“Breaking Barriers – Do our perceptions of female sex offenders cause harm?” As we continue our theme on the barriers adult survivors have to overcome on their Journey to recovery and perhaps to seeking justice. We begin a three part series highlighting the often undiscussed topic of Female Offenders. Leanne Macken has kindly agreed to write the first of the blogs. Leanne is a Psychotherapist at One in Four and is in the process of completing a PHD on Perceptions and Pathways of Female Offenders in Ireland. Acknowledging societal barriers that prevent us from viewing females as sexual aggressors is fundamental in breaking the cycle of minimising and justifying the harm that is caused by females who sexually abuse. There is no arguing that the vast majority of child sexual abuse in Ireland is perpetrated by males1. However, female sex offenders, although relatively under researched, can and do sexually offend and cause significant harm2. The SAVI study (2002) highlighted that 6% of respondents experienced child sexual abuse by a female, representing 68,800 of the population3. Bourke et al., (2014) argue that a large proportion of offending goes unreported and the true prevalence of sexual offending by female perpetrators is much higher and not reflected in official statistics. A recent study by Rooney (2020)4 on professionals’ perceptions of female sex offenders contributes to a growing body of evidence, indicating that the minimisation of female offending through the re-framing of female sex offenders to align with a culturally accepted ideal of femininity. Women who deviate from social norms and become sexual aggressors being perceived as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘chronic victims’ who are coerced by a dominate male is a case in point. This can contribute to the lack of acknowledgement and recognition for victims of female perpetration5. Since 2007, there have been 11 female committals for sexual offences in Ireland. Statistical figures confirm that 0.06% (n=1) of females received a custodial sentence for sexual offences in 20186. These figures highlight a concerning disparity in the reporting and sentencing of female sex offenders compared to male sex offenders in Ireland7 especially when we take into account the 6% who reported being sexually abused by a female1. The experience of professionals who work with survivors of female perpetrators suggests that the true prevalence of female perpetration is not reflected in the statistical figures.8 If one looks at the barriers preventing recognition of sexual abuse by females, the study by Lambert and Hammond (2009)8 indicates that females who offend are classified as ‘mad’ or deemed to have no agency in their actions. They also found professionals minimised the offence by re-framing the abuse as experimentation rather than exploitation. The barriers identified from national studies reflect international research which suggests that the main obstacles to recognising and acknowledging female perpetration is our perception of gender norms; that females are fundamentally nurturers and carers, not aggressors or initiators of sexual violence. This belief that females are vulnerable to and chronic victims of a more dominant male demeans victims of sexual abuse by a female and supports the premise that females hold no agency. To view females as less agentic than male offenders potentially undermines the harm experienced by survivors and possibly prevents survivors from coming forward and reporting. This risks enabling the shame and secrecy that is so much a part of child sexual abuse to continue. 1McGee, H., Garavan, R., De Barra, M., Byrne, J., & Conroy, R. (2002). The SAVI Report: Sexual abuse and Violence in Ireland. Liffey Press. Dublin, Ireland. 2Saradjian, J. (1999). Women who sexually abuse children. From Research to Clinical Practice. Wiley: Sussex. 3Bourke, A., Doherty, S., McBride, O., Morgan, K. & McGee, H. (2014). Female perpetrators of child sexual abuse: characteristics of the offender and victim. Psychology, Crime & Law. 20, 8, 769-780. 4Rooney, L. (2020). Gendered Perceptions of Child Sexual Abusers: The Paradox of the “Vulnerable Other”. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 1-23. 5Denov, M. S. (2003). The myth of innocence: Sexual scripts and the recognition of child sexual abuse by female perpetrators. Journal of Sex Research, 40(3), 303-314. Denov, M. S. (2004). The long term effects of child sexual abuse by female perpetrators: A qualitative study of male and female victims. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19, 1137-1156. 6Central Statistics Office (2019). Women and Men in Ireland 2019. https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/pwamii/womenandmeninireland2019/povertypeaceandjustice/ 7Leahy, S. (2020). Female Sex Offenders in Ireland: Examining the Response of the Criminal Justice System. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 1-20. 8Lambert, S. & Hammond, S. (2009). Perspectives on Female Sexual Offending in an Irish Context. Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies. 9, 1, 4.