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The phrase ‘child sex offender’ may conjure up images of depraved old men waiting outside schools to prey on their victims.
Indeed, the media generally tends to focus on male sex offenders and neglects to mention the fact that females also engage in such conduct.
According to a leading psychologist who has spent decades dealing with child sex offenders, the number of female offenders is much greater than previously thought.
Dr Joe Sullivan, a forensic psychologist based in the United Kingdom who visited Queensland’s Bond University earlier this year, says that while the majority of child sex offenders are men, there is research to show that up to 25% of all such offenders are women.
Dr Sullivan, who has worked with child sex offenders for 26 years, says that a large portion do not fit the typical mould.
He believes that current conviction rates fail to reflect the magnitude of female child sex offending, with only 3-4% of all convicted offenders being women. He puts this down to a reluctance to report and prosecute female child sex offenders.
Dr Sullivan says that those who have been abused by women ‘tend to feel as though they’re less likely to be believed’, and that the stigma attached to reporting abuse by females is largely a result of social attitudes, because ‘society does not believe that women really do sexually abuse children.’
These issues were discussed at an international police conference held earlier this year at Bond University. One speaker, prosecutor Michael Byrne QC, said that many victims of sexual abuse carried out by women were encouraged to wear their experience as a ‘badge of honour,’ and that there was a widespread implication that ‘the child has not suffered.’
Dr Sullivan agrees, saying that ‘there’s almost a perception that boys should be happy or grateful, or certainly not experiencing sexual contact with females as abusive.’
He says that the differential treatment of female child sex offenders extends to the courtroom, with women in the United Kingdom who were convicted of abusing adolescent boys typically receiving much lighter sentences than their male counterparts.
The experiences of professionals shared at the recent conference on the Gold Coast builds upon the findings of an Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) study published in 2011.
Importantly, it drew a distinction between paedophiles and child sex offenders, finding that ‘the two terms have different meanings; not all child sex offenders are paedophiles and conversely, not all paedophiles are child sex offenders.’
According to the AIC, a paedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to young, prepubescent children – but they may or may not act on those urges. Child sex offenders, on the other hand, are those who may be attracted to both children and adults, and notably ‘act out of opportunity rather than an exclusive sexual interest in children.’
The AIC also challenged the commonly held view that child sex offenders target strangers, finding that in the vast majority of cases, the offender was known to the child – but the relationship between the perpetrator and child varied based on the sex of the child in question, with female victims more likely to be abused by a relative.
The AIC also found that perpetrators of child sexual abuse were not usually victims of abuse themselves. But notably, the study found that young males who were sexually abused by a female were much more likely to offend against children themselves later on in life.
Researchers identified three different categories of female sex offenders – those who engage in sex offending together with a male accomplice; those who act out on psychological issues stemming from their own abuse, and those who abuse children in their care.
Experts say that female child sex offenders are normally driven by the need for an emotional connection stemming from a relationship breakdown, or psychological illnesses which may result in a kind of ‘arrested development’ – resulting in females aged in their 30s or 40s having the psychological capacity of a teenager.
There have been several notable cases of female child sex offenders in Australia.
In 2009, Michelle Lynn Dennis, a 33-year-old music teacher at Ballarat High School, was convicted of having sexual intercourse with two of her male students – one of whom was under the age of 16.
The court also heard that she had sent compromising photos of herself and ‘sexts’ to male students in her care. In one instance, she gave a student alcohol before engaging in sexual acts with him on the bonnet of her car.
Ms Dennis was ultimately sentenced to four years and three months in prison, with a non-parole period of two years and 10 months.
In another case, a Melbourne mother-of-two by the name of Deborah Goulopoulos seduced one of her son’s friends; buying him alcohol and presents and having sex with him on numerous occasions over a three year period. The court heard that at the time of the offences, the boy was aged between 13 and 16 years of age.
Psychologists who deal with victims of female child sex abuse say that, despite community attitudes to the contrary, the damage caused by such conduct is just as traumatic as when the conduct is carried out by a male – and accordingly, society and the courts should treat female offenders in the same way as males.