/ 12 October 2018

Yes, women can be sexual predators

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

He’d been in the bathtub at the time, he remembers. She had walked in and made an inappropriate comment “about my private parts”, he says. “I was pretty shocked and didn’t know how to process it. A few weeks after that, she made a full-blown, overt move on me and started to encourage a sexual relationship. You know, telling me to touch her; asking to touch me. And … I don’t know … I didn’t know how to approach it. I didn’t know what to do. So, I just fell; I listened to her.”

He listened to her because he was only 10 years old. And because she was his grandmother.

The abuse continued for three years, but its effects are with 40-year-old Jacques Vermeulen* to this day.

“It made me feel like absolute dirt and garbage. And, even though it was only periodic — it happened, like, every other week — I didn’t have anybody to speak to about it. And the truth is, in my mind, every time I let her do it, I thought to myself, ‘God is watching this and he is going to send her to hell; she is going to burn in hell for what she is doing to me.’ I carried on letting her do it so she would get that divine punishment.”

An increasing body of research is highlighting the higher-than-perceived prevalence of female-perpetrated sexual abuse.

A 2016 study by Lara Stemple, of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Health and Human Rights Law Project, draws attention to the “surprisingly significant prevalence of female-perpetrated sexual victimisation, mostly against men, and occasionally against women”.

This kind of abuse, it found, covered a “wide spectrum”, including “non consensual oral sex, vaginal and anal penetration with a finger or object, and intercourse”.

Although acknowledging that “a focus on female perpetration might be sceptically viewed as an attempt to upend a women’s rights agenda focused on male perpetration”, it adds: “Attention to female perpetration need not negate concern[s] about other forms of abuse.”

The report found that women and men reported a nearly equal prevalence of non consensual sex.

It also found that “among men reporting … forms of sexual victimisation (other than a narrow definition of rape), 68.6% reported female perpetrators. Specifically, being ‘made to penetrate’ — the form of non consensual sex that men are much more likely to experience in their lifetimes — is frequently perpetrated by women: 79% of victimised men reported female perpetrators.”

According to the report, factors that led to “the persistent minimising of male victimisation” included outdated definitions of sexual victimisation and a reliance on gender stereotypes.

Rees Mann, of South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, says: “Generally it is thought that males always want sex and that, when it comes to any kind of sexual activity, males are more dominant and females submissive. So these encounters are actually going contrary to what is generally believed to define masculinity.”

The idea of women being capable of sexual abuse also goes against the grain of gender stereotypes that portray them largely as maternal, nurturing figures.

But, the report notes, “viewing women only as passive or harmless problematically constructs women as one-dimensional … It can also deny women agency and the responsibility for their actions that empowered persons ought to have.”

For the past 10 years, Sherianne Kramer has been researching sexual abuse at the hands of women. A critical and research psychologist, initially based at the psychology department University of the Witwatersrand, she is now at Amsterdam University College and is the author of last year’s Female-Perpetrated Sex Abuse: Knowledge, Power and the Cultural Conditions of Victimhood.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Kramer says the female sex offenders she interviewed latched on to gender stereotypes as a way to deny their actions. “A lot of them said they didn’t do it, despite actual evidence that they did. And a lot of them who could not escape the evidence said, ‘But I was a victim of sex abuse as well, and this is what I learnt.’

“It was really interesting that these women immediately backed into a victimised position, because that is so much more fathomable. That is the kind of woman we understand, because we make women into victims. It was an ironic turn to a gendering that almost helped these women escape their perpetration.

“They would also use a lot of maternal words and religious discourse to describe themselves. This was meant to be a constant reminder to me that they were maternal and nurturing and that, in the face of being all those womanly things, them committing a sex crime was impossible.”

Kramer adds that another key finding of her research was that the women she interviewed — in prisons in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria — “wouldn’t call what they did a sex crime”.

