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Sexual abuse, in particular child sexual abuse, is one of the most sensitive yet widely covered issues of criminological debate in the current time. It is an extremely complex area for academics, policy-makers and Criminal Justice professionals. Historically the discourse on child sexual abuse has viewed it as a homogenised crime, with male-only offenders, their victims being young females, thus downplaying the diversity and complexity involved in the reality (Brayford et al., 2012). Although this perception still exists, in more recent years sexual abuse committed by females is becoming increasingly recognised as a societal problem, along with males being identified as victims. This revelation has had a dramatic impact on government policies. For example, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 was put in place to change the previous legislation, in order for the law to recognise that females can be offenders and males can be victims. Not only have perceptions of the gender of victims and offenders changed in recent years, but the types of sexual offences have also transformed. This is mainly as a result of the advance in technology which has given perpetrators opportunity to offend in new ways, for example, grooming victims via the internet, or using it to obtain and distribute illicit images of abuse (Elliott & Beech, 2009). These new offences have allowed sex offenders to commit crimes without having any direct contact with their victims; thus the offender could be an acquaintance of the victim or, equally, a complete stranger. Therefore the definition of sexual offending has gradually transformed in order to accommodate the change both in offences and the types of offender.
The limited word count prohibits the adequacy to cover all aspects of sexual offending, therefore this essays focuses primarily on child sexual abuse. It starts by defining what is currently meant by the term 'child sexual abuse' and examines the accuracy of the official statistics for this type of crime, identifying the problem of disclosure which effects these statistics. It then examines the historical portrayals of male child sexual offenders, and recent acknowledgement of female and adolescent offenders, relating them to their respective gender positions in society. The attention then turns to the gender of victims and whether they are usually known to their offenders. Academic research is used to analyse traditional stereotypes and relate them to the reality in the statistics, to address the arguments in the essay question. Finally, conclusions are drawn based on the evidence presented throughout the essay.
Definitions and prevalence of child sexual abuse
According to the Schechter & Roberge (1976), child sexual abuse can be defined as:
"the involvement of dependent, developmentally immature children and adolescents in sexual activities they do not truly comprehend, to which they are unable to give informed consent, or that violate the social taboos of family roles" (Ibid: 60).
This is one of the detailed definitions of child sexual abuse. However there are others which are more specific to age and types of sexual activities. This variation in definition can create confusion when researching child sexual abuse as it seems there is no universally accepted definition (Finkelhor, 1984; Haugaard, 2000; Glaser & Frosh, 1993). For this essay the definition by Glaser & Frosh (1993) will be used, in conjunction with the definitions set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which defines child abuse as abuse perpetrated by a person aged 18 or over against another person under the age of 16.
Due to the nature of child sexual abuse, researchers commonly work with estimated statistics. In 2011 the NSPCC published a research report identifying that nearly a quarter (24.1%) of young adults in their sample had experienced sexual abuse during childhood (Radford et al., 2011). Shocking as this finding is, it would be difficult to make this figure representative of the whole public, and therefore it would be appropriate to also assess official statistics. In 2012 there were 10,346 convicted sex offenders serving prison sentences (MoJ, 2012). However, this does not specify whether they committed offences against adults or children. Furthermore, it is beneficial to work with the number of offenders on the Sex Offenders Register to get an idea of the extent of the problem of child sexual abuse in society today. In 2012, 61,397 offenders were on the Sex Offenders Register, 29,837 of whom were on the Register for sexual offences against children (NSPCC, 2012). This shows that almost half of registered sex offenders in the UK committed crimes against children. Between 2011/12, there were 17,186 recorded sexual abuse offences of children under the age of 16 (NSPCC, 2013). However, it is important to note that this is only based on official statistics, and a vast amount of child sexual abuse offences go unreported due to a lack of disclosure (Cawson et al., 2000). Therefore, official statistics cannot be relied upon to provide an accurate figure of the number of such offences occurring in society. This is supported by the early work of La Fontaine (1990), who theorised that child sexual abuse is a hidden crime, especially when definitions of abuse vary widely across different Criminal Justice agencies. She also examined the obstacles faced by victims, which prevent them from disclosing abuse, and the burden of guilt that may be placed on the child. Several other academics also noted the problems with disclosure, which leaves many offences unreported (Jensen et al., 2005: Staller & Nelson-Gardell, 2005; Denov, 2003). This will be discussed further. By analysing the official recorded and estimated crime rates for child sexual abuse, it is clear that this area of criminology is extremely complex and it is difficult to judge its accurate prevalence in society.
