22 January 2014
Dr Siobhan Weare comments on the recent child sexual abuse case involving Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins and two female co-perpetrators. She suggests that the importance of the case lies in the fact that two women were involved in carrying out the sexual abuse alongside Watkins.

Sentencing remarks here: R v Watkins, and B, and P [2013] Case No: 62CA1726112

The recent child sexual abuse case involving Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins has provoked public outrage and a slew of media coverage. Watkins and two female co-defendants were convicted of several sexual offences involving the young children of the two women. The details of the abuse carried out, as Mr Justice Royce sentencing described, ‘plumbed [to] new depths of depravity’ (sentencing remarks, p. 1). Media coverage on the case almost exclusively focused on the involvement of celebrity Watkins, a world-wide rock star from the Welsh Valleys turned child sexual abuser. However, one key aspect of the case, which has received less attention, is that it involved two female co-defendants. The women cannot be named for legal reasons and are referred to as B and P in the sentencing remarks. However, their involvement in the case has been comparatively underreported in the media, in favour of focussing on Watkins’ fall from celebrity grace.

Reported cases involving female co-perpetrators of child sexual abuse are few and far between, and such a case provides an opportunity to highlight the fact that women can, and indeed do, sexually abuse children more frequently than perhaps is initially thought. Child sexual abuse perpetrated by women is considered to be a hidden crime (See M. Elliott (ed), Female Sexual Abuse of Children: The Ultimate Taboo, Longman Group UK, London, 1993) due to the presumption that women are passive, gentle, caring, the nurturers of children, sexually passive and non-violent (See S. Weare, ‘“The Mad”, “The Bad”, “The Victim”: Gendered Constructions of Women Who Kill Within The Criminal Justice System’ Laws 2, 3, 337-361). However, statistics suggest that a significant number of children have been sexually abused by a woman. Indeed, in 2008/09 Childline reported that 17%, 2,142, of the children who called their helpline to report sexual abuse said that their sexual abusers were female. Similarly to this case, mothers are the main female perpetrators, with 1,311 children disclosing sexual abuse by their mother to Childline in the same period. Despite the existence of such figures, cases involving female perpetrators are rarely reported to the police and even more rarely, result in a successful prosecution. One key reason for this is the fear of the child that if they disclose being abused by a woman, they will not be believed (Deborah Boroughs, “Female Sexual Abusers of Children” Children and Youth Services Review, 26, 2004, 481-487, p484).

The rarity of such a highly publicised case involving female co-perpetrators provides an opportunity to explore the legal response to these women, and the discourses surrounding their perpetration of sexual abuse. The seriousness of their crimes and the active nature of their involvement in the sexual abuse of their children alongside Watkins has resulted in these women receiving severe and lengthy sentences; with B being sentenced to 14 years imprisonment and P receiving a sentence of 17 years. What is particularly interesting is that despite both female defendants receiving substantially shorter sentences than Watkins, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison, the judge in sentencing arguably used far more emotive and disparaging language to describe their actions; ‘Could there be a greater betrayal?’ (sentencing remarks, p. 3). The judge also, perhaps unsurprisingly, invoked gender discourse and stereotypes in his sentencing remarks to the female defendants. In particular he utilised imagery of motherhood saying in reference to B; ‘A mother naturally loves, protects, shields, nurtures and cherishes. Your infant would have trusted you implicitly. You totally betrayed that trust’ (sentencing remarks, p. 3). The invocation of such emotive language, which reflects gender discourse, arguably resonates with and provides some explanation for the fears that victims have in not being believed when they disclose such abuse.

There is also a suggestion within the sentencing remarks that these women are somehow less culpable for their behaviour than Watkins is for both his own and theirs, with several references being made to the influence that Watkins had on their sexual offending; ‘That you were manipulated by Watkins may be obvious’ (sentencing remarks, p. 3) and ‘You B and you P will hopefully mature and on your eventual release will steer clear of the corrupting influence of the likes of Watkins’ (sentencing remarks, p. 9). The influence of Watkins on these women’s perpetration of the abuse is reflected in the fact that they were both judged as falling short ‘of the threshold necessary for dangerousness’ (sentencing remarks, p. 9), with P specifically being assessed as having a relatively low risk of reoffending in a similar manner in the future (sentencing remarks, p. 8). However, the fact that the judge also acknowledges that both women were actively engaged in, and got enjoyment from, the sexual abuse being inflicted on their children is contradictory to the imposition of their lesser culpability and their perceived dangerousness. Similarly, the remarks made in sentencing regarding motherhood, and the implied responsibility within gender discourse that all women have both towards, and for, their children, implies that there should have been a more significant degree of culpability attached to their actions.

It is clear then that the case of Ian Watkins and B and P is an important one, but not because it involves a celebrity convicted of child sexual abuse. It is an important case because it highlights that female perpetrated child sexual abuse does occur, thus allowing an opportunity to explore the legal response to such abuse. The issue of female criminal culpability is one which has been the subject of much debate by academics, and a case like this provides an opportunity for further future academic discussion on the culpability of women specifically involved in child sexual abuse. There is also the potential to ignite a debate on the underreported issue of female perpetrated child sexual abuse more generally, outside the context of this specific case involving celebrity. Such debates and the increased awareness which follows have the potential to encourage others to come forward to disclose such abuse, as well as protecting potential future victims from abuse perpetrated by those who are stereotyped as the care-givers and nurturers within society; women.

Siobhan Weare (@SiobhanWeare) is a Lecturer in the Law School at Lancaster University. Her research interests are focused in the areas of criminal law and criminal justice. She has recently published a paper on the socio-legal responses to and constructions of women who kill. She is also researching in the area of child sexual abuse and exploitation, with a particular focus on non-ideal perpetrators of such abuse, for example women and children.

You can find out more about Siobhan’s research at www.lancaster.ac.uk/law/people/siobhan-weare