Online child sexual abuse by female offenders: An Exploratory study
Metropolitan Police, Kent, UK
expansion of the Internet and the proliferation of information
technologies have created new opportunities for the sexual abuse
of children. Sex offenders use the Internet to access and
distribute indecent images of children and to select victims to
groom for the purpose of abuse (Davidson & Gottschalk 2010;
Martellozzo, 2010; Martellozzo & Taylor, 2009; Quayle, Erooga,
Wright, Taylor, & Harbinson, 2006). It is a commonly held
assumption, stated implicitly or explicitly in both public debates
and scholarly research, that child sexual abuse is a typically
male crime, in so far as offenders are generally held to be men
and the level of sexual aggression involved in their offences is
seen as closely related to masculine behaviour. This article aims
to increase knowledge and understanding of the problem of online
child sexual abuse by female offenders. As rehearsed in the
literature (Martellozzo, 2011; Webster, Davidson, Bifulco, Pham, &
Caretti, 2009), online child sexual abuse is predominantly a crime
committed by men and only a small percentage of females sexually
abuse children through the Internet. This article presents
findings from analysis of qualitative data collected at the
Paedophile Unit at the London Metropolitan Police.
Online, Child Sexual abuse, Female offenders, Online child sexual
Recent cases in
the United Kingdom
have brought to public light that women do exploit the Internet to
sexually abuse children. It is therefore important to lift the taboo
surrounding female sex offenders and explore the evidence available
to understand this emerging problem. As this subject matter has so
far not received any scholarly attention, it is the aim of this
article to explore how women are involved as offenders in online
child sexual abuse. We address this omission by looking at
ethnographic data gathered during several investigations of the
London Metropolitan Police. The nature of our argument is
exploratory. Based on a detailed exploration of our case study, we
seek to generate some initial insights into an under explored social
phenomenon and raise questions for its future study. We do not seek
to formulate empirical generalisations as to the prevalence and
patterns of online child sexual abuse. While academic research on
child sexual abuse is dominated by studies geared towards this goal
in the context of positivistic methodological moulds, there is a
clear case to be made for beginning the debate on online abuse by
women with an exploratory, qualitative case study, given the current
lack of solid knowledge about female online offenders’
understandings and experiences of their acts.
Based on a survey
of key academic texts, we argue that, while child sexual abuse is
commonly associated with male sexual aggression, women’s involvement
as offenders is still poorly understood, in particular regarding
emergent forms of online abuse. We then substantiate this argument
through the exploration of a range of qualitative data, including
interviews with male and female offenders, as well as professionals
involved in the criminal justice process.
information and communication technologies (the Internet in
particular) have opened up opportunities for perpetrators, both male
and female, to abuse in a less visible way. In 2005, the Virtual
Global Task Force (www.virtualglobaltaskforce.com) defined child
sexual abuse online as the sharing and downloading of images of
children being physically and sexually abused and approaching
children online with the aim of developing a sexual relationship in
the ‘real world’, also known as ‘grooming’. Therefore, the risks
that children may encounter when online are numerous and rather
serious: exposure to inappropriate conversation; unwittingly
becoming the subject of sexual fantasy; being sent indecent or
obscene images; being asked to send indecent images of themselves or
their friends; being engaged in sexually explicit talk; and being
encouraged to perform sexual explicit acts on themselves or their
friends (so-called cybersex). All these activities and risks form
the new reality of cyberspace, where everyday hundreds of children
are approached for sexual abuse (Davidson
& Martellozzo, 2008).
literature available on online sex offenders is growing (Martellozzo,
2010; Webster, Davidson, Bifulco, Pham, & Caretti, 2009),
very little research has focused on online female perpetrators; thus
the literature available is nonexistent. It is therefore the aim of
this article to explore findings on male online offenders and use
them as an element of comparison for the empirical data collected
for this research.
with online sex offenders (Martellozzo,
2010; Taylor, 2010; Webster et al., 2009)
suggest that there is no such thing as a typical online child
groomer; it is nevertheless both possible and instructive to
identify a range of distinctive child grooming behaviours. Sex
offenders who target young children are form a diverse group that
cannot be “accurately characterised with one-dimensional labels”
Finkelhor, & Mitchell, 2009, p. 1).
Here, the grooming behaviour is understood– as feminists have sought
to understand male violence (Kelly,
– as existing across a spectrum of confidence. We have purposively
avoided using a positivistic approach underpinned by the often
pseudo-scientific classification of people or objects into discrete
typologies with rigid boundaries. Positivistic typologies would not
have worked in this context; they would have placed online sex
offenders’ behaviour into boxes, categorised them and reinforced a
stereotypical notion overlooking the nuance and fluidity of human
characteristics and behaviours. Furthermore, they would have placed
male and female online offenders in the same box, not allowing any
room for an accurate explanation of the gendered nature of current
debates in female child sexual abuse.
experience have repeatedly shown that sex offenders cannot be easily
‘picked out’ of a crowd (Grubin,
1998; Stanko, 1990).
