Female Sex Offenders Drawing Increased Scrutiny

Times Staff Writer

A casual observer of the news might think there was an epidemic of molestation cases involving women against boys.

Last week, a former Orange County middle school teacher was sentenced to six years in prison for committing lewd acts with boys. The same day, a seventh-grade teacher in Kern County pleaded not guilty to two counts of annoying and molesting a minor.

The next day, a probation officer was arrested on suspicion of having sex with a 17-year-old ward whom she met while working at a correctional facility in Fresno County.

Since November at least eight California cases have made the news, involving women either being accused or convicted of sexually exploiting boys. Most of the perpetrators were teachers or other school personnel.


In reality, the phenomenon is not new, sociologists and criminal psychologists say, nor is there a growing trend.

Statistics from the California attorney general’s office show that the number of females convicted of sex offenses in the state averaged 386 per year between 2000 and 2004, a number in keeping with previous years. The average figure for men committing similar crimes during the same time period was more than 9,000.

It is unclear how the figures for California’s female sex offenders compare to other states, because there is no nationwide information on the number of women who sexually abuse children, according to officials at the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

More cases of women molesting boys might be making headlines because of stricter law enforcement and the realization that boys, not just girls, can be victims of sexual misconduct, experts agree.

“People are more willing to report these incidents if they hear about them,” said David Finkelhof, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Police are more willing to investigate them; prosecutors more willing to prosecute them; newspapers more willing to write about them.”

“Everybody used to think that a 15-year-old male who got together with a 25-year-old female was just lucky,” said Carla F. Grabert, a deputy district attorney in Kern County, who prosecutes unlawful sexual intercourse and statutory rape cases.

“But I think we are noticing a change of perception with the publicity that has happened nationwide,” she said. “It gets thought about more. If it’s publicized more, it generates conversation. There is a lot of talk about it.”

In addition, studies show that there has been an overall decrease in sex crimes nationwide, so “criminal justice authorities have been freed up to investigate and prosecute cases that they would not have been able to do otherwise,” Finkelhof said.

The Orange County middle school teacher sentenced last week, Sarah Bench-Salorio, 29, pleaded guilty in September to 29 counts of lewd conduct with boys. One of her victims was 12 years old when they met.

The Kern County teacher, Sherry Brians, 41, was charged with two counts of annoying and molesting a minor -- a crime that carries a year jail term, a $1,000 fine, or both. She pleaded not guilty to the charges. Her alleged victim also was 12.

On Dec. 22, Jennifer Lynn Sanchez, a 31-year-old math teacher, also in Kern County, was charged with four counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 17-year-old student, and one count each of oral copulation and sodomy with the same student. A few days earlier, a former San Bernardino high school secretary pleaded guilty to statutory rape, also involving a 17-year-old pupil.

Grabert, the Kern County deputy district attorney, said that of the 20 to 25 sex crimes cases she prosecutes each quarter, on average, one-fifth of them involved female sex offenders.

Staff and students at Buttonwillow School, where Brians taught, expressed shock over her arrest.

“I was just stunned,” said James Murphy, the school’s principal, who described Brians as a teacher “adored” by faculty and students. “There was no indication whatsoever that could be considered that the alleged actions were committed by that person.”

But some sociologists and psychologists say that fascination still tends to outweigh outrage among the general public when it comes to reports of female sexual predators.

Cases involving older teenagers having sex with an older woman are often viewed as a “coming-of-age scenario,” said Paul G. Mattiuzzi, a Sacramento-based clinical forensic psychologist, who has testified in several court cases involving sex crimes.

Often, he said, boys are less willing to admit that they are being taken advantage of, because having sex with a mature female is “seen more as a badge of honor.”

But, Mattiuzzi added, when the victim is pre-pubescent, the public reaction generally tends to be less tolerant.

“That is just plain child molestation,” the psychologist said. “You’re talking about some kind of sickness or pathology on the part of the perpetrator.”

Jennifer Manlove, a sociologist and senior research associate at Child Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that studies adolescent sexual activity, said that although cases involving women and preteen boys are quite rare, “when [they] turn up, they make news a little more, because they are so extreme.”

The high-profile 1990s case of Mary Kay Letourneau, the former Seattle schoolteacher who was jailed for having sex with a 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, helped focus attention on boys as sexual victims.

But the fact that the pair had two children together and married after the 43-year-old Letourneau’s release from prison, underscored that Fualaau, now 22, was a willing participant, sociologists said. And as a result, the revulsion and objection that was originally directed at Letourneau may have dissipated.

Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said the news media is partly responsible for generating the fascination of female sex offenders among the general public because it has failed to adopt a code of gender neutrality in pedophile coverage.

Reports about male sex offenders include words like “predator” or “monster,” Felling said, while in stories involving female offenders words like “bombshell” and “romp” are common.

“There is a huge dichotomy in coverage. Men are demonized, while women are diagnosed,” said Felling, whose group conducts content analysis of the news media.

The entertainment industry has also heightened the allure of older women having sex with much younger males, through films and television shows like “Desperate Housewives,” sociologists said.

Although the law dictates equal punishment for men and women who commit sex crimes against children, legal experts said that a double standard often applies when dealing with female offenders, who are often treated more leniently.

Former Tampa schoolteacher Debra Lafave, who admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old student, recently avoided prison as part of a plea agreement. Lafave, 25, will instead serve three years of house arrest and seven years’ probation.

And last November, Sacramento high school teaching intern Margaret De Barraicua, the 31-year-old mother of a 2-year-old boy, was sentenced to a year in jail for having sex with a special education student 15 years her junior.

Prosecutors had wanted De Barraicua to register as a sex offender in order to prevent her from becoming a teacher again. But the judge declined to impose the penalty, providing that De Barraicua abides by the terms of her five-year probation.

Finkelhof, the university researcher, said punishment is often more lenient for female child sex offenders because women are generally less likely to have a prior history of such offenses; they typically do not use violence or weapons as part of their offense; and it is less common for women to have serial sexual offending tendencies.

The public perception is that women pose less of a threat than men, Finkelhof said.

And, said Mattiuzzi, lawyers, when defending a female against sex offense charges, often argue that their clients used romantic bad judgment.

Paul Logli, an Illinois prosecutor and president of the National District Attorneys Assn., sees a double standard in sentencing as well.

“There is no question it’s more likely that as a case winds its way through the court, in more cases the woman is going to get probation, whereas the man, under the same circumstances, is going to get prison,” he said.