Developing assessment and treatment practices for female sexual offenders
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Kent
Unit of AssessmentPsychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Clinical Sciences, Public Health and Health Services
Studies In Human Society: Criminology
Summary of the impact
This impact case study is based on a body of research that has enhanced
the assessment and treatment of female sexual offenders internationally.
This clinical impact was underpinned by a series of unique qualitative and
quantitative studies that led to the discovery of female sexual offenders'
offence styles and cognitive characteristics. The work has resulted in the
development of effective clinical practice training and guidelines. It has
been used by professionals to enhance their assessment and treatment of
female sexual offenders whose specific needs had not previously been
The research outlined in this case study was funded by the Economic and
Social Research Council and conducted by Professor Theresa Gannon (at Kent
from 2005 - present) between 2006 and 2010. It examined female sexual
offenders and their modus operandi using psychological methods never
before applied to this group. In the first study, Professor Gannon and
colleagues interviewed half of the imprisoned female sexual offender
population in Britain and used novel qualitative grounded theory methods
to develop the first female-specific theory of sexual offending (Gannon et
al., 2008). This study highlighted several new gender-specific risk
factors for sexual abuse that are not present in male sexual offenders.
This study was published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and
Treatment (ranked 3/52 in Criminology and Penology in ISI Thompson).
In a follow-up analysis of this model, Gannon and colleagues (2010) found
that female sexual offenders followed three main `pathways' or
trajectories to offending. While one of these pathways was found to be
similar to that previously reported in male sexual offenders, the others
were unique to women. This research illustrated how the factors causing
women to start, and then to continue, offending against children differ
from those that underpin sexual offending by males. In particular, this
research highlighted the existence of a Directed-Coerced Pathway (i.e.,
women whose sexual abuse is directed specifically by males and maintained
via coercion and intimidation). A further pathway highlighted in the model
was termed Implicit Disorganised. These women did not appear to set out
specifically to sexually offend but — upon making contact with a victim
and experiencing sexual arousal or emotional loneliness — offended
impulsively. Gannon and colleagues' research showed that identifying these
subtypes of female sexual offender is crucial for effective therapy since
each subtype will have greatly differing treatment needs. For example,
Directed-Coerced women are likely to require intervention on their passive
personality styles. In contrast, Implicit-Disorganised women are likely to
require intervention to assist them in regulating impulses. This work is
incorporated in the latest book aimed at practitioners who work with
sexual offenders (Gannon & Cortoni, 2010).
In a later series of studies, Professor Gannon and colleagues further
elucidated the cognitive characteristics of female sexual offenders using
a series of cognitive-experimental techniques never before adapted for use
with female sexual offenders (e.g., a time recorded memory recognition
task also published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and
Treatment; and an Implicit Association Test; Gannon et al., 2009).
In these studies, Gannon and her colleagues discovered that — unlike male
sexual offenders — females did not cognitively sexualise children.
However, female sexual offenders did evidence a distinct distrust of males
that led them to interpret males' ambiguous behaviours in a highly
threatening manner. This finding was important since it suggested that
female sexual offenders' cognitive bias concerning men may `disable` them
from behaving more assertively when coerced by a man to sexually abuse
children. In a subsequent follow up study, Gannon and colleagues (2012)
examined female sexual offenders' self-reported offence-supportive
cognitions and compared them to those documented in the male literature.
Several important differences were discovered of paramount importance in
providing gender-informed cognitive assessment and therapy for female
As noted by the Director General of Women Offender Sector, Correctional
Prior to the research by Gannon and colleagues, virtually no studies
focused on females in particular and many program or study descriptions
even fail to indicate the gender of the participant or the subject group;
the assumption of the offender as male is implicit.
As a result of this limitation of previous research:
sex offender assessment and intervention strategies have been developed
and implemented for the male prototype, with little or no consideration of
potential female- specific pathways or typologies. (section 5, item 2)
The research underpinning this impact case study addresses these
limitations and has led to important enhancements of the assessment and
treatment of this offender group.
References to the research
Gannon, T.A., Rose, M.R., & Ward, T. (2008). A descriptive model of
the offense process for female sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse: A
Journal of Research and Treatment, 20, 352-374. doi:
10.1177/1079063208322495 (see REF2)
Gannon, T.A., & Rose, M R. (2009). Offence-related interpretative
bias in female child molesters: A preliminary study. Sexual Abuse: A
Journal of Research and Treatment, 21, 194-207. doi:
10.1177/1079063209332236 (see REF2)
Gannon, T.A., Rose, M.R., & Williams, S.E. (2009). Do female child
molesters hold implicit associations between children and sex? A
preliminary investigation. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 15,
55-61. doi: 10.1080/13552600802452559
Gannon, T.A., & Cortoni, F. (2010). Female sexual offenders:
Theory, assessment, & practice. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Gannon, T.A., Rose, M.R., & Ward, T. (2010). Pathways to female
sexual offending: A preliminary study. Psychology Crime and Law, 16,
359-380. doi: 10.1080/10683160902754956
Gannon, T.A., Hoare, J., Rose, M. R., & Parrett, N. (2012). A
re-examination of female child molesters` implicit theories: Evidence of
female specificity? Psychology, Crime and Law, 18, 209- 224. doi:
Gannon, T.A. ESRC; What were they thinking: The cognition of women sex
offenders. (ES/E0048221/1); 1 Dec 2006 - 31 July 2008; Award made:
Details of the impact
This research has swiftly led to impact on the assessment and treatment
of offenders in the UK and internationally. Since 2010, a number of
practitioner organisations worldwide (including both correctional and
non-government organisations) have used Professor Gannon's research
findings to inform their training, assessment and treatment practices. For
example, the Correctional Service of Canada — one of the few worldwide
correctional facilities to provide group female sexual offender treatment
— now incorporate Gannon and colleagues' (2010, 2012) pathways into their
training materials for all new facilitators who work with female sexual
offenders (section 5, item 2). The research is used to guide clinicians in
their evaluation and assessment of specific offence styles so that
offenders' particular treatment needs may be identified more readily
(section 5, item 1). The Lucy Faithfull Foundation (a UK non-government
child protection charity) provides all of their professionals with
training in the assessment of female sexual offenders using Professor
Gannon and colleagues' pathways research (section 5, item 4). Similarly,
in the USA, a number of states that provide assessment and treatment for
female sexual offenders use the pathways research (e.g., Gannon et al.,
2008) to aid them in their conceptualisation and assessment of female
clients' treatment needs. For example, Assessment and Treatment
Alternatives Inc. Philadelphia (a non-profit forensic mental health
clinic) use the pathways research to underpin treatment assessment for
each individual client.