There is no consistent model or typology into which they can be
accurately placed for the purpose of identification and isolation –
and public denunciation. In other words, “it is not possible to
describe the ‘typical’ child molester” (Grubin,
1998, p. 14).
This contention can also be applied to online forms of child sexual
abuse for both male and female online offenders.
Understanding online sex offenders
By using the
Internet, individuals have the opportunity to explore the dark side
of their sexuality by pretending to be whoever they feel like being,
and by disclosing as much or as little about themselves as they wish
to others (Cooper,
McLaughlin, & Campwell, 2000 b).
A man can be younger or older, a woman, a child, or a cartoon
character. Moreover, by hiding behind their fictitious profile, they
explore any opportunity cyberspace may offer, including that of
sexually abuse children (Martellozzo,
2010; Taylor, 2010).
During one of the
first Metropolitan Police undercover operation at the High
Technological Crime Unit, Martellozzo (2010)
found that more than 1300 individuals visited the fictitious girl’s
profile. Of these, more than 450 individuals with adult male
profiles initiated contact with the child, and 80 became virtual
friends and prolonged their relationship. Findings showed that the
vast majority of male adults contacting the girl’s profiles would do
so for sexual purposes (Martellozzo,
Some are simply interested in having sexual conversations. Young
defines these individuals as ‘fantasy users’, and distinguishes
those who utilise online chat room and instant messaging for the
express purpose of role-playing in online fantasy sex chat. However,
many suspects go beyond the fantasy stage; they distribute indecent
images, expose themselves and travel to meet a child to sexually
Sex offenders tend
to share similar distorted assumptions about their victims, the
nature of the offences committed, and their responsibility for their
offending behaviour. Furthermore, they are often not cognisant of
their wrongdoing (Middelton,
as they neutralise the consequences of their actions (Matza
& Sykes, 1961).
However, to enhance understanding of online offending, another key
characteristic could be added to the list, that of Internet
Based on the
analysis of forensic interviews (N=22) with virtual sex offenders,
research on Internet addiction found that all her clients met the
basic criteria of Internet addiction. She claims that, “similar to
an alcoholic who consumes greater level of alcohol in order to
achieve satisfaction, clients routinely spent significant amounts of
time online” (Young
2008, p. 301).
She used a model which follows five stages of developing Internet
addiction: discovery, exploration, escalation, compulsion, and
hopelessness or regret (Young,
2008, p. 301).
Unlike classic sex offenders who go through cycles of abusive
behaviour by their distorted thinking (denial, blaming, omitting and
believing the child enjoys and wants to be sexually active) (Salter,
1995 see also chapter 3), Young’s offenders were first time
offenders, with no previous history of sexual activity towards
children (however the research was based on small sample and the
results may not be typical). This characteristic was found in the
female offenders explored in this research. Furthermore, the
offences committed by Young’s sample were not entirely confined to
the realm of cyberspace. That is to say, offenders went beyond the
fantasy and discovery stages and committed some serious offences in
the real world. They detached themselves from the Internet and
travelled with the intention to sexually abuse a child. It was found
that the models proposed by Young and other scholars (Salter 1995;
Salter, McMillan et al. 2003; Sullivan & Beech 2004; 2008)
contain key emergent themes also present in the case studies
examined in this research.
The two themes of
coercion and denial have been used as guidelines to inform the
analysis of the data gathered throughout this research. The two
themes were explored separately and respondents’ accounts sought to
directly address these key themes and focused upon online offending
Gendered nature of current debates on child sexual abuse
In order to
appreciate the gendered nature of debates specifically regarding
online child sexual abuse, it is useful to begin with a critical
analysis of general debates on child abuse. This is important in so
far as specific discussions of online child sexual abuse cannot be
detached from the social, academic and empirical context in which
they take place. Here it is necessary, first of all, to emphasise
the cultural association of gender and sexuality. Public debates on
child sexual abuse are often characterised by assumptions about
‘natural’ and ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour. In contrast, it is
important to view understandings and practices of sexuality as
situated in historically and culturally specific formations of
positions which women and men occupy in the different areas of their
daily lives such as the household, work, or an intimate
relationship, are not somehow fixed and natural, and therefore
unproblematic and unquestionable. Rather, it seems helpful to
understand them as the outcome of processes of social construction,
which are historically specific and shaped by the different
cultural, economic and social contexts in which they take place
Fitzsimons, & Lennon, 2002; Butler, 1999; Kimmel, 2000; Oakley,
1972; Ortner & Whitehead, 1981; Walby, 1990).
In this sense, Kessler and McKenna (1978)
and West and Zimmerman (2000)
argue from an ethno-methodological viewpoint that sex and gender are
much less a stable internal property of individuals than an emergent
feature of individuals’ performances in particular situational and
arguments clearly open pathways for the conceptualisation of gender
differences in child sexual abuse. Nevertheless, this problem
remains under-theorised and poorly understood, even though it has
been widely documented. In comparison with males, only a small
percentage of females sexually abuse children (Matravers,
This common knowledge has fuelled the misconception that female sex
offending is so rare that the problem simply does not exist.
