Adult–Child Sex and the Limits of Liberal Sexual Morality

Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2015 - 44 - Febr.

Malón, Agustín
Type of WorkEssay
  • See here below: Abstract & Quotes


This article is a critical review of the most common arguments in the specialized literature about the moral status of sexual relationships between adults and prepubescent children.The intent is to reveal how the usual ethical analysis of these experiences, done from a general sexual morality, with a Kantian and utilitarian basis, very clearly shows us the limits and contradictions of contemporary liberal morality regarding sexual matters.

It leaves open the possibility that, under certain circumstances, these relationships may be morally admissible. Some shortcomings and contradictions in these liberal arguments suggest that it would be of interest to refer to other authors and ideas to value adult–child sex, approaches that are based on a specific sexual morality concerning the issue of sexual virtues and a more complex conception of human sexual desire. Some of the scientific implications of these moral issues are also discussed.


This article has actual purpose.

  • On one hand, it is a critical review of the most common arguments in the specialized literature about the moral status of sexual relationships between adults and prepubescent children.
  • On the other, it aims to reveal how the ethical analysis of these experiences very clearly shows us the limits and contradictions of contemporary liberal morality regarding sexual matters.

Although, from the concept of Kantian or utilitarian based ethics, we can outline multiple reasons to forbid these experiences, all of them result  in a basically prudential condemnation, always leaving the possibility open that, under certain circumstances, these relationships may be morally admissible.

This article aims to contribute to scientific research and professional practice, both of which are deeply imbued with moral elements which often pass unnoticed and give rise to great confusion, such as happens with the term ‘‘child sexual abuse’’ and its use as a scientific construct or with the diagnostic of pedophilia as a mental disorder (Malón, 2012).

I will begin by presenting the most common arguments for condemning sexual experiences between children and adults. These stem from the perspective of general morality, since it is understood that human sexuality, perceived as a morally neutral or even irrelevant issue of physical pleasure, does not pose any special ethical requirements. From this currently dominant perspective, sexual conduct should not therefore be morally assessed without using the same principles and theories that govern any other aspect of human existence.

I will also present the common objections to these arguments, not, in many cases, to deny their relevance, but to show their contradictions and shortcomings with regards children. From these shortcomings and contradictions I will conclude the need to refer to other authors and approaches that are based not only on other ethical perspectives concerning the issue of sexual virtues, but also other concepts of human eroticism and their moral implications. With this I will leave the door open to a line of thought I will develop in a future work.

I will begin by stating that we will be dealing with those experiences in which the child apparently gives consent and cooperates in the relationship either actively or passively, finding it a pleasant experience in one way or another.

My intention is to  show that, limiting ourselves to these three ethical criteria [*], it can be concluded that under certain circumstances sexual experiences between children and adults could be morally permissible.

[* (1) Consent (2) No instrumentalisation and exploitation (3) No harm]

(1 ) Consent

Archard (2004) states,

  • ‘‘The key to the wrong of sexual abuse is that the child does not consent and does not because it cannot’’ (p. 205).

The appeal of this logic lies, apart from its apparent simplicity, in the fact that it allows these events to be morally judged using the same criteria as that applied to sexual relationships between adults, while avoiding the intrusion of other moral considerations.

It is true, as Primoratz admits, that not all sexual relationships between adults occur with equal conditions between the parties, but these imbalances between adults are the exception to the rule while it is the norm between children and adults.

(2) No instrumentalisation and exploitation

These ideas [there is always instrumentalisation, objectivation and exploitation], characteristic of feminism and which supplement the liberal argument of consent, mean that we need to be more rigorous with regards the requisites necessary for valid consent. Another aspect we need to bear in mind along with the arguments of instrumentalisation and exploitation, as well as the individual capacities, is the state of the social conditions in which this consent is given. Formal and abstract equality is not the same as real and specific equality. And if this is true for women it is even more so for children.

The rhetoric of violence and exploitation, based in this case on a generational inequality, has been another of the essential arguments for condemning sexual relationships with children. Even the expression ‘‘child sexual abuse’’, now so prevalent, leads us straight to the idea of exploitation. It is a concept with powerful political and moral resonance that, not without discussion (Rind, Bauserman, & Tromovitch, 1998; Seto, 2008), has grown to be the scientific construct forming the basis of all the research and professional interventions in this field.

(3) No damage

Even from the rhetoric of children’s rights the alleged damage caused by such experiences was questioned and the emphasis was placed on the damage caused by the social, political and legal reaction.

