“We get very uncomfortable with the idea of female offenders in general, never mind sexual offenders as they are going against a deep-seated notion of what it means to be feminine, to be a mother, a nurturing figure, and all those societal norms and stereotypes.”
-- Dr. Kieran McCartan, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of the West of England in Bristol, and a specialist in sexual offenses
Across the globe, news accounts of adult women preying upon young boys have taken on the glossed-over or fantastical interpretations that paint the females as mentally unbalanced, and the boys as young Lotharios willingly engaging in intercourse with adult women. Mary Letourneau, a teacher who pleaded guilty to two counts of felony second-degree rape of 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, one of her elementary school students, immediately comes to mind. News coverage cast Letourneau as a mentally disjointed married woman and mother of four whose sexual battery surfaced when her husband found love letters she had written the sixth-grader. She was sentenced to 7 years in prison, served only 80 days, and was released under the condition she enter a treatment program for sexual offenders.
At no point did authorities or the media handle Vili as a child or a victim. His name and face were plastered all over reports – a violation of journalistic rules for minor subjects and a breach of legal ethics. Popular opinion in the 1990s categorized Vili’s victimization as “romance” “star-crossed” and an “illicit relationship,” and was acceptable enough that tabloids and publishing houses paid lucrative sums for rights to the story.
Shortly after her sentencing, it was discovered that Letourneau was pregnant. Aside from issuing her an order to “refrain from contact with” Vili, no actions were taken to protect him from her. And so, upon her release, she quickly re-established contact with Vili and had bore two children by him before he turned 16. Caught in a lay-about together by police, Letourneau was returned to prison for violation of her parole and served six years in prison.
In 2002, Vili sued the Highline School District and the city of Des Moines (Iowa) for failure to protect him from Letourneau. Forced to drop out of school to care for his two children, the then-18-year-old reportedly lived with constant thoughts of suicide, and the public scrutiny of being “the kid who slept with a teacher.” No one, however, including defense attorneys and a Des Moines jury, saw Vili as a child raped and manipulated by a woman who had been a trusted teacher to him since second grade.
“The courts wanted to wiggle away from that $1 million dollar judgment and took the opportunity to disassociate the school from the actions of the individual teacher – despite much of the abuse taking place on school grounds,” Acumen Justice reporter Angelo Evans said. “Eugenically speaking, attorneys also made Vili’s abuse a matter of pathology – saying his mother was abusive and neglectful, and only commented to her underage son that he ‘better not be sleeping with his teacher.’ This testimony convinced jurors that Vili was not only capable and consenting but also a sexually experienced man-child taking advantage of a vulnerable (clinically diagnosed manic depressive) woman.”
The case was denied and upon her release from prison, Letourneau resumed her contact with Vili once again. They would marry in 2005 (when he turned 20) and raise two daughters.
Despite the sensationalism surrounding the Letourneau rape case, it is estimated that roughly 28 percent of male victims of sexual assault in the U.S. experienced such trauma before the age of 10. And because so few boys are taught to regard sexual advances by girls and women as abuse, the crime goes underreported.
Gavin Tolliver knows the confusion firsthand of being sexually violated when silence, myths about manhood, and a need to be cared for, converge. The youngest of 10 children, Tolliver grew up in the shadows of D.C.’s LeDroit Park to overworked and unaware parents. Spending days at a time on playgrounds, at recreation centers, and among loose-knit friends, Tolliver was taken advantage of by a 22-year-old neighborhood girl when he was only 9.
“I was having drinks one night with some childhood friends and we started talking about a particular female. One guy slipped up and said something about some wild shit she did to him and all of us just stopped talking… we were kind of laughing uncomfortably, but we realized pretty quick that we all had our first sexual experiences with her,” Tolliver said. “Even now, I cannot call it rape because that feels like I’m effeminizing myself. Girls don’t rape boys…If I didn’t want it to happen, then I should have been able to make her stop… my body would not have gone along with it.”
Tolliver said that his rapist preyed upon boys who were neglected, barely tolerated at home, or who needed to be valued. His friends concluded that what “Melanie” did was fucked up but stopped short of labeling it a crime.
“It’s just not something that you think about – I hadn’t thought about it in 40 years. I am having to spend time talking to a counselor now only because my homeboys started talking about it… and now I’m remembering that a lot of it was not what I wanted,” Tolliver said. “You feel weak and confused and because she’s already dead, I can’t even confront the bitch.”
Tolliver is not alone. In 2016 – the latest year for which figures are available - 142 women and girls were found guilty of attacks including rape, sexual assault, and sex with a minor. A 2019 article, “Uncovering Female Child Sexual Offenders—Needs and Challenges for Practice and Research,” in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that in the U.S., official statistics only reflect those women who have had contact with the criminal justice or social service system.