However, research suggests that, although rare in comparison with
male perpetrated offences, females are involved in a significant
minority of sexual offences (Bunting,
Given that the majority of reported child molestations are committed
by men, the issue of the female sex offender has been virtually
1993; Finkelhor, 1984; Mathews, 1989).
This is evident in literature which dates back to the late 1980s.
Prior to that, scant attention was paid to the female sex offender,
and this has made victims of female child sexual abuse feel, “more
isolated than those abused by men” (Bass & Davis, cited in Elliott
Research into the participation of women in child sexual abuse has
varied widely from 0 per cent in research carried out by Jaffe et
24 percent in the National Incidence Study (1981),
to 70 percent in research carried out by Fromouth and Burkhart
One of the reasons
for mainstream criminology’s lack of interest in gender differences
in crime in general is the fact that "women's crimes are fewer, less
serious, and more rarely professional than men" (Heidensohn, 1995,
p. 998). Furthermore, in-depth research in Canada (Denov,
showed that female sexual abusers were treated much less seriously
than their male counterparts by all the professionals in her study
including the police and therapists. Similarly, research conducted
in the UK found that “whilst child sexual abuse perpetrated by
females …[was] a serious issue warranting investigation, a number
advocated decisions [that] suggested they did not consider
female-perpetrated abuse to be as serious as male-perpetrated abuse”
& Beardsall, 1988, p. 68).
However, in order to understand why people commit certain crimes, it
is equally important to understand why others do not. Therefore, it
is necessary to explore the various attempts to explain why women
seem to be involved in child sexual abuse less than men. But how
much less are women involved in child sex offending in comparison to
men? Brian Corby (1998)
found that women accounted for just over four percent of sexual
abuse perpetrators, with mothers accounting for two percent of this
number. However, it should be noted that, like cases of sexual
abuses in general, a large number of abuses carried out by women may
Cultural taboos surrounding female sexual abuse
The cultural taboo
surrounding sexual abuse by women makes it more unlikely that
children would report such crimes (Elliott,
This taboo is fuelled by society, which
romanticises and minimises the impact female molesters have on their
young male victims. If a boy discloses abuse, he may not be
believed. If he physically enjoyed the molestation, he does not
perceive himself as a victim, despite the fact that he may be
suffering from the effects of abuse. Many will suggest that he
should have enjoyed the experience. If he did not enjoy aspects of
the abuse, he may fear he is homosexual. Either way the young male
victim of the older female is placed in an untenable position
(Mayer, 1992 in Bunting (2007,
This suggests that
there is a great lack of awareness about the emotional damage that
female sex offending can cause to the victims, which may also
increase the risk of sex offending in adulthood (Salter
et al., 2003).
This might be attributed to the way in which contemporary Western
understandings on child sexual abuse have been shaped by neoliberal
discourses of deviance, crime, and punishment. According to Wacquant
these discourses have categorically separated debates on the causes
and consequences of crime from the consideration of crime’s social
circumstances. In other words, explanations of crime are reduced to
individualistic arguments about individuals’ legal and moral
responsibilities, with no regard for the social structural contexts
that have shaped both society’s definitions of crime and the law,
and the biographical trajectories which lead some individuals to act
outside established moral and legal boundaries.
mechanism renders mediatised high-profile crimes such as child
sexual abuse inhospitable to a sociological critique which seeks to
conceptualise them in terms of their social meanings, causes, and
implications rather than simply attributing them to individuals'
moral failings. Thus freed from the need for a socially sensitive
interpretation of crime, authorities across the Western world have
participated in a "punitive upsurge" (Wacquant,
characterised by the ever harsher penalisation of an ever increasing
range of behaviours judged to be deviant. This punitive upsurge has
crystallised around a set of cultural types – the 'child molester',
the knife murderer, whose invention and constant demonization
through popular mass media provide the lynchpin for the
implementation of draconic penal policies. In particular, the
complex socio-cultural phenomenon of child sexual abuse has been
reduced to the stereotype of the aggressive male paedophile, thus
closing off from public consideration other manifestations of the
problem, namely the issue of female offenders. Wacquant's respective
observations on the American 'penal state' to some extent apply to
the United Kingdom as well:
Sex offenders are, along with young black men from the
neighbourhoods of relegation in the big cities, the privileged
target of the penal panopticism that has flourished on the ruins of
America’s charitable state over the past three decades. […] [P]aternalistic
assistance schemes and punitive criminal programs turn out to
consistently converge onto dangerous categories in the double
register of control and communication: ‘welfare mothers,’ believed
to pose a moral threat to the ethic of work and sexual propriety in
the domestic sphere […], and ‘gang bangers’ and assorted street
criminals from the hyperghetto, perceived to represent a diffuse
physical menace in public space […]. A third figure has joined and
embodied the sulphurous combination of physical and moral perils in
the collective mind of America at century’s close: the sex offender,
and especially the roving, unattached paedophile (Wacquant,
2009, p. 209f.).
As a result of
this highly gendered narrative of child sexual abuse, offences by
women are rendered a cultural, almost unintelligible phenomenon.
