The Invisible Boy
Perpetrators of Male Victimization
Most of the data that has shaped our view of sexual abuse perpetration has been drawn
from case report studies, official crime statistics, police reports, and the records of
child welfare agencies. Using case report studies, it is evident that the majority of
sexual abusers of both girls, boys, women, and teen girls are heterosexual males (DeJong
et al., 1982; Ellerstein and Canavan, 1980; Faller, 1987; Farber et al., 1984; Reinhart,
1987; Showers et al., 1983; Spencer and Dunklee, 1986). Ramsay-Klawsnik (1990a) found that
boys were abused by adult males 33% of the time and by adolescent males 12% of the time.
Rates of abuse of males by natural fathers has been reported in 20% of cases by (Pierce
and Pierce, 1985), 7% by (Ellerstein and Canavan, 1980), 29% by (Faller, 1989), 14% by
(Spencer and Dunklee, 1986) and 48% by (Friedrich et al., 1988). Stepfathers were found to
be the abuser in 28% of cases (Pierce and Pierce, 1985). Though, there are no studies of
same sex sexual assault or "date rape" among teen gay males, evidence from a
study of adult gay males suggests that other gay or bisexual males may represent the
majority of perpetrators (Mezey and King, 1989; Waterman, Dawson, and Bologna, 1989).
Abuse of males by adolescent perpetrators is well documented in the literature. Rogers
and Terry (1984) found that 56% of male victims were abused by teen males compared to 28%
for females. Longo and Groth (1983) found that 19% of the sibling incest offenders were
female. Others have also documented high rates of abuse of males by adolescents
(Ellerstein and Canavan, 1980; Showers et al., 1983; Spencer and Dunklee, 1986). Longo and
Groth (1983) found in their study that adolescent sex offenders (81% of whom were male,
19% female) abused brothers in 16% of cases and 5% of cases respectively. In most cases of
sibling incest, the victim was younger than the perpetrator (Pierce and Pierce, 1987).
Sibling incest perpetrators often have low self-esteem, deep-seated feelings of inadequacy
and emptiness, and are isolated, immature, loners who prefer the company of younger
children (Groth and Laredo, 1981; Shoor et al., 1966).
Strangers vs. Acquaintances
Boys appear more likely than girls to be abused by multiple perpetrators (Faller, 1989;
Finkelhor, 1984; Rogers and Terry, 1984). Some research reports that boys are more likely
to be abused by strangers (Finkelhor, 1979; Rogers and Terry, 1984). Faller (1989) reports
that teachers, daycare providers, boy scout leaders, and camp staff accounted for 24% of
abuse of males. Risin and Koss (1987) report that family members were abusers in 22% of
cases, strangers in 15% of cases, baby-sitters in 23% of cases, neighbours, teachers, or
friends of the family in 25% of cases, friends of siblings in 9% of cases, and peers in
just under 6% of cases. However, overall it appears that boys, like girls, are more likely
to be abused by someone they know (Faller, 1989; Farber et al., 1984; Fromuth and
Burkhart, 1987, 1989; Risin and Koss, 1987; Rogers and Terry, 1984; Showers et al., 1983;
Spencer and Dunklee, 1986).
Findings from research on intrafamilial abuse of boys vary, with rates ranging from 20%
to a high of almost 90% (Pierce and Pierce, 1985; Finkelhor et al., 1990). Some report
that the majority of sexual abuse experiences for boys are extrafamilial (Farber et al.,
1984; Risin and Koss, 11987; Showers et al., 1983). However, overall, it does appear that
boys are more likely than girls to be abused outside the family and by non-family members.
As recently as 10 years ago it was a common assumption that females did not or could
not sexually abuse children or youth. Even some professionals working in the field
believed that women represented only about 1%-3% of sexual abusers at most. However,
mounting research evidence about sexual abuse perpetration at the hands of teen and adult
females has begun to challenge our assumptions, though these earlier and dated views still
tend to predominate.