Male sexual offenders
Having considered the prevalence of child sexual abuse in society, this section examines the gender of offenders and victims. Historically men have been the powerful gender in society, using their masculine attributes to maintain control over women. This control has transmuted into sexual offending, specifically child sexual abuse. Arguably, male sexual offenders target victims who are most vulnerable, in this case children, and use their power to control them. This is evident in the early work of Brownmiller (1975) who argued that sexual offending stems from the societal tradition that sees males as the dominant sex in all aspects of life, politically, economically and sexually. The exploitation of women is still seen today in areas, such as pornography, which views women and even young children as sexual objects (Bass & Thornton, 1983; Rush, 1980). It is also reflected in the stereotype inherent in patriarchy, that only males commit child sexual abuse, as their way of expressing their supremacy and oppression of women (Seymour, 1998). This supports the work by Rush (1974) who argued that:
"the sexual abuse of children, who are overwhelmingly female, by sexual offenders, who are overwhelmingly male adults, is part and parcel of the male dominated society which overtly and covertly subjugates women" (Ibid:73).
It appears that patriarchy presents males with social opportunities to commit these crimes. Many feminist academics argue that it is the social construct of masculinity which provides males with the motivation to commit child sexual abuse. On the other hand, this does not fully explain why these men choose to use sexual abuse as a way to express their dominance. Finkelhor (1984) rejected the feminist theory and argued that if males choose to use abuse as an expression of their supremacy over females, then they should be satisfied by bullying the child. Their specific choice to use sexual abuse reflects an erotic component, validating their masculinity through sexuality. It also ignores the fact that the majority of men do not commit sexual offences. Even if they possess similar beliefs concerning their supremacy over women, moral have self-control prevents them sexually abusing females (Beneke, 1982).
Female sexual offenders
Concepts linking masculinity to child sexual abuse fail to acknowledge that female sexual offenders also exist. Despite low numbers, they are increasingly identified in the Criminal Justice System. In March 2012 there were 81 incarcerated female sexual offenders in the UK (MoJ, 2012a), an increase from 74 in December 2011 (MoJ, 2012b). However, these figures are arguably inaccurate, as conflicting evidence suggests there may be up to 64,000 female sexual offenders in society (Townsend & Syal, 2009). This suggests that estimated figures appear to be considerably greater than the official recorded statistics. The low official crime rates of female sexual offenders do not necessarily mean that they do not occur more frequently, and it could be argued that gender stereotypes within society distort the public's perception that women are incapable of such crimes. This is evident in the work of Denov (2003), who argued that women hold specific gender roles which view them as passive, caring individuals, incapable of inflicting harm. When society is faced with accusations of female-perpetrated sexual abuse, people are reluctant to believe such claims as they challenge perceived gender roles (Bunting, 2007).
This unwillingness to believe female-perpetrated abuse may stem from reactions presented in media reports. If female sexual offending appears in media reports, words such as 'affair' or 'relationship' are often used, which could minimise the seriousness of the offence (Tsopelas et al., 2012). By comparison, media reports on male sexual offenders may include phrases such as 'abuse' and 'paedophile', which provide more recognition of abuse committed by males, as they attract more attention from audiences (Greer, 2003). Conversely, as the female sexual offender is increasingly acknowledged in society, there is a reverse reaction, which sees them as 'evil monsters' going against the traditional feminine gender roles (Gakhal & Brown, 2011). This was present in media reports such as those concerning the Vanessa George case (BBC, 2009). This new construction, seen recently in high-profile cases, is a complete contradiction to the traditional constructs of femininity, the abuse shown by these women being the ultimate betrayal of trust, arguably causing more harmful effects than male offenders. Furthermore, contradicting the argument that only male sexual offenders exist.
The contradictions in media reports regarding female offenders could arguably lead to the hindrance of disclosure from victims, and partially explain the low recorded crime rates of female-perpetrated abuse. If victims believe that the media, the public and Criminal Justice agencies are in a certain amount of confusion and do not take this abuse seriously, they may feel it is not worth exposing their abuse (Denov, 2003). It is interesting to note that, in the present time, there is a significant difference between the number of sentenced female sexual offenders (MoJ, 2012a) and the numbers of calls that agencies, such as the NSPCC, have received from victims claiming to have experienced female sexual abuse. In 2008/09 ChildLine received 2,142 calls reporting female-perpetrated abuse (NSPCC, 2009). This figure shows a discrepancy between a child reporting female-perpetrated abuse to ChildLine, and the female offender going through the Criminal Justice System and ultimately to conviction.
