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Contemporary society in Australia has seen an increase in sexually based offences for the last eight consecutive years, since the series began in 2010 (ABS, 2018). Regardless of this increase, a large number of sexual offences continue to go unreported, particularly in regards to recidivist offenders with the same victim, as well as female offenders (Darwinkel, et, al., 2013). Until recently, a considerable percentage of sexual crimes perpetrated by female offenders have been overlooked due to the significant amount of all sexual based offences being committed by males (Kaufman, et, al., 1995). As a result there exists a scarce amount of research on female sex offenders for their modus operandi and motivations to be conducive to the rates of recidivism of female offenders. This review seeks to explain offender demographics and modus operandi in order to advance risk assessments so that there exists a better understanding of female sex offenders for rehabilitative purposes and to ultimately decrease the rates of recidivism.
Due to there being no universally accepted definition of sexual assault, there exist variations depending on the state or territory (Fileborn, 2011). For the purpose of this study and as stated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018) for surveys and research conducted, sexual assault is defined as “An act of a sexual nature carried out against a person’s will or without their consent through the use of physical force, intimidation, or coercion and/or involving physical contact” (ABS, 2018).
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Since 2010, Australia has seen an uninterrupted increase in sexual assault cases, which has increased by 40% (ABS, 2018). In 2018 alone there was an increase of 2% in victims of sexual assault, taking it up to 26,312 victims annually (ABS, 2018). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011), as a result of the sensitive nature of sexual assault, it is the most likely of crimes to go unreported to the police and is estimated that only 36.6% of these crimes were reported between 2009-2010. Despite the high rate of victims of sexual assault, sensitivities exist that prohibit a victims readiness to report an incident victimisation survey due to trauma, embarrassment, shame, fear of reprisal of an offender or other consequences (ABS, 2011). Other reasons include blame, a lack of trust in the criminal justice system and the fear of not being believed, which also play a critical role in the underreporting of sexually based offences (Taylor & Gassner, 2010). Survey findings further indicate that recidivist offenders may never be brought to the criminal justice system as a result of their close relationship to the victim, which ultimately makes them more vulnerable to repeat sexual victimisation (Lievore, 2004). Currently in Australia, as of January 2019 there exist 5,283 prisoners for sexual assault or related offences (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2019). Of those prisoners 5,216 are male and 63 are female (AIC, 2019). The advances of risk assessments for male sexual offenders have been of significance given that the majority of the offenders incarcerated are male and therefore researchers have been able to focus on static factors such as past history and sexually deviant interests and dynamic risk factors including intimacy deficits, attitudes that support sexual abuse and sexual preoccupation that help predict sexual recidivism (Cortoni & Hanson, 2005). In contrast, female sexual offenders hold low incarceration rates and little is known about their static or dynamic risk factors (Cortoni & Hanson, 2005). This means the risk assessment for female sexual offenders is still relatively new as a result of the small numbers of female prisoners (Daly & Bouhours, 2010). Through the increasing interaction of women coming to the attention of the criminal justice system more systematic information is required to properly research the potential for recidivism among female sexual offenders (Cortoni & Hanson, 2005).
In one of the largest studies to be conducted, Vandiver and Kerches (2004), examined 471 registered female sex offenders in the state of Texas, with the aim of assessing the existing relationship between female sex offenders and their victims’ characteristics. Among the most common offences found, were arrests for indecency with a child – sexual contact, sexual assault on a child and aggravated sexual assault on a child (Vandiver & Kerches, 2004). The results of this study yielded 6 types of female sexual offenders, which include; the most common group that consisted of N = 146 offenders, labelled the heterosexual nurturers, and were found to be the least likely of the offenders to have been arrested for sexual assault (Vandiver & Kerches, 2004). The second most common group were non-criminal homosexual offenders N = 114, with the average age being 32 and found to have the least subsequent arrests and generally have the lowest rates of previous arrests. Furthermore, the most common victim for this group was females aged 13 years old and it is believed that for this particular group a male offender was more than likely to have participated in the offence as the non – criminal homosexual group was the least likely to carry out sexual assault (Vandiver & Kerches, 2004). Female sexual predators N = 112 offenders, are believed to have sexual offending as a part of their criminal disposition. This group was found to have an average age of 29 years old and be among the most common to have subsequent arrest and generally have the highest rates of arrests, with their victims having an average age of 11 and consisting of 60% males and 40% females (Vandiver & Kerches, 2004). Other offenders that were found include young adult child exploiters, homosexual criminals, and aggressive – homosexual offenders. For each of these groups and individuals existed a variety of stimuli, which altered the ways in which the offences were carried out as well as the motives behind them (Vandiver & Kerches, 2004).
