclusion. Prof. Denov's book certainly merits the attention of the professional and scholarly communities.


Allen, C.M. (1991). Women and Men who Sexually Abuse Children: A comparative analysis. Brandon, VT: The Safer Society Press.

Fedoroff, J.P., Fishell, A., & Fedoroff, B. (1999). A case series of women evaluated for paraphilic sexual disorders. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 8, 127-140.

Glasser, M. (1990). Paedophilia. In R. Bluglass & P. Bowden, Principles and Practice of Forensic Psychiatry, Chapter VIII, p. 12. London, UK: Churchill Livingstone.

Groth, N. (1979). Sexual trauma in the life histories of rapists and child molesters. Victimology, 4, 10-16.

Kinsey, A.C., Pomeroy, W.B., & Martin, C.E. (1948). Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. New York, NY: W.B. Saunders Company.

Kinsey, A.C., Pomeroy, W.B., Martin, C.E., & Gebhard, P.H. (1953). Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. New York, NY: W.B. Saunders Company.

Quinsey, V. (1990). Sexual violence. In R. Bluglass & P. Bowden (Eds.), Principles and Practice of Forensic Psychiatry, Chapter VII, p. 9. London, UK: Churchill Livingstone.

Trocme, N., McLauren, B., Fallon, B. et al. (2001). Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect; Final Report. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.

Cyril Greenland, Professor Emeritus, School of Social Work, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.
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Author:Greenland, Cyril
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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