The percentage of women and teenage girl perpetrators recorded in case report studies
is small and ranges from 3%-10% (Kendall-Tackett and Simon, 1987; McCarty, 1986; Schultz
and Jones, 1983; Wasserman and Kappel, 1985). When the victim is male, female perpetrators
account for 1%-24% of abusers. When the victim is female, female perpetrators account for
6%-17% of abusers (American Humane Association, 1981; Finkelhor and Russell, 1984; and
Finkelhor et al., 1990). In the Ontario Incidence Study, 10% of sexual abuse
investigations involved female perpetrators (Trocme, 1995). However, in six studies
reviewed by Russell and Finkelhor, female perpetrators accounted for 25% or more of
abusers. Ramsay-Klawsnik (1990a) found that adult females were abusers of males 37% of the
time, female adolescents 19% of the time. Both of these rates are higher than the same
study reported for adult and teen male abusers.
Dynamics of Female Perpetrated Abuse
Some research has reported that female perpetrators commit fewer and less intrusive
acts of sexual abuse compared to males. While male perpetrators are more likely to engage
in anal intercourse and to have the victim engage in oral-genital contact, females tend to
use more foreign objects as part of the abusive act (Kaufman, 1995). This study also
reported that differences were not found in the frequency of vaginal intercourse, fondling
by the victim or abuser, genital body contact without penetration, or oral contact by the
Females may be more likely to use verbal coercion than physical force. The most
commonly reported types of abuse by female perpetrators include vaginal intercourse, oral
sex, fondling, and group sex (Faller, 1987; Hunter et al., 1993). However, women also
engage in mutual masturbation, oral, anal, and genital sex acts, show children
pornography, and play sex games (Johnson, 1989; Knopp and Lackey, 1987). The research
suggests that, overall, female and male perpetrators commit many of the same acts and
follow many of the same patterns of abuse against their victims. They also do not tend to
differ significantly in terms of their relationship to the victim (most are relatives) or
the location of the abuse (Allen, 1991; Kaufman et al., 1995).
It is interesting to note in the study by Kaufman et al., (1995), that 8% of the female
perpetrators were teachers and 23% were baby-sitters, compared to male perpetrators who
were 0% and 8% respectively. Finkelhor et al., (1988) also report significantly higher
rates of sexual abuse of children by females in daycare settings. Of course
Finkelhors findings should not surprise us given that women represent the majority
of daycare employees.
Research on teen and adult female sexual abuse perpetrators has found that many suffer
from low self-esteem, antisocial behaviour, poor social and anger management skills, fear
of rejection, passivity, promiscuity, mental health problems, posttraumatic stress
disorder, and mood disorders (Hunter, Lexier, Goodwin, Browne, and Dennis, 1993; Mathews,
Matthews, and Speltz, 1989). However, as in the case of male perpetrators, research does
not substantiate that highly emotionally disturbed or psychotic individuals predominate
among the larger population of female sexual abusers (Faller, 1987).
There is some evidence that females are more likely to be involved with co-abusers,
typically a male, though studies report a range from 25% - 77% (Faller, 1987; Kaufman et
al., 1995; McCarty, 1986). However, Mayer (1992), in a review of data on 17 adolescent
female sex offenders, found that only 2 were involved with male co-perpetrators. She also
found that the young women in this study knew their victims and that none experienced
legal consequences for their actions.
Self-report studies provide a very different view of sexual abuse perpetration and
increase the number of female perpetrators substantially. In a retrospective study of male
victims, 60% reported being abused by females (Johnson and Shrier, 1987). The same rate
was found in a sample of college students (Fritz et al., 1981). In other studies of male
university and college students, rates of female perpetration were found at levels as high
as 72% - 82% (Fromuth and Burkhart, 1987, 1989; Seidner and Calhoun, 1984). Bell et al.,
(1991) found that 27% of males were abused by females. In some of these types of studies
females represent as much as 50% of sexual abusers (Risin and Koss, 1987). Knopp and
Lackey (1987) found that 51% of victims of female sexual abusers were male. It is evident
that case report and self-report studies yield very different types of data about
prevalence. These extraordinary differences tell us we need to start questioning all of
our assumptions about perpetrators and victims of child maltreatment.
