A profile of violent and sexual female offenders

The focus of the present discussion is on risk assessment of violent and sexual (re)offending by females. Violent and sexual offending is defined by the type of offence one can be charged for in New Zealand. The following lists are derived from Spier & Lash (2004).

Violent offences

  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Attempted murder
  • Kidnapping/abduction
  • Aggravated robbery
  • Aggravated burglary
  • Robbery
  • Grievous assault
  • Serious assault
  • Male assaults female
  • Assault on a child
  • Minor assault
  • Threaten to kill/do grievous bodily harm
  • Cruelty to a child
  • Other violence

Violent sexual offences

  • Rape
  • Unlawful sexual connection
  • Attempted sexual violation
  • Indecent assault

Other sexual offences against persons

  • Incest
  • Do indecent act
  • Unlawful sexual intercourse
  • Attempted unlawful sexual intercourse
  • Anal intercourse

Spier (2002) and Spier and Lash (2004) report annually on trends in prosecutions, convictions, and sentencing over a ten year period including gender, age and ethnicity. Particular interest went to their analysis of violent offences (by males and females) in the periods 1992-2001 and 1994-2003. The total number of charges resulting in conviction for violent offences has been slowing down since 1995 after a significant increase between 1992 and 1995. The decreasing trend continued until 2002 and increased in 2003. Throughout the period 1994-2003 "violent offences have accounted for 8% to 9% of all convictions" (Spier & Lash, 2004, p. 17). With respect to violent sex offences the number of convictions peaked in 1996 and has averaged just over 1500 annually since then. The number of convictions for aggravated robbery decreased in the period 1998-2001 after a peak in 1997. Slowly increasing trends between 1994 and 2003 are observed for grievous assault and serious assault. Finally, "convictions for all types of threatening and intimidation offences have increased strongly in number over the decade" 1994-2003 (Spier & Lash, 2004).

Females represent a small number in the crime statistics. "In 2001 females made up just over half of the population, yet they made up only 20 percent of all recorded apprehensions, 17 percent of convictions and 4 percent of those sentenced to custodial sentence" (Statistics New Zealand, 2005, p. 128). Maori and in particular young Maori women are overrepresented in the offender population, as shown in table 1

Table 1: Gender, ethnicity and age of offenders sent to prison in 2001 and 2003

Female offenders

[male offenders]




60% [52%]

57% [51%]

NZ European

34% [38%]

35% [39%]

Pacific Peoples

6% [8%]

6% [8%]

Percentage of imprisoned female Maori, European and Pacific Peoples under 25 [male offenders]

Female offenders

[male offenders]



Maori under 25

35% [39%]

35% [37%]

NZ European under 25

22% [32%]

23% [32%]

Pacific Peoples under 25

25% [44%]

n/a [42%]

The figures relating to ethnicity are relatively comparable to male offenders, although Maori female offenders in prison account for a slightly higher percentage than incarcerated Maori male offenders.

Apprehension figures from Statistics New Zealand (2005) show that females were arrested respectively in 1996 and 2001 for property offences (53%-44%), drug and anti-social offences (21%-22%) and violent offences (12%-16%). This pattern is similar for males apprehended "although the figures for males [for violent offences] were considerably higher" (p. 119). It was confirmed that men are more likely to commit violent offences than females.

Interestingly, of the female arrests in 2001 a quarter involved girls between 14 and 16, responsible for just over a third of apprehensions for dishonesty and property damage and 20 percent of violent offences.

Male offenders accounted for respectively 83% and 82% of all cases resulting in conviction in 2001 and 2003 and females accounted for 17% and 18%. In 2001 only 8% of the total of custodial sentences was given to women. This percentage was 10% in 2003. Females are more likely to receive a community-based sentence than males.

Compared to the average in 1994, 29% more males and 91% more females were sentenced to prison in 2003! For violent offending in 2001 and 2003 conviction figures read 89% for males and 11% for females. Compared with other offences females peak (respectively in 2001 and 2003) in property offences (23%-23%), traffic offences (18%-19%), miscellaneous (18%-16%), drug offences (15%-16%) and against justice (14%-18%) while male offenders make up for the rest of the percentage points. The patterns of conviction by offence type are similar to that of males (i.e., main offence category was traffic offences, followed by property offences, violent offences and drug offences). The "female conviction patterns between 1992 and 2001 have remained fairly static" (Statistics New Zealand, 2005, p. 121), but convictions for violent offences by females doubled between 1992 and 1997 and have increased since then until the most recent data available (2001).

