AS NURSERY worker Vanessa George pleaded guilty to chilling sexual offences last week one thing was clear: she had already carved herself an ignominious place in the annals of criminal history.
Details of the abuse the 39-year-old perpetrated on the children in her care unleashed fury reserved for only a handful of offenders in a generation. Not only did she commit acts too lewd and distressing to describe on children too young to complain, she shared those images with two other paedophiles – Colin Blanchard and Angela Allen – who she met through the internet. Hours after her court appearance, more than 100 Facebook groups were calling for George to get life or be hanged, while one devastated father said she should be "skinned and rolled in salt".
Like Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, she defied society's perception of what it means to be a woman, swapping the role of protector and nurturer for that of exploiter. Unlike many female sex offenders, however, she does not appear to have been coerced by a male partner, but to have acted alone to gratify her own deviant urges. Although her twisted relationship with her accomplices may have driven her on, there was no suggestion she was anything less than enthusiastic about their informal competition to engage in ever-more sordid abuse.
Through her actions, George has forced a shameful secret out in the open – that women can be sex offenders too. The evidence has been mounting for some time. In the past few years there has been a rash of female teachers convicted of having sex with underage pupils, most recently trumpet player Helen Goddard, who had a lesbian affair with a 15-year-old protg.
In 2007, Caroline Dunsmore was jailed for 12 years for raping – and allowing others in Scotland's "worst ever paedophile ring" to rape – her own daughter. On the other side of the Atlantic, Charlotte Mae Thrailkill has been detained indefinitely in a maximum security mental hospital for violently abusing dozens of children with her partner Daryl Ball. And then there is Nancy Garrido, who is accused of the kidnap and rape of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the schoolgirl snatched from outside her Californian home 18 years ago.
So what is the true scale of this problem? Why have we been so reluctant to confront it? And will the Vanessa George case make it easier for victims to come forward?
When Michele Elliott – co-founder of the organisation Kidscape – published her book The Female Sexual Abuse Of Children: The Last Taboo in 1992, she was deluged by hate mail from feminists who saw it as an attempt to detract from the real problem: the abuse of power by men. If it was difficult for her to get the issue taken seriously, how much more of a challenge has it been for the victims?
Where a mother has sexually abused her own child – passing the abuse off as a display of love – the victim may be swamped by conflicting feelings of anger, shame and lingering affection. It can be difficult enough for them to accept that someone who was supposed to care for them could treat them so badly, without having to convince other people.
Many victims who have come forward, albeit anonymously, tell terrible stories of how they sought help and were dismissed as deluded and disturbed. One woman, whose mother abused her throughout her childhood, finally plucked up the courage to go to her GP when she became pregnant at the age of 30 because she was scared of how it might affect her unborn child. Turned away as a neurotic first mother, she failed to bond with her daughter, who went on to have mental problems of her own.
A man – again the victim of abuse by his mother – was told by his doctor that women don't do that sort of thing and he was obviously indulging in his own sexual fantasy. He was told to get therapy to deal with that.
"There is evidence that it is particularly difficult for men or boys who have been abused by a woman to talk about it and then you have to put that in the context of how difficult it is to talk about any kind of abuse," says Claude Knights, director of Kidscape.
Research into the phenomenon has been so limited up till now that it is impossible to be sure what percentage of child sex abuse is carried out by women. "If you look at the statistics for convictions, the proportion of female sex offenders is around 1-2 per cent, but if you look at victim studies it comes out closer to 15 per cent," says Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, the only UK charity with a remit for the treatment of female abusers.
Among convicted sex offenders who were abused as children, though, the percentage seems to be much higher. A Canadian study found 33 per cent of incest offenders had been sexually abused by women; another that 59 per cent of rapists and violent sexual offenders had been sexually assaulted by a female.
Women are most likely to target family members – particularly if they are involved in same-gender abuse – or other children they care for. But contrary to public perception they are not less likely to engage in invasive assaults, being, if anything, more likely than a man to use an object for penetration.
"I would say a substantial proportion of women sex offenders who abuse do so because they are under pressure from a male partner or parent," says Mr Findlater, who is also director of Stop It Now!, a helpline which takes calls from those concerned about someone else's behaviour or their own predilections.
"But others – and I would say they are in the majority – do it because of their own sexual interest. Most of these women – a larger proportion even than the men – will have suffered abuse themselves and will need to be taken back to their childhood before they can learn to develop more appropriate ways of behaving."
The plight of the victims is not helped by the double standards society still displays towards those female sex offenders who do come to public attention. Depending on the circumstances, we seem to veer between viewing them as monstrous aberrations (who attract even longer prison sentences than their male counterparts), or a gift to sex-hungry teenagers.
The latter is especially true in cases involving classroom relationships. Male teachers who prey on female pupils are more likely to be seen as lecherous old men, while female teachers who prey on male pupils are Mrs Robinson figures inducting their partners into the ways of sex. When 30-year-old Texan teacher Lauren Cosgrove faced court over a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old boy she was babysitting earlier this year, her defence lawyer – a woman – argued that if she was given probation, she would not be a risk, and that the boy had enjoyed the attentions of an older woman and was not traumatised. "It's different with boys and girls," the lawyer said. "I don't believe he's going to be scarred for life."
Our prejudices about the differences between male and female sexuality are so entrenched they make us less likely to suspect women of deviance even when it is staring us in the face. Paul Federoff, a Canadian forensic psychiatrist, illustrated this point by telling the story of how he counselled an exhibitionist, who opened her living room curtains and stripped off her clothes when people were passing by. Federoff told her that unless she stopped she would be in trouble with the police. "Doctor, if someone calls up and says he saw me disrobing in the window," she replied, "Who do you think they are going to arrest?"
Experts insist it is important we confront such misconceptions because technology seems to be driving a rise in female sex offending, with websites celebrating female paedophilia on the increase. On one site, Butterfly Kisses, women discuss their erotic attraction to young girls.
"The net is a conduit for meeting like-minded people," says Mr Knights. "If you lived in a remote town and were that way inclined, the chances of meeting someone similar in the street would be small, and even if you did, meeting up on a regular basis would be a risk. With the net you just need to know the right keywords to type in and you will find someone. The net is also a disinhibitor. It allows people to admit their inclinations much more readily, to the extent in the Vanessa George case all three quickly became locked into a kind of competition."
Not long before the Little Ted Nursery scandal broke, Katie Scott and her partner Christopher Oxtoby, from Hertfordshire, were jailed after they sent footage of her sexually abusing a baby to a US paedophile. Clinical trials manager for a pharmaceutical company Monica McCanch and her lover Archibald Wood used the internet to set up a meeting with a fellow chatroom paedophile who provided a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy for them to abuse.
"The net opens up all sorts of temptations which might never have crossed people's minds before," says Mr Findlater who believes while men will use it to swap images, women are more likely to use it to set up face-to-face meetings.
But the net also provides new ways of catching paedophiles. Vanessa George thought she was clever, photographing only the torsos of the children she abused so they could not be identified. But a sharp-eyed officer spotted part of the Little Ted logo on one of the images and traced her.
"Society has been in denial over this issue for a long time, but if there is one positive to come out of this case it is that Joe Public will look at Vanessa George and realise what women are capable of," says Mr Knights. "In the wake of the publicity, support organisations will be getting lots of calls from survivors of female abuse who have finally given themselves permission to speak."
The charity Stop It Now! can be contacted on 0800 1000 900