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According to this study many of the female, offenders had previously experienced some kind of sexual abuse, which may help to explain the link between their individual experiences and the motivation for an offender to perform similar sexual acts on their victim (Vandiver & Kerches, 2004). As a result, an offender’s modus operandi assists in determining the patterns of behaviour that offenders may exhibit prior to, during and after the illicit sexual contact has occurred (Leclerc, et. al., 2009). In this case the modus operandi refers to the actions an offender has taken in order to successfully perpetrate the crime (Howitt, 2011). Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 15 female child sex offenders in the United Kingdom, with the results suggesting the main reasons as to why female sex offenders committed sexual assault was largely due to uncontrollability, which comprised of 87% of participants, where they stated that they were either not thinking clearly or unable to refrain form the act and dangerous world, which comprised of 53% of the participants who stated the act was a consequence of the destructive nature of the offenders family environment (Beech, et. al., 2009).
In order to obtain information about any similarities or differences in the modus operandi of male and female offenders, reports of child sexual abuse of male offenders N = 53 and female offenders N = 53 were compared and matched by age, sex and race (Kaufman, et. al., 1995). Multiple elements of the offences were looked at including whether or not there were multiple perpetrators, the number of victims, the various kinds of abuse, the use of foreign objects, other aspects of abuse such as bribery, the location of the offence and the relationship existing between the offender and the victim Kaufman, et. al., 1995). The findings revealed that multiple perpetrators were 25% more likely to be involved in cases where females were involved as well as the use of foreign objects to perpetrate sexual abuse increased in female offenders to 23% and in female cases 11% of the victims were exposed to exploitation, such as allowing adults to use the child sexually Kaufman, et. al., 1995).
A fundamental aspect of contributing to evaluations of risk assessments for predicting future offences comes from an understanding of base rates of recidivism (Gannon & Cortoni, 2010). A large-scale empirical analysis was conducted, by Sandler and Freeman (2009), using a sample of 1,466 convicted female sexual offenders in New York State and discovered that 1.8% of all female sex offenders were re-arrested for a sexual offence. Similarly, Gannon and Cortoni (2010), located the recidivism rates of female sexual offenders ranged between 1.0% and 1.3%. This meta-analysis consisted of 2,490 female sexual offenders across Australia, Unite Kingdom, the United States, Canada and the Netherlands with an average follow-up time of 6.5 years (Gannon & Cortoni, 2010). While the results of both these studies remain compatible in the rates of recidivism by female offenders, the transfer of knowledge from male offender literature to female is not a suitable form of evaluation and therefore both the static and dynamic risk factors need to be assessed by addressing elements that appear to be common among female sexual offenders and are suggestive of a relationship with the offending behaviour (Gannon & Cortoni, 2010).
In contrast to men, the number of females being convicted for sexual assault is miniscule, however plays a role in in the amount of research being conducted in the area of female sex offenders (Beech et.al., 2009). Research indicates that recidivism rates vary greatly between male and female offenders (Cortoni & Gannon, 2016), for this reason, risk assessment tools which have proved to be successful in evaluating the risk of male offenders would over evaluate the risk of recidivism for the female offenders (Cortoni, et. al., 2010). As a result there is an insufficient understanding to properly address treatment and management of offenders in order to reduce the risks of recidivism (Gannon & Cortoni, 2010). Moreover, the use of male risk assessment tools used in various jurisdictions to assess female recidivism lacks the empirical relationship with female oriented sexual recidivism (Gannon & Cortoni, 2010). Research further indicates that multiple perpetrators were 25% more likely in female cases with 77% of other co-offenders were male (Kaufman, et. al., 1995). Therefore the modus operandi of female sex offenders needs to be examined further through the assessment of dynamic risk factors (Cortoni & Hanson, 2005).
The purpose of the current review has been to highlight and extend the understanding of female sex offenders and the motives behind the rates of reoffending. By deciphering a female sex offender’s risk of recidivism, gender specific treatment needs can be addressed, as well as outline possible interventions, recognise problematic matters that relate to their offences and ultimately predict the probabilities of future offending (Cortoni & Gannon, 2016).
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