It should be noted that there are a number of issues which can affect conviction rates. For example, if the general public holds a lack of awareness of female sexual offending, then debatably, jurors sitting on such cases may also hold similar disregard (Quas et al., 2002). This is evident in Rogers & Davies' (2007) study into public perceptions of victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse cases. They found that victims of male-perpetrated abuse were seen as more credible and believable in their accounts than those of female-perpetrated abuse. Victims of child sexual abuse are often fearful that no one will believe them if they disclose; this is even more so in cases of female-perpetrated maltreatment, as the general public are reluctant to acknowledge this form of abuse. Therefore, their victims have even less opportunity to speak up and are likely to experience even more anxieties regarding disclosure (Jensen et al., 2005). Rogers & Davies' (2007) research also acknowledged that abuse committed by males was viewed as more severe than that by females. However, many academics would reject this claim, as female abuse is arguably more damaging in other ways. For example, it may leave victims with harmful psychological effects, as they do not just experience physical abuse, but also a complete betrayal of trust. Elliott's (1994) study identified that victims of female abuse are often left with confused feelings of love and hatred towards their abuser, especially when they are a family member, for example, their mother. As already identified, issues of disclosure and disbelief can have an effect on the amount of female-perpetrated abuse that is reported, and may provide an explanation for the low figures of recorded crimes. This ultimately causes scepticism about whether this form of abuse actually occurs, and fuels the belief that child sexual abuse is a predominantly male crime. But, as already acknowledged, this is not the reality.
Adolescent and child sexual offenders
If the argument that child sexual offenders are predominantly male is accepted, then it would suggest that they are adult males. However, there has been a recent interest among academics in adolescent and child sexual offending, which pose a complex social problem (Righthand & Welch, 2005). Finkelhor et al. (2009) identified that in the USA, 35.6% of recorded sexual offences were committed by juveniles. 16% of these were under the age of 12 and 7% were female juvenile offenders. This contradicts the argument that male adults are predominantly responsible for sexual offences against children. Although it is developmentally expected that adolescents may express a range of sexual behaviours, some younger children also show sexual behaviours inappropriate for their age. Also some adolescents go beyond normal sexual behaviours by acting in a sexually aggressive manner, which makes others feel uncomfortable (Ryan et al., 2010). Arguably, this inappropriate sexual behaviour could be a result of other influences in their lives, for example, if they were abused themselves or exposed to sexual violence such as graphic pornography (Rasmussen et al., 2013; Blues et al., 1999). Thus, these offenders may be in denial over the abusive behaviour they show.
It has also been acknowledged that many juvenile sexual offenders start their offending at a very early age. This is evident in Kubik et al.'s (2003) study which found that female adolescent sexual offenders began their offending at a younger age than non-sexual offenders. They also found that the literature on adolescent sexual offenders had predominantly used male samples, so treatment models have been specifically designed for male juvenile offenders. However, it has been identified that female juvenile sexual abusers have normally experienced more severe histories of maltreatment than male offenders (ibid). Therefore, they could be viewed by society as having more serious problems and could potentially be more dangerous than male juvenile offenders. Hence, more attention should be paid to their individual needs, in order to prevent further risk to society (Ibid; Sahlstrom & Jeglic, 2008; Mathews et al., 1997). Interestingly, the lack of empirical work on female adolescent sexual offenders may be another explanation as to why child sexual abuse is seen to be predominantly male-perpetrated. Moreover, this demonstrates that child sexual abuse is not committed by a homogeneous population of male adults, whereas in reality great complexities are involved which are often oversimplified.