With such a small percentage of child sexual abuse cases being
attributed to women, it is assumed that women are less likely to
commit this crime against children. Many ascribe this to women’s
instinctive feminine protectiveness (Heidensohn,
In other words, societal perceptions of females as sexually harmless
and innocent appear to have an impact on victim reporting practices
However, as pointed out by Kelly, “even if arguments that there is a
hidden iceberg of female abusers have some validity to them, to
reverse the gendered asymmetry would require an iceberg of literally
incredible proportions" (1996.
Our preceding arguments
apply to the more specific field of online abuse. While this subject
matter has only been explored to a relatively limited extent,
throughout the past decade it has captured the attention of media,
policy makers, academics, and the general public and engendered
moral panics and public debates on a massive scale. These debates
have to be understood in the context of wider debates over intimate
citizenship in contemporary British society. As Plummer (2003)
argues, late modern society has witnessed the gradual disappearance
and systematic contestation of previously hegemonic cultural
discourses and social practices of intimate life. In particular, the
scope and limits of culturally intelligible and socially acceptable
forms of sexuality have been challenged through the emergence of new
technologies – reproductive technology, technologies of mediated
communication, etc. – that allow individuals to experiment with
forms of sexual practice unfeasible and unimaginable only a short
time ago. These new possibilities have also brought about new
uncertainties and fears (cf. Plummer 2003, 5ff.), which are manifest
in frequent moral scares and media frenzies around online child
sexual abuse and the dangers the internet poses to children. In
order to deal with these scares and understand their cultural roots
and consequences, it is indispensable to conduct systematic in-depth
research on the ways in which emergent technologies are redefining
the meanings, uses, and risks of sex. In this context, the gendered
nature of online child sexual abuse deserves particular attention.
The objectives of
this article are exploratory. It seeks to address the outlined
knowledge gaps through the analysis of a range of qualitative data
on female sex offenders, as well as on practitioners’ respective
perceptions and experiences. The data presented here have been drawn
from a number of primary and secondary sources. First, our argument
relies on transcripts of 15 post-arrest interviews conducted by the
Metropolitan Police with convicted female sex offenders. These
post-arrest interviews took place throughout the last five years.
They were recorded and transcribed by members of the police. These
transcripts were made available to us upon request. Second, we draw
on six expert interviews conducted in 2010 with practitioners in the
criminal justice field, including members of the police and the
judiciary. These expert interviews offer important insights into the
current state of knowledge about female online sex offending and are
thus of particular significance. Third, our argument relies on an
analysis of police reports on cases of female and online child
sexual abuse throughout the second half of the 2000s. These reports
offer further insights into the state of knowledge about women’s
involvement in online abuse and respective assessments made by
Metropolitan Police. Access to these confidential and highly
sensitive documents was formally granted by police after appropriate
background checks. Fourth, a part of the data presented here are
accounts of online sex offenders which have been collected during
separate research conducted on policing online sexual abuse by one
of the authors (Martellozzo, 2010).
of these data sources offers important and unprecedented insights
into women’s involvement in online child sexual abuse. The scope of
our dataset is obviously limited, both in terms of the number of
documents we obtained and their focus on particular police
operations in the UK, and we hence emphasise that we do not seek to
formulate empirical generalisations as to the phenomenon of female
online child sexual abuse. These limitations notwithstanding,
against the backdrop of a complete absence of generalisable data or
detailed in-depth case studies on our subject matter, our research
amounts to a basic starting point for future research.
The case study
discussed later in this article is unique since, for the first time,
a dedicated team of police officers and analysts debriefed convicted
female offenders. It is important to note, however, that police
interviews with female offenders were conducted to gather
intelligence on the subject matter. Therefore, the questions asked
were exploratory which, at times, required answers of a descriptive
nature. However, given the qualitative, open nature of the
interviews, other relevant information emerged at various points.
Fifteen female offenders were interviewed during this operation.
Therefore, our findings are based on a relatively narrow dataset.
This raises important questions as to the validity and
generalisation of our findings.
accordance with the stances taken by Plummer (2001)
and Riessman (1993),
we would like to point to the social standpoint of all research and
the unavoidability of particular, contextually specific standpoints
it implies on the part of the researcher. Plummer frames this issue
concerning sociological research in terms of issues of bias,
distinguishing between “those arising from the subject being
interviewed, those arising from the researcher and those arising
from the subject-researcher interaction” (2001,
He concludes that the idea to eliminate all forms of bias from
research so as to achieve a stance of ‘objectivity’ is fundamentally
A close examination of all bias in research could only be possible
if researcher and informant were mechanical robots. To purge
research of all these ‘sources of bias’ is to purge research of
human life. It presumes a ‘real’ truth may be obtained once all
these biases have been removed. Yet to do this, the ideal situation
would involve a researcher without a face to give off feelings, a
subject with clear and total knowledge unshaped by the situation, a
neutral setting and so forth. Any ‘truth’ found in such a
disembodied, neutralized context would be a very odd one indeed. It
is precisely through these ‘sources of bias’ that a ‘truth’ comes to
be assembled. The task of the researcher, therefore, is not to
nullify these variables, but to be aware of, describe, publicly and
suggest how these have been assembled a specific ‘truth’ (Plummer,
2001, p. 156f).