Finally, there is an alarmingly high rate of sexual abuse by females in the backgrounds
of rapists, sex offenders, and sexually aggressive men, 59% (Petrovich and Templer, 1984),
66% (Groth, 1979), and 80% (Briere and Smiljanich, 1993). A strong case for the need to
identify female perpetrators can be found in Table 4, which presents the findings from a
study of adolescent sex offenders by OBrien (1989). Male adolescent sex offenders
abused by females only chose female victims almost exclusively.
Table 4. Victim Gender Based on Who Previously Abused the Perpetrator
|Gender of Perpetrators Own Victimizer
||Gender of Victim
Male or Both
Berkowitz (1993), in a Winnipeg based study of sexually abused males in treatment
groups, found the following rates of perpetration.
Table 5. Gender of Abusers of Male Victims in Treatment Groups
|Gender of Abusers
|Intrafamilial Abuse (N=54)
|Extrafamilial Abuse (N=55)
Physical Abuse and Neglect
In the Ontario Incidence Study: 41% of investigations of child maltreatment were
for physical abuse, compared to 24% for sexual abuse, 30% for neglect, 10% for emotional
maltreatment, and 2% for other forms of maltreatment. There were two or more forms of
suspected maltreatment in 12% of investigations. In 27% of the cases maltreatment was
substantiated, 30% suspected, and 42% unsubstantiated. Forty-nine per cent of investigated
children were male, and 35% of children investigated because of suspected sexual abuse
were male (Trocme, 1995). In Ontario, 34% of investigated children lived with both
biological parents, 19% with a biological parent and a step parent, 36% with a single
mother, and 6% with a single father. Social assistance was the primary source of income
for 38% of investigated children. At least 17% lived in subsidized housing.
In the U.S., figures provided by the American Association for the Protection of
Children (1985) reveal that most physical abuse and most minor and major injuries of
children are perpetrated by women. Other research evidence indicates that mothers
represent the majority of physical abusers and neglecters of children (Johnson and
Showers, 1985; Rosenthal, 1988). Archambault et al., (1989) found that mothers are the
major perpetrators of physical abuse for both male and female runaways.
It is evident that much of the physical abuse and neglect of children occurs in single
mother led families living in high stress environments. Stressed to the limit, these
mothers take out their frustrations on their children. Some of these mothers are also
victims of spousal violence, child abuse, or suffer from a number of current and chronic
life stressors. Because mothers typically are the primary caregivers of children and spend
more time with them, it makes sense that they would show up in larger numbers in the
statistics on child physical abuse and neglect.
Though females account for more of the physical abuse and neglect of children, there is
some evidence that males inflict more serious injuries on their victims, particularly male
victims (Rosenthal, 1988). Fathers are also two times more likely by the perpetrator in
cases involving child fatalities (Jason and Andrek, 1983). In other studies no sex
differences, in terms of severity of abuse or child fatalities in two-parent families,
were found (Gelles, 1989; Greenland, 1987). However, because women still tend to be the
primary caregivers to children, the emotional impact of mother-perpetrated abuse,
regardless of the form, may be greater on children than a fathers abuse.
The greater physical harm caused to children by fathers is likely attributable to the
greater physical strength of males generally, but also to the disinhibiting effects of
alcohol, and to a lesser extent drugs, which factor prominently in parental abuse of
children and youth (Cavaiola and Schiff, 1988). For all forms of child maltreatment,
parent risk factors such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse, mental health problems, and
inter-parental violence show up as risk factors, but especially physical abuse and neglect
When the abuse starts is likely to have some impact on its course, duration, and
consequences, though there is still insufficient research to map a predictable
developmental path and sequelae. In general, abuse can follow one of three paths: abuse
that begins in childhood and ends when the child reaches adolescence, begins in childhood
and continues through adolescence, begins in adolescence (Lourie, 1979). The duration can
range from 1 month to over 15 years. The average duration is approximately 5 years (Farber
and Joseph, 1985).
