The Last Taboo
To other parents on Minneapolis’s downtown 19 bus the mother, in her baggy patterned clothes and frizzed hairstyle, smiling and joshing with their children made them grin proudly. They would beam conspiratorially with her - sharing the bond of motherhood - feeling happy that another mother was taking an interest in their children.
Yet Shelly hid such a dark secret as she clucked and fussed that none of the parents could have even possibly suspected it. “All these sexual fantasies were going through my head about children when I was talking with them on places like the bus,” she admits, in her gentle American mid-west accent. “It was very sexual for me.”
Shelly, a single mother, had her own son. Yet he too had become, “not a child but an object,” she admits. Her maternal instincts had become warped and sexual. Shelly’s not sure when it started but probably when she tried to needlessly breastfeed him at the age of one a half. She would then beat him when he refused.
From there her sexual urges became increasingly powerful over time and the sexual abuse escalated, taking many forms. “I would have him lay on top of me or on my breasts,” she says. “I would put my finger in his rectum and suck on his penis.” Her son, Troy, was aged three.
And while the abuse was at first confined to her son it soon centred on other children too. Her best friend had a one-year old child and asked Shelly if she would mind babysitting while her friend went to night classes. “I had to change his diaper and as soon as I opened it, and he became playful, it started,” she says. “I started to fondle his penis then all of a sudden I stopped and thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
Her reasons for abusing children, particularly her son, are complex. “He was the one thing in my life nobody could take away,” she says. “Even though he was only three, it’s stupid, but I expected him to take care of me. I just wanted to be loved and held and the only way I knew how to get that was to have sex. I felt as though this is how you love someone even if they are a kid.”
Forty-one year old Shelly breaks down after relating her shocking story and as the tears roll down her cheeks she confides what it was like to buck nature and stereotype in going from a mother who is meant to nurture and protect children to one who sexually abuses them. “It was like an addiction,” she says, her voice faltering with emotion. “I felt as though I was a monster and there was nothing I could do to stop.” Her voice trails away completely as it all becomes too much.
On the banks of the Mississippi in the heart of the Midwest, middle America comes to purge itself of its addictions and psychoses. Minneapolis is a city where the locals joke that the Minnesota state number plate, which proudly says that it is the state of 10 000 lakes, should be replaced with the state of 10 000 treatment centres. Alcoholics Anonymous was started here and paved the way for Minneapolis to become the centre of not only alcohol and drug rehab centres but a world-wide centre too for counselling and therapy.
As such over-stressed researchers from confessional shows like Jerry Springer, Oprah and Riccki Lake bombard Minneapolis for ‘victims’ to confess all to the nation. Over the past few years an unassuming address in the south east of the city has been called relentlessly by hungry researchers looking for women who have done things that are guaranteed to drive up the ratings.
Other offices in the small block house lawyers and small businesses. Inside one office it feels like a well-heeled dentist’s waiting room with an air of peculiar ordinariness. Here there are sumptuous brown carpets, pine furniture and cuddly toys which dominate the various rooms. Yet the everyday looks belie the office’s real purpose.
This is the Transition Place, a pioneering clinic where society’s “ultimate taboo” is dealt with. Here women sex offenders, like Shelly, receive treatment for sexually abusing children. And for the first time, in a world exclusive, they have decided to speak out about their motivations and lives. The Transition Place is one of the only clinics in the world to confront a problem that nauseates to such a degree that it has been ignored for generations and only now are professionals even acknowledging that it exists.
“The prosecuting authorities view these women as the devil,” says Jayne Matthews, a fiftyish and deeply compassionate, yet unshockable, psychologist who has made female sex offenders her life’s work. She is a strong family woman who has a long enduring marriage and is now a grandmother. Although she exudes solid, common sense warmth and understanding the dark aspects of her work have taken their toll at times. “Sometimes I can’t sleep thinking about the women,” she says in her soothing tone. “I lie in bed at 1am feeling grateful I have a nice warm bed and a home.”