On the day of the 2001 Prison Census (15 November 2001) 4 percent of the total sentenced prison population in New Zealand was female. "The majority of convictions were for violence (43 percent), property damage (27 percent) and drug-related offences (13 percent)" (Statistics New Zealand, 2005, p. 123). On census day 296 males and 16 females were serving life imprisonment sentences and no females had preventative detention for repeat sexual and violent offending. Forty six percent of females and 62 percent of males were imprisoned for violent offences on 15 November 2001, "including 3 percent of females and 22 percent of males for sexual violence. For women, the most prevalent violent offence was homicide (38 percent), while for men robbery was the most prevalent (35 percent)" (Statistics New Zealand, 2005, p. 123). Interestingly 10 percent of imprisoned violent women had a previous conviction for violent offending (36% for males); just under half of both males and females had a previous conviction for a non-violent offence; and 44 percent had no prior conviction (17% males).

Moth and Hudson (1999) studied 37 New Zealand incarcerated women (59.5% New Zealand European and 35.1% Maori, the latter an overrepresentation). Nearly 49% had committed offences involving violence. The majority had started their criminal career at a young age and had multiple convictions for various offence types. Imprisonment followed after other sentencing forms had been exhausted or after a very serious offence. Although most offences involved theft, violent offending was second most common. "Around a third of the offences involved the use of a weapon and the involvement of associates. These results challenge the widely held misconception that crime committed by female offenders is less serious than that committed by male offenders" (Moth & Hudson, 1999, p. 55). However, three women had no prior criminal history and had committed a single serious crime (murder or a major fraud); they were older than the other women and committed their first and only offence at a later age. The authors comment that they possibly represent a subgroup.

Statistical information from the Department of Corrections shows that between 1964 and the time of writing, 62 females have been imprisoned for sexual offending, some with multiple convictions. This would be a very small percentage of all female prisoners at one time. The sentenced muster data for June 2005 show that of the total muster of 5798 5.8% is female (n= 336). Of the sentenced females in prison, five (1.5%) have been sentenced for a sexual offence (A. Skelton, personal communication, June 1, 2005) and 131 (39%) for violence (of which about a quarter for murder, manslaughter or attempt and only a few for assault on a child). One could conclude that violent female offenders are well represented in New Zealand prisons. In 2001 and 2003, more Maori offenders (46%) were convicted for a violent offence than New Zealand European (respectively 37% and 38%) or Pacific peoples (14% and 13%). This could be similarly reflected in female violent offenders but data were unavailable. However, a rough scan of the muster data of June showed that more than 60% of female offenders incarcerated for violence are identified as Maori. It is proposed that because the number of serious female offenders in prison is rather small, in particular sexual female offenders, general research information and more specific guidelines for risk assessment of both offender groups could assist Department of Corrections" staff in this particular area.

Comparisons with international data could not be made as gender was not specified (Barclay & Tavares, 2003).

In conclusion, female offenders represent a small number in New Zealand crime statistics but young Maori women are overrepresented in the female offender population by three times. Female offenders have been increasingly convicted to imprisonment between 1994 and 2003. Convictions of females for violent offending have steadily increased between 1992 and 2001 but their number is still low compared to violent male offenders. For women, the most prevalent violent offence is homicide, most likely a reaction to conflict or abuse and first-time offenders. In regard to the other violent females it is unknown what age they are, whether the violence was committed against relatives or strangers and whether the violence was gang-related (for a profile of women gang members in the Canadian correctional system see Mackenzie & Johnson, 2003). It is likely that this group of offenders are young Maori women, in concurrence with the Department's recommendation to target young female Maori for core programmes (Department of Corrections, 2003a).

The significance of a prior criminal history in risk assessment appears to be less relevant for violent females compared to males. A very small number of women are charged and convicted to imprisonment for sexual offending. An analysis of women who have high re-conviction and re-imprisonment rates in New Zealand could assist in fine-tuning risk assessment and reintegration programmes.

About 25 years ago it was noticed that females can be both recipient and participant, offender and victim of violence (Harris, 1979). Similarly, the reality of female sex offenders challenges the taboo of incest and the perception of women as mothers, nurturers and protectors of children (Hunter & Mathews, 1997). It challenges the societal belief that females are generally the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator and that the power in relationships resides with males (Hunter & Mathews, 1997; Nathan & Ward, 2002).

Shaw and Dubois (1995) reviewed publications relating to violence by women from 1984 to 1994 and comment that violence by women has been neglected or avoided. Violent women, they say, are often perceived as masculine, mad, sad or evil. Skeem, Schubert, Stowman, Beeson, Mulvey, Gardner, et al. (2005) studied risk assessments by mental health professionals and conclude that mental health professionals are less accurate at predicting future violence involving women psychiatric patients. This finding was not related to the gender of the mental health professional or to the seriousness of the violence. Violence potential in females may be underestimated because of the low base rate of violence by women or because women's violence is less public i.e. in the home (Skeem et al., 2005).