It is important for policy-makers and academics to get past the traditional stereotypes of adult male sexual offenders, and acknowledge adolescent offenders, as they are an important population who, if responded to properly, could be prevented from involvement in child sexual abuse later in their lives. Riser et al. (2013) theorised that recidivistic sexual offenders tend to commit sexual offences over time which can span across youth through to adulthood. Thus it is important to intervene as early as possible, and use treatment models designed with the juvenile offenders' needs in mind. If effective, this should prevent such offenders from reoffending. This is supported by Carpentier & Proulx (2011) who agree that if young child sexual offenders respond to treatment programmes they are less prone to reoffend in their adult life. Furthermore, if Criminal Justice agencies and policy-makers can recognise these types of offenders instead of just referring to the stereotypical child sexual offender, they may be able to deter recidivism. This may protect more children potentially at risk of experiencing juvenile-turned- adult perpetrated sexual abuse.
Male and female victims
In addition to research identifying adolescent sexual offenders, there are also studies showing that adolescent male victims exist. These individuals are commonly victims of female-perpetrated sexual abuse and there is often misunderstanding among society regarding the seriousness of this type of offending. Mathews et al. (1989) were among the first to identify these victims in their work on female sexual offender typologies. They identified that some female sexual offenders target male adolescent victims, rarely regarding their manners as abuse, but more as sexually educating their victims in a harmless way. On the rare occasion that this type of abuse enters media reports, it may be reported as 'a relationship' between the female offender and male victim (Tsopelas et al., 2012), rather than a form of maltreatment, thus underplaying the seriousness of the offence. This challenges the argument that child abuse victims are predominantly female, as there is clear evidence that males also experience sexual abuse, although arguably in a different manner from that experienced by female victims (Pierce & Pierce, 1985).
One justification for the still existent female victim stereotype is the traditional concept of femininity which views females as the vulnerable gender who are unable to protect themselves, and thus are at a higher risk of victimisation (Brownmiller, 1975; Spiegel, 2003). The stereotype also relates to lack of disclosure by male victims. It has already been identified that there are complex issues preventing disclosure of female sexual abuse victims, so it is not surprising that male victims experience the same, if not more issues averting their disclosure. One of the main findings from empirical research on this topic was that male victims often do not disclose abuse for reasons relating to masculinity. Graham (2006) recognised that males may not divulge their abuse as they feel they need to protect their macho reputation, and disclosing abuse would label them as a victim, which is a direct contradiction to the concept of masculinity. This reasoning accounts for the limited number of recorded male victims of sexual abuse, which was evident in the 2011/12 police recorded crimes. These showed 889 recorded rapes of male children under 16, compared with 4,991 rapes of female children under 16 (NSPCC, 2013). This proves that male victims accounted for roughly 18% of the recorded rapes of children under 16 in 2011/12, and could support the argument that victims of child abuse are predominantly female. However, this does not mean that other males, in addition, do not also experience child abuse. Therefore, it is important for Criminal Justice professionals, policy-makers and academics to acknowledge male victims in order to address issues that may prevent these victims from disclosing their abuse.
Child sexual offenders: strangers or acquaintances?
Having established that child sexual offenders can be both male and female of various ages, and victims can also be male or female, contradicting with the argument in the essay question, the attention is now on whether victims are known to sexual offenders. Much attention in literature is on the myth surrounding child sexual abuse being committed by a stranger. It could be suggested that this is partly a result of media reports. Cheit (2003) discovered that newspapers have a habit of emphasising 'stranger danger' in their reports, and under-representing intra-familial sexual abuse. Thus it is not surprising that society, or more specifically, parents, believe that this is the most common form of abuse and therefore may be wary of strangers around their children. Cromer & Goldsmith (2010) identified a number of myths relating to child sexual abuse. They found that a common myth was that perpetrators were only males and were strangers to the children with some sort of mental illness or of low social status. Another common stereotype found was that well-educated individuals, of high social status would not abuse children. Despite many participants disagreeing with these myths, it was discovered that several still held these opinions (bid). However, this is not proven to be true in the case of Neil Dyer, a primary school head teacher who was convicted in 2011 of 25 counts of sexual assault on pupils (BBC, 2011). As a head teacher, he held a respected position in society, and also knew his victims, thus rejecting the myths presented by Cromer & Goldsmith (2010). Traditional myths are also contested by the research of Cawson et al. (2000), who found that large numbers of victims of child sexual abuse reported that their perpetrator was someone known to them but not a family member. This would reinforce the argument that child abusers are mainly extra-familial and maybe hard to detect due to their trusted relationship with the victim or esteemed position in society.