Since opening the clinic in 1992 she has treated 70 women. Dressed in a homely purple jumper, slacks and oval glasses her work was met with derision if not outright aggression when she started research in 1985. Challenging the received wisdom of males as sexual predators was not easy. “When we gave talks on this to womens’ groups some would just walk out. And we had a lot of problems from feminists who claimed that women were victims not abusers.”
She blames both Hollywood and society’s attitudes for either demonising women who offend against children or just regarding it as the norm. “If a thirty six year old woman sleeps with a fourteen year old boy then the attitude is, ‘Well, that’s every boys dream,’” she says. “But it causes emotional turmoil. In popular culture it is not regarded as a crime. Hollywood has this idea in films like a Touch of Class that it is just great fun.”
The statistics demonstrate just how wide-ranging and dangerous the effects are. An academic study in 1984 showed that a staggering 59% of serial rapists who raped women over 17 had been abused by a woman in their past.
Yet just how many women abusers there are is not known. “It is difficult to see the size of this,” she says. “It is too early to say.” Jacqui Saradjian is the UK’s leading expert and author of Women Who Sexually Abuse Children. “For years this has been swept under the carpet,” she says. “We don’t know the scale of this but if you look at conviction rates – 2 – 4% of sexual offenders are women. But if you look at the number of victims there is a far, far higher percentage than that who have been abused by women.”
And around the world, with the authorities increasingly vigilant about sex crime, law enforcement officers are already noticing a growing trend in that women abuse children too. Sgt Keith Daniels of the Ottawa-Carleton police in Canada says he has noticed a change. “In the time I have been doing my job female abusers never even figured. Now they seem to be getting far more prevalent.”
One of the first women I meet at the centre is Ruth, 48, an articulate ex-schoolteacher with bleached blonde highlights and dressed in a denim skirt and shirt. She has been demonised in her local town and her crime shocked the local community to such an extent that she has appeared on the front page of the regional paper eight times under the most vitriolic headlines.
She abused a sixteen year old girl who became her foster daughter. Ruth taught at the local high school and had special responsibility for the trouble makers. She was in charge of setting them back on the right track. Claire, 14, had been sexually abused by her entire family and fell upon Ruth as a confidante. The relationship got stronger and Claire would leave notes for Ruth telling her that she loved her. Ruth helped as much as she could but her own marriage was in severe difficulties as her husband worked some way away and was largely absent. She was bringing up two young children under the age of five virtually on her own. As a consequence she was taking treatment for severe depression.
In time, Claire had such problems at home that she spent more and more time with Ruth and her family, eventually moving in permanently. But as the relationship went on Ruth crossed the line. “At first I was flattered,” she says. “Later we would sit on the couch and she would want to hold my hand as she told me things about my childhood. We would cry and become very touchy feely and then more involved sexually. Initially it felt good like any teenage sex but afterwards you go into real guilt. I would ask her and she would say it was OK. ” Ruth admits that she instigated the sex. “She would brush my hair and that would stimulate me. I just felt so sorry for her.”
Claire was sixteen when Ruth first had full lesbian sex with her which continued over the next two years. Sometimes at night she would leave the bed she shared with her husband and creep in to Ruth’s room to have sex. “I was the adult and should have known the boundaries but being in the vulnerable position I was in I didn’t,” she says. I was enamoured with this person and I was so sensitive to her problems that this caring overflowed into other boundaries. She was maybe looking for a friend of her own age and because of my own vulnerability my mental age may have matched hers.”
Ruth denies she was ever interested in sex with children or bought “nudey magazines or went on the internet looking for pictures.” She grew up in a stable middle class family and had no lesbian inclinations. Ruth says, “I guess we just loved each other.”
Eventually the sex stopped but it wasn’t until thirteen years later that Claire decided to go public with stories of her abuse. In a bizarre twist it became apparent that Ruth’s husband had also had sex several times with Claire. The case went to court and Ruth and her husband were both sentenced to a year in the county jail. Despite it all, and being ordered to pay their victim $38 000 and with other legal debts, they have managed to stay together. Both have lost their teaching jobs and are now working in more menial positions. Yet their children have stood by them throughout. Says Ruth now, “There is no rationalising why we did what we did. We knew we were the bad guys and it wasn’t right. We tried to make sense of it at the time but we were just trying to push a square peg into a round hole.”