Shaw and Dubois (1995) underline the fact that across countries and over time in regards to violence men outnumber women, at any age and in respect to different types of violence. They conclude that the rate for serious violent offending by females remained stable in Canada (from 1970-1990) while that for men increased. Odgers and Moretti (2002) report that for female youth however, official American and Canadian statistics show an increase of moderately violent crime between 1991 and 2000 and "that the gap is closing between girls and boys with respect to their engagement in aggressive behavior" (p. 105). Chesney-Lind and Pasko (2004) state that "violent crime is overwhelmingly a male enterprise" (p. 35) and "women's crime, like girls" crime, is deeply affected by women's place. As a result, women's contribution to serious and violent crime - like that of girls - is minor" (p. 95). Based on statistics they conclude that women murderers are a rarity and kill more likely as a result of conflict. Shaw and Dubois" (1995) literature review highlights the connection between drug or alcohol use and violence by women. According to Brennan (1998) often serious violence by women is committed as an associate and often in the context of domestic violence.

Analysis of the data of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, "a longitudinal investigation of the health, development, and behaviour of a complete cohort of births between 1 April 1972 and 31 March 1973" (Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter, & Silva, 2001) of more than a thousand New Zealand babies of predominantly European ancestry confirmed that sex differences are the largest for violent crimes and smallest for drug- and alcohol-related crimes. Of interest is their finding that "inside intimate relationships and the privacy of the home, females [in this normative sample] are just as physically aggressive as males" (Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter, & Silva, 2001, p. 69), which could not be explained by the hypothesis of self-defence. However, males scored higher on measures of other types of violence at every age and setting than females. Another finding suggested that "the persistence of antisocial behaviour among women depends on whether or not the woman pairs off with an antisocial man" (Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter, & Silva, 2001, p. 196). The researchers found that neuro-developmental problems (neuro-cognitive deficits, undercontrolled temperament, personality trait called weak constraint and hyperactivity) affect males more often than females and subsequently links to persistent, severe antisocial behaviour. In short, "risk factors for antisocial behavior were remarkably similar for females and males" (Odgers & Moretti, 2002, p. 108). Nicholls, Ogloff and Douglas (2004) state that recent research providing evidence for sex differences in the base rate and severity of criminality and violence now questions "the extent to which the finding that men are more prone to violence than women extends to people with serious mental illnesses" (p. 128). Some studies have reported that female inpatients are more involved in aggressive incidents than men. It could be possible that the base rates for violence are more similar among serious mentally ill men and women, which would have implications for risk assessment and risk management.

Grayston and De Luca (1999) reviewed the available clinical and empirical literature on female-perpetrated sexual abuse of children and provide tentative conclusions as the available data are rather limited. Data suggest that less than 5% of all sexual offenders against children and young people are female. Although this kind of offending may be underreported (see also Atkinson, 2000; Lewis & Stanley, 2000), unnoticed or diverted from the criminal justice system (Vandiver & Walker, 2002) "the bulk of existing data strongly suggests that females are responsible for a relatively small number of sexual offenses against children in the general population, and that men still constitute the vast majority of sexual abuse perpetrators" (Grayston & De Luca, 1999, p. 94). Atkinson (2000) refers to Finkelhor and Russell's estimates of the prevalence of female sexual offending, generally considered accurate: for up to 13% of the abuse of females and up to 24% of the abuse of males.

One New Zealand study into female child sex offenders was conducted by Kalders, Inkster and Britt (1997). They collected data on all 25 females charged and convicted with sexual offences against children from 1978 to 1994 inclusive, a much lower prevalence than male child sex offenders in the same period. In 1995, only 1.9% of the female inmate population had sexually offended against children. (In June 2005 this was 1.5 %.) The authors compared the period of 1978-1985 and 1985-1994 and observed an increase in female sex offenders, convictions, age at conviction, sentence length and Pakeha offenders. Closer examination of eight offenders assessed over 1993-1994 revealed that

  • they all co-offended with a male and 25% (n=2) continued to offend independently
  • 69% of the known victims were female
  • all were experiencing psychological problems or relationship stress
  • 37.5% had a current or historical psychiatric disorder
  • only 25% accepted responsibility.

The authors state that some features appear unique to female sex offenders: "their tendency to co-offend, the higher level of incestuous and homosexual offending, past or current diagnosis of psychiatric disorder and reported levels of victimization" (p. 15). For assessment purposes they recommend to assess personality, cognitive functioning, emotional functioning, interpersonal skills, sexual attitudes, beliefs and behaviours and abuse/trauma factors.

