Why do we rarely hear about female sex offenders.
This week Australian TV star Maggie Kirkpatrick was convicted of child sex offences. Today, the court sentenced her to 100 hours of community service.
The 74-year-old actor, best known for her work on Prisoner and more recently for her on-stage work in Wicked, was charged by Victoria Police with two counts of indecent assault and one count of gross indecency with a person under 16. In his sentencing remarks, the judge said that the victim was a 14 year old psychiatric patient who was taken back to Kirkpatrick’s home in the inner suburbs of Melbourne and assaulted.
Read more about those charges here.
For many people, the news of Kirkpatrick’s conviction was shocking. Not just because Kirkpatrick was a much-loved entertainer of the ’80s, but because of her gender: We rarely hear of female sex offenders (or in Kirkpatrick’s case, alleged sex offenders). Indeed, an incredibly small percentage of child sex charges are levelled at women.
All of which leads us to ask: Just how common are female paedophiles — and should we be paying more attention to women’s sexual abuse of children?
According to a report released last year by the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (ACSSA), exact figures are difficult to obtain, but it’s believed female sex offending makes up a very small percentage of all sex offences: Just under five percent. In 2011-2012, data based on official court records indicated that women committed an even smaller percentage of sex-related crimes — up to 1.6 percent of all sex offences in that period.
Forensic psychologist Dr Joe Sullivan has disputed those figures, however, telling the ABC’s 7:30 program in April that the problem is much more prevalent than current conviction rates would suggest.
“What I can say for certain is that it’s way more prevalent than people fully appreciate or understand,” he told the ABC.
“There’s some research to suggest it could be as high as 25 per cent… However, when you look at the representation within the criminal justice system it could be as low as 3 to 4 per cent of overall convictions.”
Dr Sullivan, who’s based in the UK, said victims may be reluctant to report abuse by women due to fear of judgment.
“They tend to feel as though they’re less likely to be believed,” he said.
That’s a view backed up by other experts, who according to the BBC believe media reports stigmatise victims of female sex offenders. For example, some media outlets report that teachers “sexually assault” students if male — but merely “seduce” pupils if they’re female.
In the UK, Dr Sullivan claims, a tendency to trivialise or dismiss the crimes of women offenders appear to have resulted in female sex offenders being treated differently by the legal system.
“In categories where you’ve got a young adult woman targeting 13, 14, or 15-year-old males, typically you find their sentences are lighter than the equivalent for a male,” Dr Sullivan told ABC News.
Closer to home, ACSSA too points to a problematic societal belief that women cannot be active paedophiles.