In this sense,
there is no easy stance of objectivity for us to assume and no
simple and unequivocal truth about ‘the way child sexual abuse
really happened to’ or was witnessed by, our participants. Rather,
the narratives we obtained were particular in many senses and shaped
by the specific social situations from which they emerged.
As to the
generalisation of our findings, the main merit of our work lies in
the deep and systematic understanding it offers regarding the
general possibility of child sexual abuse by female offenders rather
than in facilitating empirical generalisations on this topic.
Following Plummer (2001,
we presume a “continuum of representativeness” of sociological data,
ranging from statistically representative surveys to interview
narratives of particular, sometimes eccentric, individuals which are
revealing mainly on their own terms. As to our data, it seems
possible to assume a position somewhere in the middle of this
continuum: The quite particular accounts we acquired through our
research represent different ways by which online child sexual abuse
by women may occur under current social, economic, and cultural
conditions, without allowing statements as to the generality or
particularity of these ways. Our findings thus serve a primarily
heuristic purpose, highlighting the possibility of this crime and
paving the way for further, more extensive research.
confidentiality were, of course, guaranteed to all those who
participated in this study. It was agreed that all transcripts would
be made anonymous and that individuals who participated in the study
would not be identifiable from the way in which the findings are
presented. Furthermore, assurance was provided that extremely
sensitive data contained within documents such as transcripts of
police interviews e.g. names and addresses of convicted offenders
would not be revealed.
findings further point to a central ambiguity in public discourses
and debates on child sexual abuse. On the one hand, scholars and
practitioners correctly highlight the predominance of crimes
committed by male offenders. On the other hand, their understandings
of these crimes seem to be simultaneously shaped by a prior
understanding that child sexual abuse is an inherently male crime in
which, consequently, women are unlikely to actively participate. As
argued by Hilsop (2001),
professionals, including clinical, social, legal and research often
struggle to see women as aggressors towards children, particularly
sexual aggressors. Indeed, viewing females as perpetrators of sexual
abuse goes against every stereotype that society has of women: women
as mothers and caregivers and not as people who abuse and harm. This
point was reinforced by a practitioner with decades of experience in
the criminal prosecution of child sexual abuse:
“Whenever a female is involved in crimes which are not considered
to be consistent or compatible with femininity or being within the
woman like harming children, being involved in sadistic type murder
cases, sexual abuse of children or animals or anything, I think
there is always probably more impact, shock public outrage”
(Interview with criminal prosecutor).
Women are often
viewed as victims rather than perpetrators of sexual abuse.
Therefore, indecent images of children abused by women may come
across as ‘doubly disturbing’, both in relation to the act of abuse
itself and the fact that a woman seems to be actively involved in
it. One possible solution for aligning such perceptions with
prevalent common sense is to attribute women’s actions to coercion
or coaxing by a man acting behind the scenes with ultimate
responsibility for the crime. As this practitioner claims:
cases of online abuse I have dealt with there’s usually a male
somewhere in the background. They (women) usually have a male
accomplice or a male instigator who is encouraging them or
participating with them. It is very rare that I come across a lone
female acting without any relationship with or without any
involvement of a male” (Interview with criminal prosecutor).
out by the National Centre of Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN) showed
that the sexual abuse of children by women, often mothers, was once
ignored because it was rare, constituted 25% (approximately 36000
children) of sexually abused victims (Boroughs, 2004). What is very
worrying is that with the advent of the Internet this phenomenon may
increase even further. Up until relatively recently, child sexual
abuse has been considered to be a hidden crime, as it mainly takes
place within the family, social circles or in specific institutional
settings and it goes, far too often, unreported. However, the
arrival of the Internet has facilitated this crime to take place on
a much larger scale. Today, child sexual abuse also occurs in
cyberspace and the repercussions it has on children are as serious
as those consequences in the real world. Child sexual abuse has a
gender and it is male (Butler,
It can be argued that this is also the case for online abuse.
Research conducted at the Metropolitan Police Paedophile Unit
revealed that there are very few women involved in the making and
production of such images (Martellozzo
& Taylor, 2009).
NSPCC has found that more than two million indecent online images of
children were circulated by 100 child sex offenders convicted in the
last 20 months. An analysis of 100 cases reported in local and
national news of people convicted or cautioned between September
2008 and April 2010 for possessing, making or distributing indecent
images of children and/or child sexual abuse showed that all but one
convicted offenders were male (NSPCC,
28 April 2010).
However, as highlighted in the quote below, women are indeed
involved although the actual extent of the problem is even more
difficult to determine than it is for male offenders because part of
the difficulty is in the definition of child sexual abuse (Grubin,
This convicted sex offender claims:
“[...] (the trader) sent me pictures of a young girl and a female, a
woman. That sticks in my mind. He did sent me a picture of a very
young girl 3 maybe younger than that, I don't know 18 months 2
years, 18 months to 3½ years old and female and a fully grown women
and that picture sticks in my head. [...] it’s highly unusual the
amount of, weight and I explained it to the officers, the weight,
when I say weight, the amount of photographs I would have been sent
was outrageous. But they were all male and then this one, obviously
it's a female it’s like wait a minute, and obviously I'm married and
I've got kids and all the rest of it. F…ing hell what's that about,
pardon my French get rid of all of them as fast as you can, but that
sticks in my mind because it was, yeah I think it was the only time
I've seen a female, in that sort of photograph, paedophile type
photograph” (Male Sex Offender).