Female perpetrators of sexual abuse victimise both male and female children. Recently, more evidence supports the finding that girls "may be the most common victims of women who sexually abuse" (Grayston & De Luca, 1999, p. 95) and that females appear to molest younger children, particularly ones they assume a care giving role for. It is of interest that "most women victimize children in conjunction with an accomplice (usually male), and less frequently initiate abusive incidents without a co-offender" (Grayston & De Luca, 1999, p. 95-96) in contrast to male sex offenders who tend to act alone. Other types of child maltreatment may co-exist with the sexual abuse.

Nathan and Ward (2001) conclude that the similarities between male and female child sex offenders include maltreatment and abuse during childhood; social and attachment deficits; poor adult intimate relationships; grooming patterns; denial and lack of empathy; distorted beliefs regarding children and deviant arousal and substance abuse. Females differ from males as the majority of offences occur in the presence of a male associate; they use less coercive measures; they prefer female victims; there is a higher level of incest; they are more attached to the victims and usually offend against familiar victims (see also Hunter & Mathews, 1997). Of interest is the finding that female sex offenders have a relatively higher incidence of serious mental illness (Adshead, Howelt, & Mason, 1994 as cited in Nathan & Ward, 2001) and mental health problems such as borderline personality disorder, major depression and substance abuse have been found prominent in female sex offenders.

In regards to using violence, "existing evidence suggest that only a minority of female offenders use violence or other force in perpetrating acts of sexual abuse" (Grayston & De Luca, 1999, p. 97). They appear to use persuasion rather than force or threats. However, Atkinson (2000) reported that violence was common amongst incarcerated female sexual offenders. Lewis and Stanley (2000) noted that a higher percentage of women sex offenders used weapons than their male counterparts. It appears relevant to consider the use of violence when assessing sexual female offenders.

Nathan and Ward (2002) and Atkinson (2000) refer to Mathew's typology based on the female offender's motivation to commit sexual offences.

  1. Predisposed: The woman initiates the sexual abuse, motivated by anger and compulsive sexual urges and commits violent and or sadistic offences against young victims.
  2. Teacher/lover: The woman initiates the sexual abuse of an adolescent (usually male), seeking a loving sexual relationship. She often denies the reality of her actions and minimises the impact on her victim. Hostility is absent.
  3. Male-coerced/male accompanied: The woman is compelled or forced into sexual offending, usually against her daughters, motivated by both fear and emotional dependency on her partner. The male accompanied female offender is more active in the abuse and may be motivated by anger and sexual gratification.
  4. Psychologically-disturbed: The woman has long-standing problems of emotional insecurity, poor self-esteem and social isolation. She may be pathologically dependent and willing to initiate or participate in sexual abuse.

Atkinson (2000) has proposed to add "angry/impulsive" and retain male-accompanied as a separate category, with familial and non-familial as subcategories. Nathan and Ward (2002) proposed "male-accompanied: the rejected/revengeful", categorising female sexual offenders whose motives are steered by rejection, jealousy or a desire to seek revenge against a partner and who have not been coerced by a male. Based on clinical experience they have added two more categories. "The compliant victim" refers to women who are psychologically disturbed, have strong dependency needs and are indirectly abusing their children by setting up situations which make abuse more likely (Nathan & Ward, 2001) and "the willing ally/imposter" which refers to women with pathological self-esteem issues, attached to a dominant male with paraphilias and/or anti-social traits, and becoming willing (albeit concealed) allies in the sexual abuse.

Grayston and De Luca (1999) identified female sexual offenders more simply. The passive perpetrators who observe the sexual abuse (but do not intervene), expose children to unacceptable sexual behaviour or procure potential victims for their co-offenders. Active perpetrators participate directly in the abuse and physically engage children in sexual acts (ranging from seductive behaviour, exhibitionism, fondling a child's genitals to invasive acts of penetration, ritualistic abuse and group sex). Another way of classifying female sex offenders is women who co-offend with a male, women who sexually molest teenage boys and women who sexually molest prepubescent children of both genders (Hunter & Mathews, 1997), implying different motives behind the offending such as emotional dependency and poor self-esteem, anger because emotional needs are not met, and PTSD. Grayston and De Luca (1999) state that a consistent or typical pattern regarding motives for committing sexual abuse does not exist.

In summary, violent and sexual offending by females has been avoided or neglected because it challenges fundamental beliefs about women as nurturers, protectors and as victims of violence. Further, the low base rate of violence and sexual offending by women compared to men has contributed to poor attention to this particular offenders group in the research and correctional world. Collectively, research suggests that females are more violent within a domestic context, that the base rate of violence by mentally ill men and women is similar and that the gap between violent boys and violent girls is closing. In respect of sexual offending, collectively, research shows that females appear to sexually abuse more females and younger children they care for, often within the family, they offend with a male co-offender and suffer from serious mental illness. Conflicting research data exist regarding the use of violence by sexual female offenders. A typology of females' motivation to offend sexually is considered useful for (risk) assessment purposes.