In not reporting female pedophiles to the police or child welfare agencies, hard discrepancies arise between prevalence rates based on official reports and those based on victimization surveys. As a result, sexual offenses against children committed by women appear to be underreported and not prosecuted adequately.
In the U.K. it is believed that the incidence of abuse at the hands of female sexual predators has increased enough to warrant television and film representations to elevate awareness. BBC’s EastEnders recently introduced a storyline involving the Carter family patriarch Mick.
Played by actor Danny Dyer, Mick relives being sexually abused by his care worker Katy Lewis when he was just 12 years old. Katy fell pregnant and left town – with the preteen none the wiser. Thirty years later, a daughter, Frankie shows up in town looking for her father. Once Mick realizes Katy is Frankie’s mother, it becomes clear that not only was he abused, but has to face his victimizer in order to get closure and justice. Mick is happily married with four children but begins having anxiety attacks and constant nightmares of the abuse. He begins to distance himself from his wife.
EastEnders courageously places Mick and Katy in dialogue thirty years after the abuse, both complicating the confrontation, and offering a tremendous amount of realism. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Katy continues to prey upon Mick in the same wicked manner often associated with male-on-female sexual violence and audiences sit horrified by the manipulations. Katy’s torturous mind play mocks Mick’s recollections – first revealing they had an amazing love affair that others would not understand and then threatening to tell authorities that he was the one who raped her if he reports her. By labeling Mick’s upbringing troubled and pathological, Katy strips him of the protections afforded children and sexualizing his trust. It is eerily similar to the classification of Vili in the Letourneau case.
“EastEnders is doing an exceptional job of depicting the level of shame and confusion, fear and sadness that an adult survivor of childhood sexual battery faces,” Evans said. “Dyer’s character is a fan favorite for his machismo, and so to see him face a childhood trauma at the hands of a trusted female who manipulated him when he was most vulnerable, shows the reach of distress. Equally important, the depiction of Katy Lewis (Simone Lahbib) as a predator proves despicable, through and through. There is no fluffy or lame pitch because she is a woman. That may be enough to convince other males to come forward and tell their truths.”
Awareness may already be making a difference. From the very beginning of scientific confrontation with female child sexual offenders in the 1930s, women who sexually abuse children have been a powerful social taboo, according to research by K.T. Jennings’ Female Child Molesters: A Review of Literature. Women were usually portrayed as victims and as being passive, innocent, and sexually submissive and primarily normalized as the gatekeepers of sexuality. Also, in terms of anatomy, since the 1930s, it has been argued that women are receivers of sexuality, making accusations against them as abusers more difficult to imagine. That is changing.
“Women are also being held more accountable – in the past, there has been an element of their behavior being minimized or excused, that they are somehow not capable of this behavior. But as society has changed those old-fashioned views have changed,” said clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Katie Seidler. “We also talk about them in very different ways: we refer to male offenders as evil and sadistic, but we often see female offenders as being vulnerable or mentally unstable.”
Seidler said that the past couple of decades have led to greater recognition of the capacity for women to engage in sexual offenses.
“The fact that both clinically and socially boys and men are taught to think of their sexual violation at the hands of girls and women as intrinsically consensual shows in the lack of empirical research, clinical studies, laws, and reporting and arrests of female pedophiles,” Evans said. “This has to change in order to ensure arrests, prosecutions, and the protection of boys against sexual violation.”
Part of the change also comes with helping boys understand they need protecting as well.
“It's disturbing to think about what it means to a boy when he's sexually abused by someone he trusts. Uncomfortable as we feel, however, we must either talk about the reality of his experience or continue to live in silence, with devastating consequences,” said Richard B. Gartner, Training and Supervising Analyst, faculty and Founding Director of the Sexual Abuse Program at the William Alanson White Institute and author of Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life after Boyhood Sexual Abuse. “Confusing affection with abuse, desire with tenderness, sexually abused boys often become men who have difficulty distinguishing among sex, love, nurturance, affection, and abuse.”
Gartner said that boys may not notice when exploitative demands are made on them because they have learned to see these as normal and acceptable.
For more information or assistance, contact Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE, or online: www.rainn.org And for information on how to teach children about sexual awareness and protection, visit, Protect Every Child, https://protecteverychild.com/supporting-organizations/
Dr. Shantella Sherman is a historian whose research examines the American eugenics movement, critical race theory, identity formation through popular culture, and Women & Gender studies. Dr. Sherman founded and serves as publisher of Acumen Magazine, the nation’s only African American history periodical. She is the author of In Search of Purity: Popular Eugenics and Racial Uplift among New Negroes, 1915-1935 (2016), which earned the 2019-2020 Best Academic History Book Award from the International Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and Pop-Eu: Popular Eugenics in Television & Film (2021).