Female sexual abuse hidden
SEXUAL abuse by women may be escaping punishment because of their victims' embarrassment and society's failure to understand the gravity of the crimes.
A major study is investigating the impact of female sexual abuse in Victoria amid concerns that women -- including mothers, teachers and childcare workers -- are abusing children at greater rates than once believed.
Melbourne researcher Rebecca Deering said her preliminary inquiries suggested the stigma of being abused by a woman stopped victims reporting the offence.
Ms Deering said that gender differences may mean that society diminishes the extent to which women can offend.
"It has been argued that women are incapable of performing sexual acts with children due to physical make-up," she said.
"However, women do engage in such acts with children and research suggests that such abuse may be occurring at higher rates than
Ms Deering was speaking after a judge decided against jailing mother-of-three Karen Ellis, 37, for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student.
The student denied that the affair had affected him, but that didn't stop a backlash when Ellis -- a former physical education teacher -- escaped jail despite having sex six times with the boy.
Ms Deering wants to talk to more victims of female sexual abuse for her study, which is part of her doctorate of forensic psychology at Deakin University. Ms Deering said early replies to the study showed a big impact on victims.
"Based upon those, the impact has been extremely damaging," she said.
"They've basically written that it has had a huge psychological impact on their lives, that they've never spoken about it for years and years.
"And (they) didn't even realise until a lot of them had begun to speak about it that it was sexual abuse.
"I guess they lived in a world of confusion around what's happened, what's going on -- is it abuse or was it based upon motherly love and that kind of thing?
"It often takes years of therapy for someone to come forth and talk about it."
The Ellis case has reignited debate about the role of women in sex abuse.
The Australian Council of State School Organisations and Crime Victims Support Association called for a review of the way such cases were handled.
The Ellis case was compared with disgraced tennis coach Gavin Hopper, who was jailed for at least two years over an affair with a 14-year-old female student.
Ms Deering said there was a substantial body of research on the effects of women sexually abusing children, although evidence suggested not all victims suffer psychological damage. They include emotional, behavioural and sexual dysfunction.
She said male victims had reported that the effects of the abuse lingered.
"Male victims have reported that the abuse had an intense and traumatic impact on their lives, both at the time of the abuse and for several years following the incident," Ms Deering said.
"Female victims have reported identity confusion, sexual and relationship difficulties, anxiety, depression, self-mutilation, suicidal gestures, low self-esteem and personality disorders.
"Other studies have found that victims can suffer from feelings of guilt and self-blame, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative states, development of antisocial behaviour and victimisation of others, suicidal (thoughts and) interpersonal difficulties, including lack of ability to trust others. . ."
Ms Deering said there was evidence to suggest that victims of female offenders suffered as badly as victims of male offenders.
Anyone interested in joining the study can call 9251 7630.