The motivation behind these women’s crimes fits into three categories according to Jayne Matthews. They range from the teacher-lover who has had unsatisfying sexual relationships with adults and finds a child who does not have the brutal characteristics of an adult male that she can mould through sex into being the man of her dreams. The last two are those who are pre-disposed to abuse because they in turn were abused in their childhood and those that are coerced by a male. Yet coercion is far rarer than imagined among female sex offenders. In a recent study in the UK, 70% of women acted alone when they committed their crimes.
Most women, like Elsie, act on their own. After four years in nearby Shakopee prison Elsie was released recently. She’s a woman in her early forties with greying hair scraped back in a ponytail and wears a red and white striped sweat shirt. She’s nervous at first as she begins to recount her story which she knows will stun.
Her son Daniel, she says, was ten and like other young children his age, was scared of thunderstorms. They lived on their own in Minneapolis and one night he crawled into her bed late at night as a storm howled in off the surrounding lakes and battered their apartment. Yet Daniel, terrified of the storm, was not going to get the sanctuary he needed in his mothers bed. “I was in a half asleep and half awake state and I had sex with him,” says Elsie.
The next morning her son didn’t react at all and it led Elise to believe it wasn’t the first time it had happened. It was because most of her time was spent either high or drunk and she thinks the abuse may have started much earlier. Elsie had worked as a call girl, smoked crack and abused alcohol and other drugs. Men never stayed with her in relationships and she had a string of one night stands over many years. Her life was a mess she admits. “I started taking everything out on my son, even my sexual frustrations.”
The abuse continued for years. If Elsie brought a man back from a bar she would lock her bedroom door, if not then the abuse might happen. “When I didn’t have somebody in my life my son became a substitute,” she says. “At first I couldn’t believe I was capable of it and I would drink or pill it away as long as I felt it didn’t happen.” But it would keep re-occurring.
She saw her ten year old son as an equal. As such the maternal instincts and close bond between mother and son were perverted. “He was never a child to me and I would never let him grow up,” she explains. He was very much the man around the house. I don’t remember him resisting and he was always very protective of this mother and would hate it when other men came here and started to weasel their way in. A lot of it was loneliness and wanting to be wanted, loved, and he was totally accepting of me.”
During this time Elsie also had sex with a 13 year old friend of her son’s, which she maintains he instigated against her will but she, as the adult, was culpable. And on another occasion her cousin came round with her fourteen year old daughter. Talk centered on the young girl relating a story about how she had had sexual intercourse with boys in her neighbourhood. Elise had a 4” vibrator in her apartment and Elsie and the mother watched as the girl demonstrated what had happened using the sex aid. Despite all this Elsie believes “it was never a child thing” she suffered from. “My sexual fantasies don’t revolve around children,” she says. “All I knew was that if you loved somebody you had sex with them.”
Elise fits the typical category of teacher/lover. Most women offenders are different to males because they don’t generally have multiple victims. And the paedophile tag cannot be applied in the majority of cases because women’s motivations are different. Often women’s actions stem tend to stem from misplaced love. “It was a relationship with my son and there was a closeness and a bond there,” explains Elsie. “
Elsie was soon to be stopped by the authorities. Around the time Daniel was aged 14 he was sexually molested by a stranger in the neighbourhood swimming pool. He told his mother who insisted he prosecute and the authorities were called in. The subsequent trial saw the man convicted but in the wake of it Daniel confessed to a friend that he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “My mom does it to me all the time,” he confided.
Shortly after Elsie was caught. It was a strange relief for her. Her mind wasn’t clouded any more by drugs or alcohol and she began to see what she had done. “The best thing that ever happened to me was to get arrested and to go to prison and realise I had choices,” she says now. “If not I know to this day I would still be doing it and abusing drugs and alcohol. I was on the road to destruction and I was taking my son with me.”
