Female sex offenders: A new phenomena?
The majority of sex offender research pertains to male offenders. However, in recent years some big cases have called attention to a "new phenomenon" — the female sex offender.
The media is responsible for much of the hype, primarily because many of the perpetrators have been attractive school teachers.
One of the more infamous cases is that of Debra LaFave. In June of 2004, LaFave — a then 24-year-old, married, Florida middle school teacher — was arrested on accusations that she had sex numerous times with one of her 14-year-old students. She also had sent him scantly clad photos from her cell phone.
LaFave was charged with four felony counts of lewd and lascivious battery and one count of lewd and lascivious exhibition. Her case made headline news world wide — partly because of the issue and partly because of Ms. LaFave's good looks.
In 2006, 31-year-old Becci Hill was charged with child solicitation and sexual misconduct. She was working as a counselor for children with behavior problems in Indiana when she was caught by the police on the side of the road engaging in intercourse with a 15-year-old autistic boy. It was reported that she was the boy's mentor and had been sexually abusing him for close to a year.
Hill pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct with a minor. She was sentenced to two years in prison, three years probation and she will be required to register as a sex offender.
According to a 2006 report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, women commit less than 10 percent of prosecuted sex crimes in the U.S. Females represent only one percent of arrests for forcible rape and about six percent for other sex crimes (1).
While adult female sex offender rates have not increased, research shows that female juvenile sexual offenses are on the rise (2). Between 1997 and 2002, juvenile cases with girls as the offender rose 62 percent for violent sex offenses and 42 percent for non-violent sex offenses (3).
The new challenge
This new population of offenders presents a different set of challenges for police, corrections officers and treatment providers.
Gender and cultural stereotypes can impact how the criminal justice system handles female sex offenders. For instance, the notion that adolescent males must "conquer" women to gain social status undermines and minimizes the detrimental impact that female sex offenders can have on their victims. Further, far too few mental health professionals specialize in handling female sex offender.
By virtue of their gender, female sex offenders are often seen as non-threatening. Meanwhile, because of societal stereotypes, male victims are given conquest status when they have sex with an older female. Not only can this undermine the tragic results of victimization, it can lead to under reporting of the crime.
The research on female sex offenders is minimal at best. In order to better understand and treat this growing population, academics and practitioners alike must expand this field. Treatment options for female sex offenders must be explored as well as reasons why the offending behavior began in the first place.
(1) Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2006). Crime in the United States, 2005: Uniform Crime Reports. Washington, D.C.:U.S. Department of Justice.
(2) Snyder, H and Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile Offenders and victims: 2006 national report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.