Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 0(0), 1 – 43.
This study explored the impacts of offender gender on judge perceptions of female versus male sex offender and found that there were unique differences that could explain more lenient sentences for females.
Current reported prevalence rates indicate that females commit approximately 4%–5% of all sexual offences worldwide. There is growing recognition that females engage in harmful sexual behavior that is similar in severity and type to males. Specifically, current prevalence rates indicate that females commit approximately 4%–5% of all sexual offences worldwide. Despite evidence that sexual offences committed by females have similar physical psychological impacts on victims (Kaufman, 2010), sexual offending by women is often perceived as less harmful (Denov, 2001). Moreover, in terms of sentencing outcomes, researchers in the UK and USA have found that FSOs are less likely to be sentenced to prison (Blackwell et al., 2008; Rodriguez et al., 2006; Sandler & Freeman, 2011; Shields & Cochran, 2020) than are MSOs, and that FSOs receive shorter sentences than do their male counterparts (Blackwell et al., 2008; Shields & Cochran, 2020; Weinsheimer et al., 2017)
Existing research, however, suggests that there is a bias towards leniency in judicial systems for female sexual offenders (FSOs) in comparison to male sexual offenders (MSOs). Specifically, FSOs receive shorter sentences than do MSOs and are less likely to be sentenced to prison. The majority of research examining disparity in sentence outcomes for FSOs have been analyzed through a quantitative lens. Qualitative methodology is also needed to understand any subjective differences in the way that judges perceive case-relevant factors and whether these perceptions differ as a function of the offender’s gender.
The present study examined judges’ perceptions and descriptions of FSO compared to MSO in 10 matched cases of sexual offending. The study found that although there were many similarities in how judges perceived FSO compared to MSO, there were also unique differences that could explain more lenient sentences for FSOs (i.e., the vulnerability, poor mental health and adverse backgrounds of FSOs). Other unique differences found were that judges’ perception of FSOs behavior was described as depraved and whereas MSOs similar behavior was not described in such an emotive way. The present study provides additional insight into the reasons for a bias towards leniency for FSOs. In particular, it points towards judicial focus on particular personal circumstances that are seen as relevant in sentencing FSOs but not for MSOs.