It is apparent
that the impact of the single image of a woman abusing a child on
this offender was far greater than any of the other thousands of
images of abused children he had collected on his computer. This
perception reflects what Hilsop (2001)
suggests that the societal schema of women and femininity is
inconsistent with women as sexual offenders, in so far as common
sense holds women to be sexually passive by nature.
It is therefore
often assumed that women abused children as a result of being
coerced or influenced by a male partner. However, as Elliott’s
study shows, more than three quarters of the women and men say they
had been abused by a woman acting on their own with no male
It is difficult to
prove or disprove claims of coercion put forward by women, as
usually it cannot be ascertained who controls the taking of indecent
images and directs the acts displayed in them. As research on online
sex offenders (D’Ovidio,
Mitman, El-Burki, & Shumar, 2009; Martellozzo, 2011)
have shown, it is emotionally and cognitively much easier to shift
blame onto another person than to accept responsibility. In her
study, Martellozzo (2011)
found that in relation to indecent images of children, the great
majority of the offenders recognised the illegality of the images
but failed to understand the damage caused to the child by making,
downloading, viewing and distributing them. For example, one sex
offender (ID:8) explained:
never saw them (indecent images) in the way you are describing them
to me (as abuse). To me it was just a file […] it was an individual
having sex on camera to me. I separated myself away from that”.
Offender N8 in Martellozzo, 2011)
didn’t go hunting for anything in particular. I wasn’t like that’s
the real turn to me. I will go for the title, that you know it has
to be that type of girl or that age or anything, I never saw it like
that I never saw the twist thing. To me it was something to add to
Offender N5 in Martellozzo, 2011).
seek to blame other factors, rather than accepting that they have a
sexual interest in children. Men are not in such a strong position
to claim coercion and duress, etc. as women are, due to the
aforementioned common stereotypes of male sexual aggression and
female passivity. However, maybe a woman’s claim of having been
coerced is too readily accepted without substantial proof. Many, for
instance, would find it difficult to accept that anyone could be
ordered, forced or coerced, to commit sexual acts against children
on the direction of somebody they have never physically met. Does
it fit better with common-sense views of society that women cannot
commit such acts unless they are forced? A criminal justice
practitioner interviewed on this topic claimed:
would probably be men, I would be very surprised if you have a
female gang of child abusers without some male involvement because
the males use the females to get the children to trust them because
children are less weary of females than they are of males, it’s like
the Moors murders the Hindley case where Brady used Hindley to pick
up the children because they trusted her, they got in the car with
her and then he was able to do these evil things with the children,
so that’s my perspective, I don’t know whether that’s a police
perspective, but you would usually find the man in the background
when a female is involved in sexual offences against children and
that’s been borne out by the photographic video material that I have
seen and the cases that I have dealt with or the cases I know about”
(Interview with criminal prosecutor).
The statement that
‘probably’ a male offender is responsible for the commission of
abuse is grounded in the practitioner’s extensive experience in
assessing and prosecuting relevant cases. This empirical grounding
is evident in the last sentence of the preceding quotation, which
refers explicitly to the scant frequency of lone female offenders in
cases encountered by the practitioner. Our conversation also seemed
to point to certain presuppositions about violent sexual aggression
as a uniquely male form of behaviour.
online female offending seems to be in an embryonic stage. As argued
by this practitioner:
only just started to see them being caught for these types of
offences (online offences). We’ve known they’ve participated because
there’s material from the 60s and 70s of women in pornography with
children but they are only now, I think, starting to come out as a
result of investigations into offences on the internet. So maybe if
you interviewed me again in 5 years time, I hope it’s not, it will
be very sad if it is, but I fear that we will have a different
landscape” (Interview with criminal prosecutor).
