Ottawa Citizen

Sunday 21 February 1999

Female sexual predators rare, says psychologist


VANCOUVER (CP) - As he testified that he had been sexually assaulted by a female family counsellor involved in the custody case over his son, Mark Tisdall broke down in tears.

"I honestly believe that since I was a man people say, ‘You can’t be sexually assaulted,’ " Tisdall said in B.C. Supreme Court last week. Tisdall testified that Shirley Irwin, a counsellor on government contract, sought sex in exchange for unauthorized access to his infant son. He told court Irwin threatened to end his contact with the boy if he revealed their relationship.

At one point, Tisdall said he awoke on the couch at her home to find Irwin on top of him, sexually assaulting him.

Tisdall may be right in assuming that people would scoff at his allegations, suggests a psychologist who has studied sexual assault.

"Often people, and this includes judges, don’t treat these as a . . . simple sexual assault," says Linda Coates, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria.

While the number of female sexual predators is dwarfed by the number of males, there are such women even though society is loath to believe it, Coates says.

Last week, a Saskatchewan teacher was convicted of sexually assaulting one of her female students more than a decade ago.

And in Vancouver last November, a man described three years of abuse at the hands of his female teacher.

Citing the case of Seattle teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who has been jailed after bearing two children with a young student, Coates says society often believes male victims "just got lucky."

Lawyer Richard Fowler says such assumptions may affect an investigation into the sexual assault of a man and in any decision to press charges.

"If a man goes to the police and says, ‘I’ve been assaulted by a woman,’ what do the police make of that? Do they take it credibly?" he asks.

For that reason, Fowler says men may be even less likely than women to come forward.

"A jury is going to be more skeptical of a man making these claims than a woman making these claims."

Many people don’t understand that sexual assault does not necessarily mean forced sexual intercourse.

"It’s a mental thing, not a physical thing," Fowler says. The charge doesn’t require "anything more than touching in a sexual circumstance."

The recent examples of women accused of assaulting men does not mean there are more female sexual predators roaming the streets, Coates says.

"Any time a female is the perpetrator is very, very rare," she says.

"Often what happens is the unique cases are picked out for media attention. If we did a story about every single man who sexually assaulted someone, there wouldn’t be any room left in newspapers."

Also, the number of victims willing to step forward about sexual assault is increasing among both women and men.

Following Tisdall’s allegations, the executive director of the agency that employed Irwin, Ingrid Kastens, prepared a report to guard against similar situations.

"Sexual harassment is commonly thought to be perpetrated by males against females," the report says. "This case is a good reminder that this is not always the case."

Irwin was fired from her job.

Tisdall, who was testifying in his former girlfriend’s lawsuit against Irwin, the agency that employed her and the provincial Children’s Ministry, has launched his own lawsuit.

He is seeking damages for depression, anxiety, shame and embarrassment among other things.

His lawyer, Donna Turko wouldn’t comment on the pending case.

"He does not want the publicity the Johnson case had received," she said.

No date has been set for Tisdall’s case to be heard. Testimony in Johnson’s lawsuit continues Monday.

A default judgement was issued against Irwin, who sent a letter stating she could not afford to attend the trial or hire a lawyer. The trial will proceed to consider the liability of the other parties.

© The Canadian Press, 1999