Biosignal measures of female sexual interest: their feasibility in a forensic context

Published date12 March 2014
Date12 March 2014
AuthorCiara Staunton,Sean Hammond,Derek Perkins,Sharon Lambert
Subject MatterHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Criminal psychology
Biosignal measures of female
sexual interest: their feasibility in a
forensic context
Ciara Staunton, Sean Hammond, Derek Perkins and Sharon Lambert
Dr Ciara Staunton is a Course
Co-Ordinator and Dr Sean
Hammond is a Senior Lecturer,
both are based at School of
Applied Psychology, University
College Cork, Cork, Ireland.
Professor Derek Perkins is
based at West London Mental
Health Trust, London, UK.
Dr Sharon Lambert is based at
Matt Talbot Adolescent
Services, Cork, Ireland.
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to review the status of biosignal measures of female sexual arousal
with a view to examining the feasibility of such procedures in a forensic context. Although adult women
represent the minority of sexual offenders, female perpetrated sexual abuse has been gaining increasing
attention in the forensic psychological literature as criminal justice is confronted with female offending
populations to a greater extent than previously recognised.
Design/methodology/approach – Psychological assessments of sex offenders have tended to be over-
dependent on the use of self-report measures (i.e. an individual’s appraisal and report of their emotional
state of sexual arousal). There is a dearth of empirical knowledge concerning the psychophysiological
assessment of female sexual interest in general and especially so for female sex offenders. Physiological
measures are those that rely on directly observable physiological responses of the individual in order to
identify patterns of sexual interest or arousal.
Findings – Because deviant sexual interest (in children or the use of violence) as assessed by penile
plethysmography, has been established as one of the strongest predictors of recidivism in male sex
offenders (and as a viable alternative to self-report methodologies), an analogue measurement approach for
female sex offenders is desirable. This paper considers: first, theoretical problems (e.g. what does female
physiological arousal mean in terms of sexual arousal/desire?; second, technical measurement problems
(e.g. reactivity of the measure in within subject designs); and third, procedural/ethical problems (e.g.
invasiveness of the application).
Originality/value – While a number of physiological assessment devices are considered in this paper,
the paper discusses the labial photoplethysmograph as a promising method for female sexual offender
Keywords Biosignal measures, Deviant sexual interest, Female sex offenders, Female sexual interest,
Psychophysiological assessment
Paper type General review
With the sociological studies of Kinsey in the 1950s, human sexual behaviour became a
legitimate topic of scientific inquiry. Later, the physiologically based investigations of Masters
and Johnson (1966) and Zuckerman (1971) highlighted the need for specialised instrumentation
to quantitatively measure sexual arousal. Quantitative measurement of the female physiological
response is not easily accomplished. Due to the rising awareness of female sex offenders
(e.g. Rudin et al., 1995) there is now an urgent necessity for equality in sexual assessment
among offenders. Arousal patterns in sub-groups of offenders have been accessible to
investigation and we now know more about male sexual offending than ever before. However,
similar research with female offending populations is almost non-existent. The revolution in the
assessment and treatment of male sex offenders was facilitated by instrumentation and
DOI 10.1108/JCP-11-2012-0019 VOL. 4 NO. 1 2014, pp. 59-75, CEmerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 2009-3829
techniques able to measure an d quantify various aspect s of male genital response
(Freund, 1967; Laws, 2009).
The measurement of direct genital responses in females requires somewhat more ingenuity than
in males. Even though the physiological responses of both sexes are analogous, it is much more
difficult to quantitatively measure a response such as vasocongestion in female genitalia due to
size, shape and internal location (Henson et al., 1979). Given the now documented fact that
women can and do abuse children (e.g. Burgess, 1988; Cortoni et al., 2009); Lawson, 1997;
Peter,2009) a current dilemma facing forensic psychologists is how to assess the sexual arousal
patterns and interest of these women.
The aim of this paper is to consider female sexual arousal patterns and current assessment
practices. It provides a review of the major types of biosignal assessment techniques currently
available for measuring female sexual arousal and their possible uses within a forensic context.
This paper also seeks to examine the viability of developing psychophysiological assessments of
female arousal patterns in a manner analogous to those used with male offenders. It should be
stated at the outset that the measurement of female sexual arousal is complex and multifaceted
with respect to physiological mechanisms and it is not intended that this paper will address
female sexual function in great detail. The remit of this paper is to outline theearly stage research
challenges of clinical psychophysiology to female sexual studies in a forensic-oriented system.
Female sexual offenders
Although child sexual abuse by women is rare in comparison to that perpetrated by men,
it is nonetheless recognised as a significant issue in the forensic psychological literature
(e.g. Finkelhor and Russell, 1984; Ford, 2006). A number of studies since the 1980s have
obtained prevalence rates of female sexual offending (e.g. Etherington, 1995; Finkelhor, 1984;
Finkelhor et al., 1990; Johnson and Shrier, 1987; Kelly et al., 2002; Kendall-Tackett and Simon,
1987; Peter, 2009). For example, in a Canadian incidence study of child sexual abuse cases,
Peter (2009) found that 9.3 per cent of 246 girls and 14.1 per cent of 99 boys were abused by a
woman. Bunting (2005) outlines evidence of a “wide variety of sexual offences known to have
been committed by females” ranging from “voyeurism and inappropriate touching to rape,
penetration with objects, and ritualistic, sadistic, sexual abuse” (p. 4). Two Irish reports by the
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (2005) and the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report indicated
that 3.8 and 7 per cent of clients, respectively, had reported abuse by a female. A further
4 per cent indicated abuse by a female co-perpetrating with a male (McGee et al., 2002). Cortoni
et al. (2009) analysed both victimisation surveys and official reports that identified the gender of
perpetrators from Canada, UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand and reported that the female
to male ratio of sex offenders was approximately 1:20 and that female perpetrators were
responsible for 4-5 per cent of all sexual offences. Thus, it is presently recognised that, like their
male counterparts, female sex offenders are capable of and do aggress against children and
adults of both sexes (e.g. Lawson, 1997). In order to challenge the stereotype of the male
offender and to acknowledge the reality of victimisation at the hands of female perpetrators,
it is necessary to address deviant arousal in female populations as a fundamental means of
understanding the processes involved and of course, ultimately in preventing sexual violence
against children.
Assessment of deviant sexual interest
McGuire et al. (1965) proposed that any deviant sexual behaviour was the direct product of a
deviant sexual preference. This proposal evolved to become the “sexual preference hypothesis”
`re and Quinsey, 1994); that is, those who engage in sexually deviant behaviour do so
because they prefer them to socially acceptable behaviours. The evidence of male sex offender
recidivism is unequivocal in identifying deviant (or more precisely offence-related) patterns of
sexual arousal as one of the most important predictors of therapeutic failure (Hanson, 1998;
Perkins et al., 1998) and therefore it is a key element in the assessment of sex offenders. The two
most widely used techniques available to the clinician are self-report, either through interview or
questionnaire, and penile plethysmography (PPG), although newer innovative approaches are
VOL. 4 NO. 1 2014

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