“They labelled it quite differently. For example, one was a woman who had been engaging with her five-year-old daughter in a whole lot of oral sex for pornography purposes. She said to me that it was acting, so it wasn’t real, therefore not sex abuse.”

Having also worked with male sex offenders, Kramer says “those kinds of things are absent [with the men]. There is denial, yes, but in a different way. And where there is denial, there would never, ever be any owning of a victim status.”

Benita Moolman is a senior research specialist in gender studies at the Human Sciences Research Council. Although her research focused specifically on male sex offenders, she says: “The sex offenders I interviewed also spoke of being violated sexually when they were younger, specifically by their mothers. A quarter said they were sexually assaulted, and around a quarter of that group were victims of female perpetrators.”

Moolman believes that female perpetration is “more prevalent than we think”.

She adds: “The interesting thing is that, while they spoke of female perpetration, they also spoke about being excited and aroused by this. So it is very different to male perpetration. It can be a very thin line between victimisation and perpetration for males when they are sexually assaulted.”

Kramer agrees. After her interviews with female offenders, she spoke to male survivors. “Across all of their experiences, they spoke about a betrayal of their body. That, psychologically, they didn’t want it to happen, but in order to rape or penetrate someone you have to be aroused. What was interesting is that this was eventually used as evidence against them — that this could not be a crime, because they were aroused.”

Kramer admits to being “shocked by this, because a lot of women are also aroused during a rape event, but it would never be used against her in a court case”.

“So men are treated very differently by the system and their own bodies are used against them as evidence that this is not a possibility; that if you were erect during this kind of situation you must have wanted it. But in some of these situations, the men were tied down or given Viagra, so physically they couldn’t actually do anything.”

Kramer adds that when she asked interviewees why they did not fight back in instances where they potentially could have, “I got the consistent answer that, if they fought back, they would have been the perpetrator, and nobody would have believed them”.

The study also recommends that “professionals responding to this problem avoid gender stereotypes that downplay the frequency and impact of female sexual perpetration”.

For Mann, professionals downplaying the issue is one of the reasons preventing men from coming forward to report such incidents.

“I’ve only come across one male who has attempted reporting the abuse to the police, and the police basically said it is impossible. They said things like, ‘How is that possible? You’re a guy, you’re supposed to protect yourself.’ They didn’t take the case.”

Kramer adds: “In low-income contexts particularly, there is still that very, very entrenched idea of masculinity. And, on the one hand, that does reinforce violence between men, but it also reinforces that, when men are victimised, they are completely silenced.

“It is the way we create gender that is actually the problem here. The way we construct masculinity in South Africa is so entrenched in power, strength, physical aggression and violence that there is just no voice for these men.”

Vermeulen did eventually find his voice. At the age of 13, three years after the abuse started, he says he “made her stop”.

“I said, ‘This is enough; this a very bad thing you’re doing.’ But she just said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I will just do it with one of your little brothers.’ And, you know, my brother at the time was small, really small. Probably, like, six or seven years old.”

Concerned his grandmother would inflict the same harm on his younger brother, Vermeulen told his parents. “They believed me, fortunately, and put a stop to any kids seeing her.”

But, he adds, in the few weeks it took him to pluck up the courage to tell them, his abuser did “try and initiate the same thing with my brother”.

“I only found this out a few months ago,” he sighs. “She apparently said to him, ‘You remind me of your big brother.’”

He says his brother was too young at the time for his body to “betray” him, so the abuse had no lasting effect on him. “He didn’t have any sexual responses. He didn’t even know what was going on. So he can’t feel guilty.”

Vermeulen, however, continues to live with “this terrible, terrible guilt … the worst guilt you can ever imagine”.

Unable to enter into a relationship — “It’s just not something I know how to do … I can’t do it” — despite more than two decades of therapy, Vermeulen says: “She’s not living anymore, my grandmother. She’s dead now. She’s dead, but she still haunts me.”

* Not his real name

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G