A recent internal
study of the Metropolitan Police analysed fifteen cases of female
offence in depth. Only two used the Internet to abuse or as a
‘playground’ to search for children. One of the two offenders
pleaded guilty to seven offences made up of facilitating the
commission of online child sex offences, making and possession of
indecent images of children with the intent to distribute and
attempted sex with a dog. She and her partner were also members of a
number of sex websites where they would be in contact with other
couples with children whom they would have allowed the couple to
abuse. When interviewed after arrest she blamed her co-defendant for
downloading the indecent images, for coercing her in sadomasochistic
acts and photographing other sexual experiments. The same study by
the Metropolitan Police found that in thirteen out of fifteen
analysed cases the female offenders had been coerced by a man,
typically an intimate partner. In the two cases that involved online
abuse, both female offenders had been compelled by their male
The element of
denial is common among sex offenders. Denial is generally best
perceived as the failure of sex offenders to accept responsibility
for their offence. Levenson and Macgowan (2004)
claim that, whilst denial of offending behaviour, to the offender
himself and to others, is a prominent theme in all types of
offending, it is a common aspect of sex offending. Schnider and
defines denial as “the acceptance of explanations that reduce
accountability and are reinforced by distorted belief and
self-deceptive thinking process”(p. 3). Generally, sex offenders
tend to blame society, the circumstances of the offence, the victim
for their offending behaviour (Gudjonsson,
and their partners. We found that the great majority of the women in
our study offended with their partners (N=12) and blamed them for
coercing them, thus seeking to avoid responsibility for their
actions. These findings support the seminal work of Mathews et al.
who claimed that the small sample of women who participated in their
study were male-coerced. These women tended to be dependent on their
male partners with history of sexual or domestic abuse. Fearing
abandonment, they felt compelled to obey the pressure of their
partners to commit sexual offences against children, often their
In this study, an
online female offender who was convicted of making and distributing
indecent images of her own children also took very little
responsibility for her actions and deflected blame wherever
asked me would I hold my son this time and my son just had swimming
trunks on because he was playing in the garden so again I was like
‘no, I don’t want to do that’ and eventually he convinced me, if I
loved him, if he was going to take care of me and the kids then”
(Female sex offender).
When confronted by
the police with the recorded evidence found in the offender’s
computer, she admitted her offence but blamed her male partner. One
of the fundamental questions that the authors focused upon in
analysing the interview transcripts was: to what extent can these
female offenders deny their responsibility and blame their male
partners? It is often assumed that if a female has sexually abused a
child, she must have done it under the influence of a male partner
or in collaboration with a male partner (Elliot, 2004). An important
factor that may motivate female sex offenders to abuse is related to
their obsessive dependency on their partners (Mathews,
This dependency is
so strong that it increases women’s vulnerability to the point that
they become easily manipulated by their male partners and may even
be persuaded or coerced into engaging in inappropriate sexual acts
against children, often their own children. Of the fifteen
offenders, nine abused their own children and one abused her
stepchildren. Three abused another family member. As the offences
were mostly parental abuse there was little grooming behaviour
displayed and victims were chosen because of the access the
offenders had to them.
found that eleven subjects out of eighteen had long histories of
poor and abusive relationships with men and yet continued to be
involved with the partner. This shows the necessity to have a man in
their lives, as highlighted by one offender. After several failed
and abusive relationships, she had met a man on a social networking
website. Their relationship grew in intensity, and he eventually
persuaded her to take indecent images of herself and her children.
She describes her emotional involvement with this man as follows:
“Offender: I don’t know, I suppose I wanted someone to like me, for
me, you know, not all the things that supposedly was from my ex
Interviewer: So how did you feel about taking those photographs?
Offender: I didn’t like it; I hated it; I did hate it.
Interviewer: Did you feel it was the only way you were going to
keep in with him?
Offender: Yes, because he kept saying to me ‘I’m really falling in
love with you’ – ‘if you really care about me’ – all these like
inhibitors that like stop you, you say ‘no, you know, I don’t want
to do this’, and he’ll say ‘there’s nothing wrong. You can send in
pictures of yourself. There is nothing wrong”. So he wore me down,
obviously. I was depressed, still grieving, but at that point not
really realising. So, I sent a couple of pictures, yeah, fine. [...]
Interviewer: Did he make you feel good?
Offender: Yes, he did make me feel different, sort of [...].”
This pattern of
dependency developed into her sending her online partner indecent
images of herself and later of her children as well. It is important
to note here that she never met her online partner in real life and
that she actively sought to limit it to virtual interaction via
online chat and social networking sites. Throughout the interview,
she several times stated that she felt afraid of the increasingly
forceful attempts of her partner to make her take indecent images of
her children. This might seem to suggest that her online
relationship was of rather tenuous nature. However, she attributed
her inability to end this relationship and the resulting abuse to
the fact that this relationship was virtual and therefore ‘not
could I stop a real-life relationship, but not an internet one?
Because it is not real, so I sort of remember him being cross with
me because [my son] had gone out to play, and I said ‘well, I ain’t
keeping my son in if he wants to go out and play’.”
contradictory nature of this statement is noteworthy. If she
experienced her online relationship as being ‘not real’, how could
her virtual partner’s anger have such a visible impact upon her and
make her justify herself? It might be argued that the compelling
force of her relationship resided precisely in the perception of its
virtuality, providing her with a rationalisation for pursuing and
disregarding her misgivings about her partner’s requests. While she
was driven to end several abusive real-life relationships, her
inability to do the same to a partner who had requested her to take
nude images of herself and her children resulted from the fact that
she had never ‘really’ met her partner, rendering her relationship,
in a sense, immaterial and the harm it caused less apparent. This
interpretation is quite visible in her way of describing this
think he’d already started asking me about the kids being with me
[...] with them with clothes on but me with no clothes. I’m like
‘no, I’m not doing that, I am not doing that. Then my computer broke
and I was without a computer for a few weeks anyway. I got a new
computer because mine couldn’t be repaired and I couldn’t get MSN to
work, so I e-mailed him, and [...] I said to him ‘sorry, my
computer’s been broken’. I said ‘I am on a friend’s computer’. I
didn’t want to tell him I got a new computer, so obviously part of
me was thinking ‘I don’t really want to be talking to this guy, but
I still am. Something was pulling me. May it was the attention he
put on me. I don’t know.”
suggest, first of all, that she clearly saw her relationship as
being limited to the virtual space of computer-mediated interaction.