A great deal of empirical research has revealed that the reality of child sexual abuse is that it is normally committed by someone known to the victim (Cawson et al., 2000), commonly the father/step-father or another male relative (Csorba et al., 2006; Saidi et al., 2008). This is evident in Grubin's (1998) early work, which theorised that the majority of perpetrators are known to their victims, with an estimated 80% of whom commit the abuse in either their own home or that of the victim. Due to child sexual abuse being such a hidden crime, perpetrators seek opportunities to commit the abuse in secret (Cawson et al., 2000), supporting the statistics that abuse mainly takes place in the private home, providing a perfect environment to offend. This concurs with the argument that child sexual abuse is mostly an intra or extra-familial crime. However, child sexual abuse committed by strangers should not go unmissed. As previously discussed, types of sexual offending have changed dramatically with advances in technology. Therefore, it has become easier for offenders to commit non-contact abuse via the internet. Elliott & Beech (2009) identified that there is a huge market of child pornography images online, which are heavily demanded by sexual offenders. They acknowledged various internet offender typologies, some including offenders who have not actually committed physical child abuse, but still engage in the downloading and distributing of illicit images of children. This proves that there are a considerable number of child sexual offenders committing a variety of offences against children they do not have any contact with, and thus are unknown to their victims. Furthermore, although much of the literature identifies the extra or intra-familial type as the most common form of abuse, society needs to recognise that 'stranger' abuse does still occur.
In conclusion, various pieces of statistical evidence have proven that child sexual abuse is predominantly committed by male adults. However, these must be taken with caution as, depending on the sources, there appear to be a number of conflicting statistics to interpret. These findings correlate with the historical concept of men being the power gender in society (Brownmiller, 1975). This power has been used as an explanation for child sexual abuse, as arguably males target young vulnerable females and control them through sexual abuse. However, this concept ignores the existence of female child sexual offenders, who are more complex to understand, as society is often reluctant to believe that they are capable of such abuse (Bunting, 2007). It appears that this is due to the traditional gender perception of women as caring and nurturing (Denov, 2003). Thus, when faced with these rare cases, the public, media and professionals either regard the abuse as a harmless confused form of love, or by contrast, as an absolute vilification of the traditional concepts of femininity and a complete betrayal of trust, creating more damaging effects than male abusers (Gannon & Cortoni, 2010).
There are issues relating to the prevalence of this problem in society, as official statistics show a much lower rate (MoJ, 2012a) compared with conflicting evidence showing that there could be up to 64,000 cases (Townsend & Syal, 2009). Furthermore, this could be linked to the stereotype that only males can commit sexual abuse, so victims of female sexual abuse may be less willing to disclose, in case they are not believed (Denov, 2003). This misconception also links to the view that female-perpetrated abuse is less severe than male-perpetrated abuse, although evidence suggests that it can actually cause more serious long-term damage (Elliott, 1994). Thus it is important for the Government to educate and change societal perceptions of female-perpetrated abuse in order to respond more effectively to victims and prevent future children being at risk.
Another revelation was the increasing interest among academics in adolescent-perpetrated abuse. They were identified as an extremely complex population, requiring more professional attention in order to respond to their multifarious needs, as many had learned their sexually violent behaviour from abuse they themselves had been exposed to (Rasmussen et al., 2013). Having acknowledged the existence of male, female and adolescent-perpetrated abuse, an analysis was made as to whether victims of child sexual abuse are predominantly female. This argument relates to the traditional gender stereotypes viewing females as the vulnerable sex, who are more likely to be victimised, so it was not surprising that this appears in most of the media reports and academic research. However, there was evidence to prove that male victims also exist, but many cases are misunderstood as 'relationships' rather than abuse (Tsopelas et al., 2012). It could be suggested that the lack of acknowledgement surrounding male victims of abuse is partly due to issues of masculinity, where they are ashamed about not being able to protect themselves, as males should be able to (Graham, 2006).
Finally, it was acknowledged that despite misconceptions, the majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the victim. This is often because offenders, in seeking an opportunity to abuse, manipulate the trust of parents/guardians so they no longer act as external inhibitors (Finkelhor, 1984). This essay has highlighted that, while offenders of child sexual abuse are predominantly males, with females being the main victims, there is a growing body of evidence to prove that male victims and female offenders also exist, with offenders mainly targeting victims known to them. Therefore, the Government and Criminal Justice professionals need to acknowledge the complexities involved with child sexual abuse, and ignore the traditional stereotypes, in order to respond effectively and protect further victims.
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