Arizona Corrections, USA also use the pathways work and research on
female sexual offenders' cognitive characteristics to underpin assessment
and to structure therapeutic sessions with female sexual offenders. One of
their Clinical Psychologists (section 5, item 3) states that Gannon and
colleagues' pathways model:
provides a key guide for (1) how I approach my assessment of female
sexual offenders (i.e., how I identify particular styles of female sex
offender and their likely treatment targets), and also (2) how I approach
the difficult task of structuring topics addressed throughout therapy. I
have also used Gannon's research on the cognitive constructs associated
with female sexual offending (i.e., Gannon, Hoare, Rose, & Parrett
2012) throughout my practice to structure discussions with female sex
offender clients about their risky thought processes... Therefore, I use
the pathways model to assist female sex offenders to look at the
developmental life pathway they took that brought them to prison. The
pathways model is notable here since it provides women with a model that
is actually based on female sex offenders' own reflections and so
highlights several gender relevant issues that we can discuss and explore
(e.g., sexual development, abuse at the hands of males, childcare
responsibilities, attitudes that develop toward males).
In a summary of research and practice in the area of female sexual
offending, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
(NSPCC) (section 5, item 5, p. 9) cited Gannon and colleagues' (2008) work
as being key in understanding the differences between male and female
sexual abusers. The NSPCC described the work representing "a clear step
forward in informing the assessment and treatment of women" (p. 29). This
work (as well as Gannon et al., 2012; Gannon & Rose, 2009) has been
cited in numerous practitioner resources for use in treating female sexual
offenders (e.g., Section 5, item 6), NSPCC resources regarding practical
safeguarding of children (section 5, item 7), and has also been cited in
`additional guidance' for civil servants dealing with female child sexual
offender disclosure requests (section 5, item 8).
Further impact has been generated via dissemination to practitioner
professionals. For example, in 2010 Professor Gannon was invited by the
National Organisation for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (NOTA; a UK
sexual abuse practitioner organisation hosting an international
conference) to provide a keynote address to approximately 200 attendees
regarding her complete body of research on female sexual offenders
(section 5, item 9).
There appears to be a deficit in public understanding of the prevalence
of sexual abuse committed by women. The extent and seriousness of the
abuse may not be fully appreciated. As a result, victims may feel unable
to report the abuse making it more difficult for professionals to detect
and address the needs of victims of this abuse. For this reason, Professor
Gannon has sought to use her research to heighten public awareness of this
unrecognised form of abuse. For example, in 2009, Professor Gannon took
advantage of an invitation to provide online commentary for The Guardian
`Comment is Free' online forum, which raised public awareness of female
sexual offenders` characteristics and resulted in members of the public
discussing the issue of female sexual offenders online (section 5, item
Sources to corroborate the impact
Contact details for source 4 (which is not available on the submission
system due to the number of sources that can be entered) can be obtained
by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
and all sources can be obtained by emailing the same address.
- Statement to corroborate use of the pathways research in Canada
Corrections. Director General. Canada Corrections.
- Fortin, D. (2012). Women who have sexually offended and risk
managing women who sexually offend training materials: Correctional
Service of Canada. Available from the Manager, Interventions and
Policy, Women Offender Sector, Correctional Service of Canada.
- Statement confirming use of the pathways research in Arizona
Corrections. Clinical Psychologist, Arizona Corrections.
- The Lucy Faithfull Foundation. Specialist assessment, intervention,
training and case advice (Adult female sexual offender training).
Contact Lucy Faithfull Foundation or see Ashfield, S. (2011). Female
sexual abusers: Facts and fiction. Lucy Faithfull Foundation.
- NSPCC (2011). Sexual abuse: A public health challenge. UK:
- Ashfield, S. (2010). Female sexual abusers-a gender responsive
perspective. Lucy Faithfull Foundation, or Eldridge, H. (2011). Good
practice in working with women who sexually abuse children. Lucy
- Erooga, M. (2009). Towards safer organisations. Adults who pose a
risk to children in the workplace and implications for recruitment and
selection. NSPCC Report. Available from www.nspcc.org.uk/inform.
- Home Office (2010). The child sex offender disclosure scheme.
Additional guidance in relation to requests for disclosure where the
subject of the application is female. Home Office.
- Gannon (2010). Keynote Address: Female sexual offenders:
Developments and innovations. National Organisation for the
Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Belfast.
- Gannon (2009). It`s not just men who sexually abuse. The Guardian.
Comment is free. Available from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/10/female-sexual-abuserschildren.