Ottawa

Female perpetrators shatter social stereotypes of sexual assault, expert says

When women are charged with sexual assault it flies in the face of society's expectations about aggressors and victims, according to an Ottawa law professor.

'We shouldn't be dismissive, and we shouldn't laugh and joke about it'

Constance Backhouse, a University of Ottawa law professor, says there's a lot of fascination with cases of sexual assault involving female perpetrators because they happen far less often. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

When women are charged with sexual assault it flies in the face of society's expectations about aggressors and victims, according to an Ottawa law professor.

"We're used to hearing stories about men sexually abusing women or younger men; we're not used to hearing stories about a female teacher and a student. So it's like a train wreck: people are just drawn in, they can't take their eyes away," says Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in sexual assault legislation.

Our ingrained "cultural script" often dictates than men gain points for having sex, while women lose points, Backhouse says. As a result, the tendency is to dismiss cases of women sexually assaulting people as somehow less troubling.

"A lot of times people hear about these very isolated cases of an adult woman having sexual activities or conduct with a younger man, and they jump to conclusions and they say, 'Well, what's the harm in that?' And they joke about it," she says.

"We shouldn't be dismissive, and we shouldn't laugh and joke about it."

'Life-long repercussions'

In fact the victims of sexual assault by female perpetrators are often just as emotionally damaged as victims of male perpetrators, a fact Backhouse knows from her experience dealing with male victims subjected to "incredible harm."
Ottawa police spokesman Const. Chuck Benoit says cases of sexual assault involving female perpetrators affect the victims just as much as in cases involving male perpetrators. (CBC)

"Because we hear these stories so rarely, we don't really even understand why that is, but many of them have explained that it distorted their ability to have healthy relationships with other women or men, that it distorted their sense of themselves, that they felt incredibly intruded upon and betrayed, that they couldn't trust anymore, and that it had life-long repercussions," Backhouse says.

"It's surprising to many to hear that, but we ought to be starting to recognize more clearly that these kinds of crossings of boundaries are just wrong."

Const. Chuck Benoit, an Ottawa police spokesperson, agrees.

"There's a sexist kind of a thing behind the male student and a female teacher that might be an old myth, an old thing, that people think it doesn't affect the young child. But it does," he said.

"... It doesn't matter what age or sex you are, it affects your growing. You're still growing at that age, you're still maturing, and at that period in time ... you need some innocence and to not be affected by some criminality like this, and by a person of [authority]."