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Female pedophilia is rare, difficult to understand
Female pedophilia is rare, difficult to understand By Carolyn Susman, Cox News Service
Star Tribune - January 13, 2004
It is one of the worst taboos in society: a nurturing mother figure who sexually abuses a child. But three recent criminal cases in Florida's Palm Beach County have brought the topic to the fore.
Last month, Amy Duane, a 37-year-old mother of three, was sentenced to four years in prison for having sex with a 13-year-old boy. Her friend, Debra Favre, 39, will be sentenced next month after pleading guilty to having sex with a 16-year-old boy and serving alcohol to minors in Duane's home west of Greenacres.
Last week, Boynton Beach music teacher Carol Lynn Flannigan was charged with sexual battery on a child. Police say Flannigan, 49, the mother of a 16-year-old autistic son, began an affair with one of her students 19 months ago, when the boy was 11. She was freed on $30,000 bail and placed on house arrest while she awaits trial.
When men commit sex crimes, they spark horror but little surprise. But many people seem unwilling to believe that women are capable of such things.
"I think the first reaction is denial. Then people think, 'She has to be crazy,' " said Gail Ryan, who has studied hundreds of sex offender cases and directs the Perpetration Prevention Program at the Kempe Children's Center in Denver. "I think the public feels that a woman who does such things must be mentally ill, as opposed to the whole population of men [who are sex offenders]. That's because women are regarded as nurturers and mothers."
In fact, the thought of a woman molesting a child is so abhorrent that for years researchers avoided the subject, making scientific studies rare and limiting general understanding of female pedophilia.
"We don't want to see mothers in that capacity," said Alison Tarlow-Sale, a psychologist who specializes in treating sexual abuse.
Why do they do it?
Sex offenses are still very much a man's crime, according to the Justice Department. Men were perpetrators in 96 percent of sex assaults reported nationwide in 1999.
Women were most often involved in cases in which the victim was under age 6, making up 12 percent of those offenders. Women were involved in 3 percent of sex cases in which the victim was 6 to 12 years old, and 3 percent for victims 13 through 17.
Experts are not able to draw an accurate profile of a typical female sex offender, because they are so rare. The few psychologists who have studied the issue believe female pedophiles are most likely to be women who have had failed adult relationships, who have suffered a great loss, or who have been victims of abuse themselves.
Middle-aged women who have sex with teenage boys -- classified as "Teacher/Lovers" by researchers -- sometimes have additional motives, psychologists say.
"You're talking about a power differential," said Tarlow-Sale. The offender "is a person of perceived power, so they're going to have a much greater influence [on the child]. In the case of a teacher, that would certainly be the situation."
Some say female pedophiles are struggling to fulfill emotional needs through sexual relationships that are entirely within their control. Desperate for love but trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, or unable to sustain any kind of adult relationship, a woman looks to a child for the affection, intimacy and attention that she has failed to secure from an adult male.
"She's in control here," said Tarlow-Sale. "The child gives her the attention and love she's yearning for. The intimacy through the sexual relationship and attention [translates into] love."
But although sex is the mechanism for securing what the female pedophile needs, few see it as the driving force behind the abuse.
"They don't seem to be pedophiles like men," Hollida Wakefield told ABC News. Wakefield has studied and treated sex offenders for more than 20 years at the Institute of Psychological Therapies in Northfield, Minn. "There are some cases where some people are in bad relationships or marriages and are just really lonely, and they find themselves in a relationship with these children. It isn't so much that women are sexually aroused."
Victims, or just 'lucky'?
Abuse cases in which the victim is male and the offender female are likely to be under-reported because of society's attitudes about boys' sexual development. What is rape when the victim is a girl might be considered a boy's "rite of passage."
"In society, it used to be that with a 13-or 14-year-old male, if his first sexual experience involved a 25-year-old girl who may well have taken advantage of him, his male counterparts may say, 'Hey, you lucked out,' " Richard Gartner, author of "Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually Abused Men," told ABC News. "It was almost seen as a rite of passage. That's the only group that later recalls such experiences as 'lucking out.' You don't find that in females. Today that kind of behavior is regarded as sexual assault."
Whereas abuse of a young girl by a man is always seen as horrifying, this "rite of passage" perception can make cases involving the abuse of a boy by a woman seem titillating -- and thus irresistible to the media. It is unlikely, for instance, that Mary Kay Letourneau, the former schoolteacher serving time for having an affair with one of her students (and ultimately bearing him two children), would have generated countless headlines and a made-for-TV movie if she had been male and her victim female.
The scenario in which an older woman "teaches" a young man about sex is also ubiquitous in literature and movies. "The Graduate's" Mrs. Robinson and "The Summer of '42" are classic examples of a theme that has been explored endlessly.
"Society glorifies the French tutor, the older woman teaching the younger boy," said Patricia Pape, a Florida psychologist. "But for a child [underage], there is no informed consent."
And experts say these messages can confuse male victims and subtly encourage them not to report abuse. Because boys tend to be easily sexually aroused, Gartner said, adults can manipulate their victims into thinking they were equal and willing participants in sexual acts. And because society sometimes perceives that the incidents aren't abuse but a case of the boy "getting lucky," male victims might not admit or even realize they've been abused until they reach adulthood.
A boy might see sex with an older woman as "a sort of a prize," said Tarlow-Sale. "Depending on the maturity level, that could be something they would want. . . . It would be really hard to judge whether he felt raped. If he's gone through puberty and is having sexual feelings, it could be working out for both of them. It's absolutely inappropriate, but the victim might not be aware of that." Also See: