Understanding and preventing child sexual abuse by women

19 January 2021

“The difficulty with having the view that women don’t abuse means that the public are looking for monsters – and we won’t find one.” Dr Alex Bailey.


Dr Alexandra Bailey registered forensic psychologist, a lecturer at Goldsmiths and practitioner with The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, spoke about BBC Radio 4’s File on Four programme on the subject of women who sexually abuse children.

Through a series of interviews with experts and adult survivors, the programme discusses women who sexually offend, including how women are able to commit such crimes, the stigma and stereotypes around abuse perpetrated by women and why many survivors never come forward about the abuse.

How we can recognise child sexual abuse

There are lots of myths about child sexual abuse and stereotypes of who commits offences, which can lead to us not looking in the right places or spotting signs of abuse. Many people might think of people who abuse as all being men, but around 5% of child sexual abuse cases that are brought to the attention of the police are committed by women.

Figures from the BBC report that there were over 10,400 reports of this type of abuse from 2015-2019 – equivalent to an average of 40 a week.

There is a common public perception of women as maternal and nurturing figures and the sexual abuse of children contrasts starkly with this idea. This can mean that people look at women who sexually offend as either ‘monsters’, ‘mentally unwell’ or that they don’t know what they are doing or are coerced into committing offences by a man in their lives. Dr Bailey argues that by labelling women who sexually offend with these terms, it can impact the identification of abusers and the level of help received by those abused.

“The difficulty with having the view that women don’t abuse means that the public are looking for monsters – and we won’t find one,” she says. “This can make abuse very difficult to be acknowledged and identified, by the public but also by the victims themselves, and in turn makes it harder for us to ensure that children are not harmed. Recognising that this is an event that can happen and that women engage with this type of behaviour is really important for us in child protection.”

Responding to, and preventing, child sexual abuse by women

Often, members of the public might be concerned about a women’s behaviour around children but find it hard to acknowledge that this occurs or don’t know where to turn with their concerns. Similarly, there may be women who are concerned about their own thoughts and behaviours but don’t know where they can seek help, and so it is vital that support is clearly signposted to ensure that children remain safe and unharmed.

“There still needs to be further understanding that women do commit these offences so that it is taken seriously by the authorities and not denied when survivors come forward,” says Dr Bailey. “In some cases, when a child or adolescent discloses an offence by women, they are less likely to be believed or the abuse is reframed as harmless, when it is, like all abuse, very damaging to victims.

“We, as professionals, are getting better at recognising this kind of abuse and understanding the impact that it has on survivors and how to recognise warning signs in women, but there is still further work that needs to be done to make sure that this abuse is taken seriously.”

Talk to us if you’re worried about child sexual abuse

Visit the sexual abuse learning programme on our Parents Protect website to find out more about how to keep children safe.

Our confidential child sexual abuse prevention helpline (0808 1000 900) is available for anyone with concerns about child sexual abuse. Callers do not need to give identifying information, so can remain anonymous. We speak to thousands of people every year and help them act to protect children and young people from sexual abuse and exploitation. You can also get support from our experienced advisors through our live chat and secure messaging service.

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