This perpetrated by females has also been grossly underreported

This paper will attempt to evaluate some
of the theories, causes and characteristics of female sex offenders that have
been put forth by previous researchers. It considers strain theory, cycle of
abuse as social learning theory, cognitive distortion theory and feminist
perspectives as to why females become sex offenders and attempts to evaluate
some of the social and psychological theories in relation to female sexual


Minimal research has been done investigating
the causes and characteristics of female sexual offenders especially in
comparison with male perpetrators. Particularly because of the prevailing historical
societal belief that men are the only one’s capable of being sexual offenders and
the prevalent notion that women are incapable of being sex offenders due to females
being viewed passive, nurturing and submissive nature (Denov, 2001; Vandiver,
2006; Saradjian, 2010), due to our socialised gender roles.  

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Secondly, since males are said to
comprise of about 90-95% of the offending population (Finkelhor et al., 1990;
Knopp and Lackey, 1987), the actual number of female sex offenders had
previously been considered simply too small a sample to advocate research into
(Finkelhor, 1984; Johnson and Shrier, 1987).


Thirdly, it has been suggested the actual
number of reported cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by females has also been
grossly underreported by victims (Allen, 1991) and often dismissed by law
enforcement and professionals (Saradjian, 2010), as well as not considered a
serious enough issue by adults (Hislop, 2001; Strickland, 2008).


Strain Theory


One of the possible theories that could
explain female offending is Strain Theory. It postulates the idea that deviant
behaviour in society is influenced by two main elements, culture and structure
(Merton, 1938). Assuming this is true, the prevalent cultural norm is that
women are viewed as primary caretakers of children can be thought of as a
possible source of strain which could lead to deviant sexual behaviour of women.

This is supported by the structural existence of a society that views female
offending as something that is non-threatening and incapable of causing harm.

With both culture and structure backing the existence of women as caregivers,
female offending could be viewed a direct response to the strain of these two
factors being true.  


Bem’s (1972) Self-perception theory puts
forth the idea that individuals develop their attitudes by co-opting prevalent
social and cultural norms by comparing their own behaviour in relation to its
cause and effect, and hence co-opt prevalent social and cultural norms. This
theory could be used to support the idea of strain theory, which allows females
to justify their offending based on current socio-cultural norms of the general
population considering females not being sex offenders as well as cause males
to not report female sexual abuse.


Research supports the idea that
socio-cultural factors having an influence on the readiness of victims of
sexual abuse to report and disclose it especially due to the fear, guilt, and
shame felt by them (Terry, 2006). Male victims of female abuse are thought to
be hesitant to report their victimisation due to the fear of societal and peer
emasculation for doing so (Terry, 2006). 


Strain theory offers a well-knit
theoretical explanation of how society’s perceptions can affect the behaviour of
female sexual offenders. Some research does show that it has empirical validity
(Ackerman and Sacks, 2012) in explaining the actions of sexual offenders,
although this study focussed on male rather than female offenders. However,
some theoretical research supports the notion that there is only weak empirical
evidence supporting strain theory (Bernard, 1984) as well as it not explaining
crime based on gender inequality and not being very critical of social
structures that cause the strain (Kornhauser, 1978; Bernard, 1984).



Cycle of Abuse Theory


One of the main social learning theories
used to study female sexual offenders is Walker’s Cycle of Abuse/Violence (1979). This
theory explains that prior victims of sexual abuse have a higher likelihood of
becoming sexual abusers themselves and is also known as the ‘victim-to-offender’ cycle (Boyd and
Bromfield, 2006). In relation to social learning, children’s primary
socialisation is crucial in the learning of certain behaviours and this
includes aberrant behaviour that is caused from either observational or
physical learning (Bandura, 1969). By experiencing prior sexual contact as
children, it is likely that these offenders internalized the abuse as what they
would consider normal, acceptable and pleasurable behaviour (Briggs &
Hawkins, 1996; Burton, Miller and Schill, 2002) and hence, increases the
possibility of victims to become instigators of abuse themselves.


 This theory is underpinned by research that
mentions a large majority of female sexual offenders have reported sexual if
not physical and emotional abuse as children (Davis, 2006). Other research also
backs up the claim that prior childhood victimisation is a crucial influence
for female sexual offenders who prey on young victims (Harris, 2010; Warren and
Hislop, 2001) as many female sexual offenders use similar methods of abusing
their victims as they were abused (Hislop, 1999). Wolfers (1993) asserts that
the reason women offenders with past histories of abuse offend is to regain
sexual control of herself that was taken away from her as a child, as well as
asserting that one of crucial reasons for offending by women is a futile
attempt to resolve traumatic childhood sexual trauma.


There is a sizeable body of evidence
supporting the idea of abuse being a cyclic system of abuse (Carnes, 1997;
Glasser, 2001; Schatzel-Murphy et al., 2009). Social learning theories like the
cycle of abuse are another interesting perspective that can provide some
valuable insight into the possibilities and causes for female sexual offending,
as they introduce the idea of environmental influences being an important
factor in sexual offending, which is contrary to most other cognitive and
personality theories that are of the notion that these behaviours are intrinsic
to individuals.


