When abuse is by a woman


"I'VE NEVER told my husband that I was abused and now I don't suppose I ever will. I've never enjoyed sex with him, or with anybody else, though I know how to pretend I do. I always feel like my life has this great big hollow in the middle."

Thirty eight year old Margaret is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse and her story sounds all too tragically familiar: as a young adolescent she was abused by a member of a religious order, an experience which she says "wreaked havoc" n her life. Sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, and a nervous breakdown followed. Only now, more than 30 years on, is she finally able to share her secret with a chosen few.

But one factor distinguishes Margaret from other victims of abuse who have recently spoken out: her abuser was a woman, a nun.

Sexual abuse by women is relatively rare. As sociologists Diana Russell and David Finkelhor concluded in their review of the evidence of women as perpetrators of abuse: "Women do not use children for their own direct sexual gratification very frequently."

Their research suggests women perpetrators account for a "fraction of cases, probably 5 per cent in the case of girls and 20 per cent in the case of boys".

It is small consolation, however, to Margaret that her experience was, statistically, a low probability event. In ways, this only added to her trauma, "For years I read every detail of every abuse case in the paper," she says, "but I never read of anybody being abused by a woman. It made it much worse somehow to feel it had never happened to anybody else, like I was some kind of freak."

Margaret's abuse happened at the Catholic boarding school to which her parents sent her, sure that it would give her a head start in life. Instead she got the unhealthy attentions of one of the nuns who regularly brought her into that forbidden terrain, the nuns' corridor, for sessions in which she was undressed and touched against her will. A loner, Margaret felt she could not tell anyone and struggled on, also enduring the cold and cruel behaviour towards her of the nun which always followed the abuse, probably a mark of the perpetrator wrestling with her guilt.

When, years later, Margaret had her first baby her thoughts were none of the more normal, happy ones but an overpowering desire to say to her old offender: "Look, I've beaten you. I'm normal."

Olive Braiden of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre says: "While abuse most often occurs at the hands of men, it's important to recognise that sex abuse by women does happen. At the moment, for example, we are counselling ten clients who were abused by women. There is little research and I believe the extent of abuse by women has yet to be disclosed.

The available research indicates that a proportion of women from all social and occupational categories abuse children: mothers, carers, teachers, nurses. However, Cian O Tiernaigh, of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, points out that woman perpetrated abuse is far more likely to be physical than sexual. "In the main, when women sexually abuse children there is a severe distortion of sexuality, which can perhaps be traced to abuse in their own childhoods.

"Alternatively, women may form part of an organised abusing group, in a children's home, for example, or under the influence of an abusive man, as in the Rosemary West case."

This concurs with Finkelhor and Russell's findings. "Many of the women who are listed as perpetrators in studies are perpetrators in situations where a male is also listed as a perpetrator. Most clinical accounts of situations which include both male and female perpetrators usually show the interest and initiative for the sexual abuse to come from the male. Frequently the female partner is participating under duress."

Olive Braiden, however, raises questions about whether the available evidence is a true reflection of the extent of the problem. "Sex abuse by women may be less likely to be reported for many reasons. For a woman victim there is the complication of the same sex factor, for a man it is extremely difficult to admit to having been abused by a female. And because we always seem to be talking about abuse in relation to men, victims of abuse at the hands of a woman feel additional stigma. They think nobody, else has suffered in this way.

Jean La Fontaine, in her book Child Sexual Abuse (Polity, 1990), agrees that the possibility of more women being revealed as abusers in the future cannot be dismissed, but says that the evidence of under reporting is so far rather weak. A careful examination of the American evidence failed "to change the original conclusion: that the socialisation of women makes them much less likely to be abusers.

THE MOST important word in this pronouncement is "socialisation". Almost all reasearchers are united in their belief that there is nothing inherent in men which makes them more likely to abuse. The discrepancy between the sexes occurs because of social and cultural factors.

This is confirmed by anthropological evidence. Anthropologist Jill Korbin has shown how ideas about abuse may vary in different societies. In Japan, for example, mother/son incest is a subject of much public concern and seems to be the predominant form of sexual abuse.

As we reel from the realisation that the occurrence of child sexual abuse in our own society is greater than we ever imagined, examining how we differently socialise men, and women is important. Which factors in the socialisation process allow more men to abuse than women? What can we learn from this that might help us to reduce the incidence of abuse?

Some analysts have suggested that women's child care responsibilities mean they develop a sense "of protectiveness towards their children which inhibits tendencies to abuse. Cian O Tiernaigh questions this, pointing out that women are as likely as men to be involved in other forms of abuse: neglect, violence, battering, even child murder.

The answer is more likely to lie in socialisation around sexuality. For example, could it be a factor that men are socialised to prefer partners who are younger, smaller and dependent whereas women's socialisation is towards partners who are older, taller and more powerful? That men are expected to take the initiative in sexual relationships and traditionally encouraged to overcome resistance, even to consider resistance as a cover for sexual desire? That a variety of studies have outlined how sexual involvement between men and children has been accepted or even encouraged throughout Western history?

Changing such ingrained cultural biases is a challenge to each of us, a challenge which we are failing to meet, never mind overcome. Denial is always a problem around the horrors of child sexual abuse and a number of commentators feel that Irish society has developed its own subtle denial mechanism in its concentrated focus on clerical abuse. Harry Ferguson, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Applied Social Studies at University College, Cork, has written of the injustice of the term "paedophile priest", arguing that we do not speak routinely of "paedophile farmers" or "paedophile businessmen", even though significant numbers from both occupational groups have been found guilty of child sex abuse, and pointing out that there has been no public debate about why married heterosexual men sexually abuse.

Cian O Tiernaigh also questions our focus on clerical sex abuse. It's `the green headed monster' approach," he says. "We look at Brendan Smith moving in slow motion across our TV screens and say `that's miles away from me'. It's watching child abuse from the comfort zone."

ONE in ten Irish men have suffered child sexual abuse, one in seven women. Reducing those figures means turning our focus onto the comfort zone, examining our assumptions, understanding the ways in which we may unwittingly contribute to a cultural climate which allows abuse to fester.

Analysing the gender gap in abuse statistics can help towards such an understanding. This does not mean casting the perpetration of sexual abuse into a "men do, women don't" mould. The experience of Margaret - and many other victims - insists that we must take notice of the fact that women can and do sexually abuse children.

It is vital that the needs of all victims of child sexual abuse are met, and that victims of female abuse are not further stigmatised by disbelief among professionals or the wider society.