Much of the use of corporal punishment by parents, teachers, daycare providers, or
various institution-based professionals goes unnoticed, or is not labeled as being
abusive, because it is viewed as an acceptable function for an adult in the role of
parent, locus parentis, or caregiver. This is due, in part, to widespread cultural
norms in North American society sanctioning the use of force in the correction and
discipline of children and youth and a "just world" view that children who
misbehave, are difficult to control, or anger adults deserve to get a spanking.
But it is also because much of this form of maltreatment does not come to the attention
of authorities unless it is severe. As in the case of inter-spouse abuse, we have
historically viewed incidents of violence within families as a "domestic"
concern or a private family matter, though significant strides have been made to improve
this situation in Canada. However, we have not yet begun to accord children the same type
of compassion and concern we are beginning to give female spouses.
Almost all American parents endorse the use of corporal punishment and use it routinely
on infants, older children, and teens alike, though usage tends to decrease the older the
child gets. However, more corporal punishment appears to be directed at boys than girls.
More males report being hit by parents and more parents report hitting sons than daughters
(Straus, 1994). In this same study, sons recall being equally likely to be hit by both
parents, whereas adolescent daughters are a third more likely to be hit by their mothers.
The most chronic pattern of hitting, in terms of frequency, is mothers hitting adolescent
sons, the lowest is for fathers hitting daughters. Two-thirds of mothers with toddlers hit
them three or more times per week. Other studies have also found higher rates of mothers
hitting adolescent children (Wauchope and Straus, 1990).
When an adolescent is hit, both parents usually do it, especially if the child is a
boy. When a son is hit, fathers do it 23% of the time, mothers 23%, and both parents 53%.
When a daughter is hit, fathers do it 20% of the time, mothers 39%, and both parents 41%.
The highest rate of hitting teens occurs in middle class families (Straus, 1994).
Several theories summarized by Straus (1994) offer some explanation of why boys are hit
and punished more often than girls: they misbehave more; boys are encouraged to be more
active which may subtly encourage misbehaviour; it is part of training boys for
anticipated adult male roles of provider/protector; and it is used to toughen boys up. The
gender of the parent administering corporal punishment is also likely to influence our
perceptions. Because of our stereotypes of women as nurturers or "natural"
caregivers, we are less likely to attribute malicious intent to mothers or other females.
Instead, we tend to view womens use of physical abuse or corporal punishment as a
sign of stress. We are also likely to overlook, or give only passing concern to, cases
where a female caregiver uses physical force or corporal punishment toward an older male
child or teen. However, theories that explain mothers use of violence toward
children and teens solely in terms of stress, fail to acknowledge and factor in these
gender-specific issues of particular consequence to male victims.
It is generally believed that parental stress owing to conditions of poverty or low
socio-economic status (SES) contributes to children being "at risk". However,
the research is inconclusive. Erlangers review of the literature on corporal
punishment reported no remarkable relationship between use of corporal punishment and
socio-economic status. Others have found higher rates for lower income families (Bryan and
Freed, 1982; Stark and McEvoy, 1970). One study found that corporal punishment rates are
highest for middle class families (Straus, 1994). This same study also found that while
fewer lower SES adolescent parents may hit their children, those that do hit do it more
Personal beliefs, life experience, attribution, and social learning all appear to play
a role in predicting the use of corporal punishment. Parents who believe hitting a child
is not abuse and that it works to correct misbehaviour, attribute the childs
misbehaviour to premeditation or provocation, attribute the behaviour to internal
characteristics of the child that are within their control, observe their partner
administer force, or who feel powerless in the face of the misbehaviour are most likely to
use corporal punishment or physically abuse their children (Bugental, Mantyla, and Lewis,
1989; Dibble and Straus, 1990; Dietrich et al., 1990; Dix and Grusec, 1985; Fry, 1993;
Institute For the Prevention of Child Abuse, 1990; and Walters, 1991). The more parents
believe in the use of corporal punishment, the more likely they are to use it, and the
more likely they are to apply it harshly (Moore and Straus, 1987).