However, it must be noted that it is a
theoretically dangerous notion to assume that prior sexual victimisation is an
absolute cause for future sexual offending as there is a significant population
of victims of childhood sexual offences by females that do not go on to become
offenders themselves (Glasser, 2001).


Cognitive Distortion Theory


Another theory that could possibly
explain female sexual offending is the cognitive distortion theory (Ford, 2010),
which explains that an offender’s thoughts can influence their behaviour. Cognitive
distortions are thought to be exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that
are thought to cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately (Burns,


Females are often found to commit child
related sexual offenses in collaboration with males. This theory could possibly
explain the high prevalence of male-coerced female sexual offending with
regards to children. In relation to male-coercion, female offenders could hold
the cognitive distortions and thought patterns that they are entitled or even
justified to be controlled by their male partners and their abuse of children
is justified (Harris, 2010).


There is some fairly strong evidence that
suggests that unlike male offenders, sexual gratification is not the main
motivating factor in relation to female sexual offending (McCarty, 1986; Travin
et al., 1990; Vandiver, 2006; Giguere and Bumby, 2007). This could imply that
women commit sexual offences more due to male manipulation, coercion and fear
(Crawford, 2013). Other research also mentions that female abusers commit acts
of sexual offence due to extreme, unstable dependency with their coercers and
fear of abandonment by them (Giguere and Bumby, 2007; Cortoni, 2010). These
could be viewed as cognitive distortions themselves and can be a possible
avenue of explanation used to explain why females commit sex offences. It has been proposed that these cognitive
distortions act as a framework that allows female offenders to justify or even
deny their behaviour and minimize the impact of the offence on the victim
(Harris, 2010) and do so by blaming the victim or other individuals (Harris,


based theories serve as the basis on a large majority of sexual offender
treatment systems available today. There is some evidence that shows both male
and female sex offenders do appear to show cognitive distortions and thinking
errors, (Matthews et al., 1991; Miccio-Fonseca, 2000) as well as the idea that
these thoughts could drive deviant sexual behaviour. But the main issue
concerning cognitive theories of offending is that it does not explain what the
root of these cognitions are and it is difficult to validate if the cognitions
precede the offending behaviour (Beech, et al., 2009).  Secondly, it is unable to explain the
differences between female sex offenders with cognitive distortions and
non-sexual offenders with similar types of cognitions (Stinson, Sales &
Becker, 2008).


Feminist Perspective


Feminist theory poses an interesting question
in relation to female sex offending. Some basic tenants of feminist theory have
been partly responsible for the prevalent perception that females cannot be
sexual offenders. Feminists believe the patriarchal organisation of society by
the system of patriarchy causes the constant state of oppression of women by
men has the been the primary explanation for most forms of female offending
(Featherstone, 1996).


Feminist therapy has co-opted this
patriarchal centric view of sexual abuse and Marecek (1999) found a striking
double standard amongst feminist therapists working with sexual trauma victims
refused to apply feminist principles whilst working with men. He suggests that
actions like this cause men and women to be stereotyped into the dichotomous
and binary perception that women are blameless victims and men are evil,
coercive and always the perpetrators of sexual offences (Marceck, 1999). Denov
(2005) also provides another personal instance of feminists refusing to accept
the existence of female sexual offending, found that whilst in the process of
recruiting volunteers for her research on female sexual offending found that
several social services agencies were refusing to participate due to their idea
that research in this field was purportedly ‘anti-feminist’. This supports
(1993) statement that feminists considering the idea of female sexual offending
a threat to the feminist movement itself.


some feminist theorists acknowledge female sex offending is caused due to the imbalance
of power between men and women and that women are perpetually victimized in
every facet of daily social fabric (Hovey, 2005), and this constant state of
victimization could be the primary reason for female offending. Motz (2014) argues
from a feminist psychoanalytical perspective that female sexual offending stems
from a lack of maternalism in relationships between mothers and their children
and a female who sexually abuses her own children does so due to a poor
relationship with their own mothers in the first place.


Despite some acknowledgment of the
existence of female offending from feminists, there is not enough
scientifically valid research to support the idea that power imbalances between
men and women and patriarchy being the actual or direct cause for female

















This paper explores theories of female
sex offending from what Harris (2010) coined as single-factor theories that are
viewpoints that try to offer singular explanations rather than multi-faceted
ones. The list of theories in this paper is by no means exhaustive in its nature in
explaining female offending and although all perspectives propose some
conceptual interpretations of offending, there is scant literature providing
absolute answers as to why it occurs.


Recognising the mere existence and harm
that female sex offending causes is an important first step to take both
legally and culturally.  Recent research
has even suggested that the actual proportion of sex offenders who are female
being much higher than previously thought (Cortoni, et al., 2016).


It is apparent that most female offenders
seem to be committing these crimes due to a combination of factors and
corollaries of abuse, mental instabilities and trauma themselves and doing
further research into the reasons why can only help transform the idea that
females do not commit these kinds of abuses in addition to finding methods of
treatment that fit female offenders themselves. It is crucial to find methods
and typologies to explain and treat female offenders as much as research has in
terms of male offenders. Lastly, further research into this topic can only help
change the prevalent societal notion that females cannot be sex offenders.