The young woman looks into the camera from behind a pair of oversize wire-rimmed glasses. Her name, according to YouTube, is “Jamie X,” and her voice is soft as she explains what she is about to do: Call a former teacher who started raping her when she was 12 years old, and get some answers.
The entire conversation lasts under three minutes, but it is heart wrenching. Jamie receives no apology or solace. “Do you realize that you brainwashed me and manipulated me and that what you did was wrong?” Jamie asks her abuser. After a lengthy pause, the teacher replies: “Yes. And I regret it. I only just wanted to help you.”
Hours after it was posted on January 17, Jamie’s video went viral. Viewers were shocked, not only by Jamie’s bravery or the teacher’s hangdog, too-little-too-late admission of guilt—or by the fact that the teacher was still working with children as an assistant principal. The biggest surprise was that Jamie’s abuser was her female middle-school basketball coach. And she assaulted Jamie for years.
The idea that sexual crimes can be committed by women against victims of any gender is incredibly unpopular. Few want to imagine that the “fairer sex” can be abusers, rapists, and pedophiles. Excuses like the one Jamie’s former teacher made (“I was only trying to help you!”) abound: “She got a little carried away is all.” “She didn’t hurt you, so it’s okay.” “Maybe she was just lonely.” “Women can’t rape; they don’t have the equipment!” Those who have been sexually assaulted by a woman or girl have likely heard similar “statements” to explain away what happened to them. Even experts are guilty of making the same claims. Hollida Wakefield, a psychologist with over 20 years experience working with sex offenders, told ABC News in October that “there are some cases where some people are in bad relationships or marriages and are just really lonely, and they find themselves in a relationship with these children.” Though Wakefield speaks from her experience working with offenders, her need to explain a female pedophile’s pathology illustrates the failure to equate the gravity of sexual assault perpetrated by a woman with sexual assault perpetrated by a man.
From a societal standpoint, the hesitation around—and outright rejection of—labeling women as sexual criminals makes sense. Women are deemed “safe” by default. Women—and often men—in social positions and occupations commonly associated with femininity and nurturing are viewed as “safe,” too, by extension. Who wants to suspect a mother, a nurse, a social worker, or a teacher of inflicting harm, especially to someone in her care?
But it happens—all the time. Exact statistical information is hazy at best; even the Center for Sex Offender Management, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, can’t provide conclusive numbers. Their 2007 report on female sex offenders states, “because sexual victimization is significantly underreported overall, reliable information about the incidence of sex crimes committed by females is difficult to obtain.” Still, a few alarming facts have emerged. Under the subheading “Victimization Reports,” the Center for Sex Offender Management document discusses the discrepancy between the data on female sex offenders available via the justice system and that gleaned from survivor interviews. “When various individuals are surveyed about their sexual victimization experiences, the incidence of female-perpetrated sex crimes is often higher and much more variable,” the document states. “For example, reviews of multiple sources of victimization data reveal that up to 63 percent of female victims and as many as 27 percent of male victims report having been sexually victimized by a female (see, e.g., Schwartz & Cellini, 1995).”
And within those statistics, more and more victims like Jamie are breaking their silence, largely via the Internet. Blogs and forums dedicated to raising awareness of and healing from sexual abuse have cropped up in recent years, most notably photographer Grace Brown’s “Project Unbreakable.” Founded in 2011, “Project Unbreakable” invites survivors of sexual assault to submit photos of themselves obscured (or not) by signs bearing quotes from their abusers, or about the abuse itself. The site, hosted by Tumblr, draws no distinction between survivors based upon their gender or the gender of their abusers, and the results are telling. “You’re a guy, you can’t say no to a girl like me,” reads one submission from a young, tow-headed guy. Another placard, held up by a woman sitting in the dark, says, “‘I possess you!’ she said. I was a toddler.”
The photos are taken in houses, yards, and on the street, out in public. A young man in a gray jacket stands in front of a park holding a sign with a quote from his ex-girlfriend, just before she raped him (the first time): “You’re trans? Oh, no. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t do that to your body. No one wants a tranny.” After the assault, the girlfriend told him, “See? You’re beautiful the way you are.”
Thanks to initiatives like Project Unbreakable, the “women can’t rape” myth is starting to recede. When a woman posted a harrowing account of her years-long abuse by a female so-called friend on Reddit in December, she was flooded with support. Messages ranged from, “I think it’s incredibly brave for you to write this … thanks for speaking up for those who can’t,” to “a part of me also thinks that the reason victims of woman rapists don’t come forward is because of the stigma … think of the comments … how could you not fight it off, etc.” But many reflect total ignorance, citing the Reddit poster’s story as their first exposure to the concept of female sex offenders. One commenter admits, “I have never even thought of a woman raping another woman. This really opened my eyes … I knew women could rape men and vice versa and men could rape men but I guess woman-woman rape never occurred to me.”
More and more evidence of female-perpetrated assault surfaced almost instantly after the original Reddit post went up. Bolstered by the poster’s example, other survivors began to post their experiences, too. “I know exactly how you feel,” one commenter wrote. “I was molested by my female babysitter when I stayed at her house once and no-one [sic] believed me. I walked past her house for 15 years to get to my bus stop for school. Finally got the courage to tell my family again this past year.” Further along in the comments, a woman recalled being assaulted by an older girl as a child: “She forced one of her knees up between my legs and then kissed my mouth until my lips bled from the force. Like a lot of these cases, she told me no one would believe me. That girls didn’t kiss girls so people would know I was lying.”
Many of the posts contain accounts of disbelief on the part of authorities, those in social services, and the survivor’s loved ones. The original poster was made to write a letter of apology to her abuser by her own therapist, who believed she was simply speaking ill of the girl who tortured her. A woman who was assaulted by a female gynecologist had her claim dismissed by the police. A man described losing a friend via an IM over something he wrote about his abuse. “[My friend] decided my confession as to what happened in my past was ‘a tirade’ and they ‘didn’t deserve it,’” he wrote. “Last message I sent before they blocked me was ‘So, did I deserve what she did to me?’”
Justice moves slowly, and even more so in cases like these. But that is, perhaps, about to change. After Jamie X released her video and sent a link to her abuser’s school of employment, an investigation into her claim began almost immediately. The accused teacher-turned-principal, Andrea Cardosa, resigned, likely under pressure from the district. Jamie held a press conference for multiple affiliate stations in her home state of California, and another woman stepped forward to say that Cardosa also abused her.
With the added information provided by this second woman, now 18, the authorities have acted swiftly. According to the Associated Press, Cardosa has admitted to abusing Jamie, whom the police are referring to as “Jane Doe #1” to comply with identity nondisclosure laws. On Tuesday, February 4, Cardosa was arrested in Riverside, CA, her bail set at $5 million. They’ve charged her with five counts of aggravated sexual assault on a child and 11 counts of lewd acts on a child.
This is one case of many, however, and the waters have not historically been friendly to survivors of sexual abuse by anyone of any gender. But it’s a wakeup call if there ever was one. Here’s hoping it’s heard.