She was convicted of first degree criminal sexual conduct and sentenced to six years in prison. The other two incidents were taken into account and her son taken into protective custody. Elsie wanted to spare him the pain of a public trail so she pleaded guilty immediately.
While in prison Elsie couldn’t believe what she had done. “Every day we hear on the news that some sexual offence has gone on and that man should be castrated, shot or locked up for life,” she says. “Well I was one of those people.” And in an even darker twist, Daniel, now aged twenty, is on criminal charges of abusing his younger female cousin.
And it is here that many stories of female sex abusers tally and follow a pattern that they have been abused in childhood. It provides some illustration of the motivation for these women to commit such heinous crimes. Yet it is important to state that not all those who were abused grow up to be abusers.
Yet as Elsie says, “I had become the monster my step-dad was.” Like her son, Elsie has a mirroring story of the most horrendous sexual abuse as a child. In Elsie’s case it is ironic to note that she stopped abusing him when he was 14, around the same age her step father stopped abusing her.
As a child growing up on a farm in California her step-father, an alcoholic repeatedly raped her over a number of years starting from when she was seven. When she threatened to tell her mother, he made her watch him kill her pet rabbit that she had been given for Easter and then laid it out on the kitchen table. He then raped her while she was forced to look at the bloody carcass. She was aged around eleven at the time. He said he would cut her throat the in the same way if she told anyone.
Another time he broke her ankles when she lashed out after his advances, telling her mother that Elsie had fallen down stairs. The abuse only briefly relented when he got her pregnant at the age of 13. He took her on a business trip and paid a man $50 to abort the foetus in a hotel room. The abuse started up again a few months later but to Elsie’s relief he later died shortly afterwards along with the sexual abuse
At times when the abuse was at its worst Elsie agonised over giving up her son for adoption, knowing that what she was doing was wrong. Today Elsie, she faces an agonising decision. “I spoke to him recently and he said maybe I didn’t make all the right choices but he understood where it came from but despite that I was still his mother and he loved me,” she says, her voice cracking and tears streaking her face. And while her son may face criminal charges for sexual abuse himself, showing that what Elsie has done could have implications for further generations, Elsie has to make a decision every mother dreads. She thinks it may be better for her son if they are not reunited for his welfare. “I would love him to be a part of my life again but I don’t know if it’s the best thing for him.”
As such she claims to have no desire to re-offend. “It’s not anything I want to get myself involved in again,” she says. “Not that I am afraid of the consequences its just that I could not put anyone else through all that again. I’ve hurt enough people already. In the long run if I did perpetrate again I’d be hurting myself more than anyone else not to mention all the people who have helped me come this far.”
Elsie’s story shares similarities with Shelly’s, the woman who abused her three year old son. Her father repeatedly raped and abused her from the age of seven or eight. The abuse got progressively worse over time. Shelly was thirteen when her father made her pregnant. The first she knew of it was when she began bleeding and miscarried. “I wanted to die and I never thought I could make it through each day,” she says. She made numerous suicide attempts and her only respite was staying with her grandparents in the school holidays. Yet when she confided in her grandfather, whom she loved and trusted, he sexually abused her too.
When her son was born, after she had broken off the relationship with the father, her parents visited her in hospital. It was her father’s birthday. “He came in and said ‘this is the best birthday present I could ever have,’” she says. “ I cringed.” The thought of him abusing her son as well was too much.
Shelly too began abusing drugs and alcohol and was in an alcoholic half-way house when she started abusing Stephen. She began to hit him so he would cry and clamour for her attention and love. “I wanted him to need me,” she says. Then the sexual abuse started and Shelly thought: “Well my Dad got away with it so so will I.”
Yet the guilt became overriding. Shelly confessed to her therapist who was required by state law to tell the authorities. Child protection officers were called in and Stephen was interviewed. “I thought well what would a three year old remember?” says Shelly. “Afterwards I saw the report and was devastated. He remembered everything and things I don’t even remember doing.”
Shelly says with bitter self-loathing: “I was trying him to protect him from anyone else but the reality is I had to protect him from myself. The case against Shelly was not enough to send her to prison but as she began treatment and Stephen was taken into protective custody she remembers thinking: “I was bringing him up with the same abuse I had. How did it start and how did I end up here?”
