Thursday, April 2, 2015

Q&A with Franca Cortoni Guest Editor of a Sexual Abuse Special Edition on "Female Sexual Offenders".

Sexual Abuse: A journal of Research & Treatment
Special Edition (edited by Franca Cortoni, PhD)                on “Female Sexual Abusers”
To Be Published – June 2015

What Is So Special About Female Sexual Offenders? Introduction to the Special Issue on Female Sexual Offenders
Cortoni, F.

An Incident-Based Comparison of Female and Male Sexual Offenders
Williams, K. S., & Bierie, D. M.

Adverse Childhood Experiences in the Lives of Female Sex Offenders
Levenson, J. S., Willis, G. M., & Prescott, D. S.

Characteristics of Females Who Sexually Offend: A Comparison of Solo and Co-Offenders
Gillespie, S. M., Williams, R., Elliott, I. A., Eldridge, H. J.,  Ashfield, S., & Beech, A. R.

An Ecological Process Model of Female Sex Offending: The Role of Victimization, Psychological Distress, and Life Stressors
DeCou, C. R., Cole, T. T., Rowland, S. E., Kaplan, S. P., & Shannon M. Lynch, S. M.
Women Convicted of Promoting Prostitution of a Minor Are Different From Women Convicted of Traditional Sexual Offenses: A Brief Research Report
Cortoni, F., Sandler, J. C., &. Freeman, N. J.

Group Sexual Offending by Juvenile Females
Wijkman, M., Weerman, F., Bijleveld, C., & Hendriks, J.

Could you talk us through where the idea of the special edition came from?

The idea that ‘there is no information on females so we must use male information’ is now out-of-date. While nowhere near the level of knowledge on male sexual offenders, there is now enough evidence that women and men sexual offenders do differ in significant ways in terms of gender-specific characteristics, offense patterns, and recidivism rates. However, it is unclear how well these issues are understood in the field since most researchers and clinicians will seldom deal with female sexual offending issues. As a special issue on female sexual offenders had already been published in 2011 by the Journal of Sexual Aggression, we (James Cantor, then Editor-in-Chief of SAJRT and I) felt the time had come for SAJRT to officially acknowledge, via this special issue, the fact that research on female sexual offending has its rightful place in the field of sexual aggression.

What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?

The biggest challenge was sorting through the large number of manuscripts submitted for the special issue and having to turn down quite a few of these submissions. The issue of female sexual offending appears to have become quite prominent in the field, with a large number of people attempting to conduct research on what are essentially very small samples of women. I find the increased recent research interest on women very exciting after too many decades of neglect. However, it is rarely acknowledged that this research area is fraught with difficulties that are not just due to small samples. Gender-specific research is much more than simply testing male-based theories on female samples; the knowledge building exercise must be built from the ground-up on women. Only then can it be compared to that of men to clearly establish differences and similarities. As a result, it will be some time before we gain a sound understanding of the factors that lead to sexual offending behavior among women.

What kinds of things did you learn as a result of pulling this edition together?

Based on my observations, the most recurrent problem with the research on female sexual is its reliance on male-based theories and data points (e.g., psychometric instruments validated for males; assessing factors present in males but not validated for women). This type of approach is classic in the area of forensic/correctional psychological/criminological research in that male-based knowledge is assumed to be gender-neutral (i.e., the crime matters – not the gender of the offender) and therefore applicable to women. The problem with this gender-neutral approach is that it fails to acknowledge that other –gender-specific – factors may be at play when women sexually offend. A simple example will help illustrate this problem: Williams and Bierie (2014) found that while 2% of men committed their sexual offense with a female co-offender, 32% of women commit their sexual offense in company of a male co-offender. Not surprisingly, there is nothing in the male literature that helps explain this gender-specific aspect of female sexual offending. Other examples of differences between men and women that require gender-specific explanations include the differential impact of childhood victimization, the important differences in sexual recidivism rates, and gender differences in offense-supportive cognitions or sexual arousal patterns. It is only by directly studying the women themselves that we will understand these issues.  

Now that you’ve pulled these articles together, what are some implications for practitioners?
The research presented in the special issue will help clinicians better understand prevalence issues, victimization and offense process issues, differences in solo versus co-offending among women, factors that differentiate subgroups of women all considered to be sexual offenders, and juvenile girls who are involved in group sexual offending. This new knowledge will provide practitioners with a stronger empirical basis for their differential clinical evaluation, treatment and management of women who sexually offend. Most importantly perhaps, I hope that this special issue will help clinicians understand that sexual offending is not “worse” or “less worse” when committed by a woman instead of a man but that the explanations for it that might differ - hence the importance of adopting a gender lens when working with female sexual offenders.

Franca Cortoni, PhD

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