A team of US researchers led by Lara Stemple at the UCLA School of Law has analysed data from several large federal crime victimisation surveys and they say their findings show that sexual offences by women against male and female victims are surprisingly common. Writing in Aggression and Violent Behaviour the researchers stress that they are in no way intending to minimise the human cost of sexual violence perpetrated by men. But they say their results are “sufficiently robust so as to compel a rethinking of long-held stereotypes about sexual victimisation and gender”.
Stemple’s team begin by pointing to data from thousands of people collected for the Center For Disease Control’s “National Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence Survey”. In 2011, for example, this survey showed that equal numbers of men and women reported being forced into non-consensual sex (either raped themselves or forced to penetrate someone else). Extrapolated to the US as a whole, this would represent 1.9 million victims among each sex during the preceding 12 months.
There are similar findings for sex of victim in the 2010 survey, the researchers said, and that year, the survey also included detail on the sex of offender. To illustrate the prevalence of female offending, the researchers highlighted the number of men who reported being forced by a woman to penetrate her. The survey estimated that nearly 4.5 million men in the US had at some time in their lives been forced to penetrate another person, and crucially, that in 79.2 per cent of cases the perpetrator forcing the sexual act was a woman.
Another survey the researchers looked at was the National Crime Victimisation Survey, pooling the data from 2010 to 2013. This showed that female perpetrators (without a male accomplice) were reported in 28 per cent of rape or sexual assault cases against men and 4.1 per cent of such cases against female victims.
Data from prisons collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics is equally surprising. Among female prisoners who have been the victims of sexual offences during their incarceration, they far more often report the offender to be another female inmate than a male member of staff. Indeed, contrary to stereotypes, another survey found that women prison inmates were more than three times as likely to be sexually victimised by another women inmate as compared with male prisoners’ risk of sexual victimisation by another male prisoner (bi-sexual women were at highest risk). For boys and men who are incarcerated, the prison data also show that they are overwhelmingly more likely to be sexually victimised by female staff than male staff.
National surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau are also revealing. A 2012 study asked respondents whether they had ever forced someone to have sex against their will: of those who said they had, 43.6 per cent were female (compared with 56.4 per cent of men).
Stemple’s team also considered data from college samples. Most recently, a 2014 study of 284 men and boys in college found that 43 reported having been sexually coerced, mostly unwanted sexual intercourse, with 95 per cent of the perpetrators reported as being female. An earlier survey obtained anecdotal descriptions of sexual violence from perpetrators. One woman described how she “locked the room door that we were in. I kissed and touched him. I removed his shirt and unzipped his pants. He asked me stop. I didn’t. Then I sat on top of him.”
Taken together, the researchers say that the data challenge the one-dimensional stereotype of women as only passive and harmless. Facing up to the reality of the prevalence of female sex offences actually serves feminist goals, they argue, citing another scholar who wrote that to be fully recognised, women must be “heard in all possible forms, whether in compassion, in protest or in violence”. The results also challenge stereotypes about men, they added, such as that they have “an insatiable desire for sex”, and they challenge rape myths such as that it is impossible for “a big strong man to be raped by a woman” (which the majority of students endorsed as true in a recent survey).
Moreover, it is only by recognising the reality of female sexual offending that the needs of those who offend can be properly addressed. “Female perpetration [of sexual aggression] is frequently intertwined with women’s past experience of their own victimisation”, the researchers said. For instance, evidence suggests that female offenders “have often experienced severe childhood sexual abuse themselves.”
Finally, the “culture of denial” about female sexual offending means that most female offenders are not convicted, and when they are, they receive lighter sentences, Stemple and her colleagues said. Male victims may feel pressure to interpret their victimisation experiences in a way consistent with masculine ideals, “such as the idea that men should relish any available opportunity for sex.” Meanwhile, “heterosexist” assumptions (that sexual violence is only ever perpetrated by men, usually against women) mean that lesbian and bisexual victims of female sexual aggression are “invisible to professionals”.
It’s also commonly assumed that female offenders nearly always co-offend with a male accomplice, the researchers noted, but while it is true that co-offending is more common among female offenders, data suggest they are still more likely to abuse alone.
“We call for feminist approaches – expansively interpreted – to challenge these stereotypes, making room to consider women who are abusive, power seeking, and sexually aggressive, while taking into account the troubled background many such women possess,” the researchers concluded. “Those victimised by women are doubly harmed when we fail to treat their abuse as worthy of concern.”