Yet victims of female sexual abuse have to suffer in silence, often more tightly gagged more than those who are abused by a male, as simply nobody believes them or that is how they feel people will respond. When Donna Bouchard decided to go public after ten years to instigate criminal proceedings against her former teacher Margaret Carruthers for sexually abusing her in her teens it split the local community in Debden, a remote village of 400 near Prince Albert in central Canada where she lived.
“Some people minimised the crime,” says Donna. “To hear that a woman was the perpetrator of sexual assault doesn’t conjure up the same images for people as it does to hear a man sexually assaulted someone. It seems somehow less invasive, destructive or traumatic. And, yet, precisely because I was abused by a female, I think that it was much more insidious, violating, and more difficult to reconcile with my life experience.” As the case got underway and Donna went public the local people at first thought it was just a teenage lesbian crush. “Society doesn’t want to hear that women commit these sort of crimes – it’s unthinkable.”
Donna was first abused at the age of 14 by her teacher in 1983. Donna like many other victims felt compelled to live with the abuse in silence. “I knew I didn’t like what she was doing but I just thought that meant there was something wrong with me,” she says. “I felt dirty, betrayed, ashamed, guilty, scared and so very alone.” Donna tried to commit suicide twice in 1986 at the height of the abuse.
A police investigation was launched after another pupil at the school complained of abuse. Donna was contacted and had to confront her abuser wearing a wire the police had concealed in her clothing to get the evidence they needed. Margaret Carruthers was eventually convicted of sexual assault and received two years in the local jail.
The trial was painful for Donna and overcoming stereotypes as males as abusers made it “frustrating.” Says Donna: “The criminal code reflects the stereotype that men are the perpetrators of sexual assault. All of it is prejudicial in a way. Had my offender been male it certainly would have been easier to explain or understand, less humiliating or degrading too.”
Yet back in Minneapolis the women who are responsible for these crimes have gone public in Marie Claire to educate society and prevent this from happening. They know the shock their crimes will cause and when this piece appears they may well get flak too for being so open. And for that reason I admired their bravery. Many times during our interviews they would break down in tears, the past incredibly painful for them. But they were not tears for what had been inflicted on them in the way of sexual abuse or the court system and jail. Rather, the pain they had inflicted on their victims. I would offer to turn the tape recorder off but they would insist on carrying on, their only desire to educate so that one of society’s last taboos can be recognised and dealt with.
This is a small step as abusers like their victims feel there is no way to get help. “I didn’t know I had options and there were places like this I could come to,” says Shelly. All the women made efforts once caught to seek counselling specifically geared to female abusers. And it works too. Of the 70 women Jayne Matthews has treated since 1985 only one has gone on to re-offend. All the women I spoke to categorically denied they had any interest in re-offending. I believed them.
In the UK the problem is just starting to be tackled. The first treatment programme for women sex offenders opened at Styal prison in Cheshire in February this year Detective Chief Inspector Bob McLachlan of Scotland Yard’s Paedophilia Unit has noticed the new trend but is fighting the misconception that it simply doesn’t happen. “We have heard so many anecdotes of sexual offenders who are women but very little has been proven. So little work has been done on it because there hasn’t been deemed to be a need.”
As such myths and murky stories abound. “We have heard that women sex tourists travel out to the far east and find young boys who are given erection inducing drugs,” he says. “And also that all this first came to light in the 70’s when women went to the Caribbean and ensnared children on the beaches. It’s difficult to corroborate these stories without witnesses.”
Although research into the area is so new, other frightening statistics are emerging. One study by Ken Lanning formerly of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit found that in several hundred child sex ring cases, approximately 40 – 50% of offenders were women.
Yet the dark underbelly of the problem may become fully apparent only later. Women who are like the classic male paedophile have yet to be found. But, says Jane Matthews, “I think that they are out there though.”
*All names of offenders and victims in this article have been changed to protect their identities except Donna and her abuser.