She is equally clear as to the unease this interaction produces in
her. However, she never states the reasons for this unease
concretely, and she never accounts explicitly for the harm she
caused her children by posing with them in indecent photographs. She
does not consciously and clearly evaluate the seriousness of her
acts beyond statements of vague unease. It might be possible to
assume that she might not be aware of the harm caused by taking
indecent images of children, creating a potential for their
permanent storage, reproduction, and distribution. This conforms to
a frequently observed pattern among male online sex offenders, who
do not view the acquisition, distribution and consumption of
indecent images as harmful, in so far as they are not immediately
confronted with their victims.
Discussion and Conclusion
It is vital to
stress that the theoretical views that explain the motivations that
lead females to commit sexual offences should not be considered as
mutually exclusive; rather “females who sexually abuse children may
have a host of motivations that underlie their behaviour” (Jennings,
1993, p. 224).
Whilst empirical research suggests that “the majority of reported
victims are women, and the majority of reported sex offenders in our
society are men” (Jennings,
1993, p. 224),
it should not be ignored that women do commit a small yet
significant number of sexual offences. However, the literature that
explains this phenomenon is new and lacks some basic information
necessary for the development of research in this area. If female
offenders were not incorporated in the theoretical framework that
explains child sexual abuse, there would be a marginalisation not
only of the female offender but also of the victims that have being
subjected to female child sexual abuse. This should also be taken
into account in the study and understanding of online child sexual
abuse by women.
article is primarily intended as an initial exploration of this
subject matter, drawing attention to its significance and raising a
number of issues of potential significance for future research.
Specifically, our preceding discussion has led us to four
conclusions: First, available evidence suggests that women may be
involved as offenders in online child sexual abuse, as instigators,
facilitators, and participants. This conclusion emerges from both
the academic literature and the empirical evidence we gathered.
Given the limited nature of available evidence, it will need to be
substantiated through further research. Nevertheless, our initial
findings suggest that, for a range of motivations, women may
actively participate in the online abuse of children, they may
coerce or coax children into submitting to acts of abuse, and they
may play a significant role in facilitating abuse by male offenders.
While women’s involvement in those three roles has been widely
documented and rehearsed in the case of real-life child sexual
abuse, evidence of women’s involvement in relevant online activities
is, as yet, scant. Moreover, the processes through which women come
to act as participants, instigators, and facilitators of online
abuse are poorly understood and under-theorised. Our findings thus
highlight the significance of the issue as well as the need for
substantial future research.
Second, given the
gendered nature of child rearing practices, women’s advantageous
access to children as common primary caregivers may provide them
with a privileged base for committing online abuse. The case of the
online offender discussed at length above provides some evidence in
this regard. A divorced single mother of five, she had exclusive
control over her children and was easily able to involve them in the
production of indecent images in the private and invisible space of
her home. This may render online abuse by women particularly
difficult to detect, leading to uncertainty about its prevalence.
Given the prevalence of male offenders found to have sexually abused
children online, there is a need for further research on the extent
to which women become involved in such crimes.
Third, while women
may take part in online abuse in a number of different roles,
coercion by male offenders might be an important element shaping
their involvement. This tentative finding emerged from the quoted
study by the Metropolitan Police as well as interviews with female
offenders and a prominent criminal justice professional. This raises
important questions for future research: how are women compelled by
others – specifically men – to engage in child sexual abuse?
Conversely, what motivates women to engage in sexual acts with
children on their own and without direct external compulsion? The
pursuit of these questions may lead to important insights into the
gendered nature of child sexual abuse and its relationship to the
wider gender order of contemporary society.
In summary, online
child sexual abuse by female offenders constitutes a clearly
significant, but surprisingly underdeveloped field of research. The
present article has attempted to draw attention to this issue and
raise some questions for further empirical research and conceptual
debates, in order to facilitate a better understanding of the
gendered nature of online child sexual abuse.
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Lecturer in Criminology, Middlesex University, The Burroughs, London NW4 4BT, United Kingdom.
Middlesex University, The Burroughs, London NW4 4BT, United Kingdom. E-mail: D.Nehring@mdx.ac.uk
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 For example, in December 2009, in Plymouth, England, a nursery school worker was prosecuted to a custodial sentence for sexually abusing children in her care. She was sentenced also for making and distributing images of the abuse with two other sex offenders (one male and one female). This case illustrates the need to explore women’s involvement in online child sexual abuse from an academic perspective.