Who Are Woman Sex Offenders and Why Are They Treated Like Men?

For the first quarter of my life, I didn’t think much about sex offenders. Call it thoughtlessness or a naïve little bubble; it was probably both. This thoughtlessness might not be unique. But I began thinking about sex offenders when, at age 25, I was charged with a sex crime.

I had had sexual contact with my 17-year-old neighbor. I’m not proud of this and, if given the chance, would absolutely reverse that decision. But I slept with him once and joined the burgeoning ranks of women charged with sex offenses.

I think of these ranks both as a demographic and a way of life. These are two ways to approach this one idea, and I think they’re important to understanding the women who are caught up in these crimes.

First of all, the demographic. While women sex offenders are a low portion of the population, they do exist and in higher numbers than before 1994 (when the Jacob Wetterling Improvements Act was established). There is a trend toward sexual contact with teenage males. Often, the women are motivated by a desire for companionship or have a sense that their current adult-age relationships are unfulfilling.

In other instances, the women are prison guards or case managers who have had sex with inmates. In the state of Colorado, any incarcerated person is legally incapable of consenting to sex, so that any sexual contact he or she does have is considered a crime. Once in a while, a woman will have sexual contact with an intellectually disabled person, sometimes without realizing that this person’s consent is not actually legal.

Women very rarely have sexual contact with children younger than 13. I’ve known only two women in this category and both were motivated by other factors: anger, a history of abuse in their own childhoods, resentment, and a feeling of being trapped. Most female sex offenders aren’t motivated by power and control, which, among male offenders, is the leading motivation for sexual contact with someone before the age of puberty. Actually, regardless of the victim’s age, power and control are a much more compelling motivator for men than for women.

Of course, I don’t condone this behavior in the least. I’m not saying that women who sleep with 17-year-olds should be given a free pass or skip blithely past the consequences. But I do believe we need to rethink the way that we treat and rehabilitate these women. We need to focus less on the scintillating sexual details and more on the emotions and needs that motivated them.

Here lies perhaps the greatest injustice: in the sex offender system, women are treated exactly like men. Treatment providers aren’t given special instruction in dealing with women. The treatment programs are written for men, using statistics about male offenders and past treatment models of men. Imagine! Although women’s motivations and victims are diabolically different, they receive the same treatment model as men who rape women, prey on young children, and commit serial crimes.

At the moment, the justice system hides behind the fact that there isn’t enough research into female offenders. This is partly true: women offend at a much lower rate than men, and so studying their motivations takes a little more work. But as the sex offender laws expand to include more and more actions, there are an increasing number of women caught in sex crimes.

A lack of evidence should never be the reason for poor rehabilitation. It should be the impetus, in fact, for working harder to understand why some women commit sex crimes and how to prevent it in the future. When I asked a treatment provider for data about the effects on teenage males of sex crimes committed by women, she had one study. It was a tiny example, too: 13 males from the Midwest. Only that. In a nation that routinely penalizes women for sexual contact with teenage males, only one study existed that documented this phenomenon. By contrast, decades of research and hundreds of studies have informed the treatment material and methods for men who commit sex crimes.

Research about recidivism rates is also based primarily on male populations and varies drastically. Estimates about recidivism rates for sex offenders range from 2.5% for another sex crime to to 43% for any crime at all. But since the law doesn’t differentiate among sex offenders, these studies are nearly useless. A woman who has sex with a teenager is in the same category with a developmentally disabled person who is an exhibitionist, and those two are in the same category with a man who raped and murdered a child. The lumping-together of sex offenses creates confusion even while it feeds public hysteria.

Secondly, joining the ranks of sex offenders can also become a way of life. It affects which grocery aisle a woman walks down, whether she talks to the cashier who might be 17, whether she takes the long way around instead of driving past a liquor store, how many hours she spends preparing for a polygraph. It cuts her off from her family because she is not allowed to go places where children are. This means no family dinners, no big Christmases with extended family, no graduation ceremonies, no school plays or soccer games.

This isolation sinks deep into the bones. It makes a person unsure of herself. How do “normal” people act in this situation? What if someone finds out I committed a sex crime? Am I talking and behaving the way women my age do?

In this way, the punishment for sex crimes is partly physical, restricting a person’s movements in the community, and partly psychological, making her afraid to engage with other people.

All of this psychological pressure – the extensive restrictions, the polygraphs, the fear of losing hard-won privileges – takes an enormous toll on a person. She begins to fear public places and unfamiliar situations. She begins to look for a quick exit and excuses in case something “not allowed” would happen. She must either follow every rule perfectly (which rips away all self-esteem) or she must self-justify the choices she makes (which engrains criminal thinking, even if it wasn’t there before).

Treating sex offenders, especially women offenders, has become drastically un-therapeutic. “Treatment” revolves around complex rules, low self-esteem, and the constant fear of punishment. It does nothing to address the complex emotional choices that led people to their crimes. Rather, the justice system beats down already hurting women.

Sonia Van den Broek is currently living in Colorado, raising cats and hydrangea bushes. She is a free woman, which means lots of walks to local coffeeshops. In her spare time she pretends that she's good at knitting and other crafts. Read other articles by Sonia.