There was an undeniably much more common belief that not all such experiences were abusive or destructive, with it being necessary to assess each case individually (Constantine,


The objections that I will present below are not intended to entirely question the validity or relevance of these three arguments as they apply in most real cases. My intention is to  show that, limiting ourselves to these three ethical criteria, it can be concluded that under certain circumstances sexual experiences between children and adults could be morally permissible.

(1) Consent

What matters is that adults make sure that these risks do not occur or that they are only slight and that the child is well prepared to cope with them. Some have proposed for example that a third party should observe and supervise the relationship to guarantee the rights, the will and the safety of the child. The fact that this ‘‘solution’’ is excessively complicated or even impossible in practice does not exclude it from being a counter-argument to bear in mind.

The idea is that children would be capable of consenting to a sexual  relationship if they were given the means with which to do so. What matters is that the child, as in any other area, is adequately informed and prepared to understand and handle the ‘‘rules’’ that govern the sexual relationship; the child must be aware what the relationship will entail and must be able to freely decide about any aspect of it.

Other critics resort to the contradiction resulting from the tolerance shown for sexual experiences between children of similar ages. If sexual games between children are tolerated, why shouldn’t they be accepted between children and adults? The argument that relationships between children are permissible because neither of the participants is responsible for what happens is clearly misguided because this does not exempt the act from being morally wrong.

For many the only way out of this apparent contradiction seems to be to apply the criterion of exploitation which, as we have seen, is not an alternative to the criterion of consent but rather a variation of it, as it establishes certain extra conditions to make consent truly valid.

(2) Instrumentalisation and exploitation

We know of relationships in which this exploitation was not present. The image of exploitation is directly related to both the motivation and the strategy used by the adult, but it is not inevitable in either case.

The adult’s exploitation of the child does not depend on the inequality in power, but rather on the use the adult makes of that power.

The situation of inferiority and vulnerability of children acknowledges the need not only for more protection, but also for more freedom and autonomy. This is the opinion of some authors who state that what children really need is more information and more power to reject or accept the things adults may propose to them

The problem is precisely the fact that children are taught to be submissive with adults, especially concerning sexual matters, where they are kept  in dangerous ignorance that makes them especially vulnerable. Giving the child more information and more power would mean they could reject, refuse and say no, something that then puts us in the dangerous position where they could also say yes

(3) Damage

It has been argued that under certain circumstances these experiences are not only harmless, but are in fact even positive and beneficial for the child. When there is no violence, coercion, deception, concealment, etc., some state that the negative consequences attributed to these events no longer exist. In these cases the simple will of the child to participate in a relationship they find pleasurable is more than enough to allow it.

In this regard, as far as scientific research is concerned, we can only say that the hypothesis of damage has undeniably been contested and that the experts have not reached an agreement about either its presence or its intensity or even its origin, with it being reasonable to conclude that at the moment science seems unable to provide a definitive answer.

Damage for Kershnar (2001) is based on what he calls ‘‘a set-back to a person’s interest’’ (p. 129), therefore the analysis of the interests of the individuals involved, in this case the child and his parents, would be what determines whether experiences are damaging or not. His conclusion is that these experiences do not necessarily result in any type of damage. Kershnar (2001) acknowledges the possible objection that his definition of damage is too narrow, leaving out other types of damage, for example damage to dignity  or honor, but his response is that these aren’t necessarily present either (pp. 123–124).

Limits and Contradictions

Ultimately, based on the possibility of damage that even though it may be only hypothetical and sometimes caused by society’s reaction, makes it more plausible to opt for a cautious prohibition.

I judge it to be the case that, even if only for prudential reasons, this general rejection seems to be justified, especially when social condemnation is so intense in the large majority of people.

This does not exclude the fact that the growing diligence and harshness of social reaction and legal intervention in this area may sometimes cause excessive or unnecessary damage for all those affected, but this can be avoided by altering how we react, not necessarily by abolishing the rule.

If society and people were better, all sexual relationships, reduced to a matter of harmless pleasure and morally inconsequential, would be permitted provided the participants had freely and truly given their consent.

The usual arguments mentioned here perhaps justify a prudent prohibition,  but by no means do they explain the emotional intensity with which we reject these relationships or the severe legal punishments that are applied.

The usual response to these provocative suggestions is  undeniably weak and contradictory.

[For example:]

If the problem is not the sex but the social relations which shape it, why attribute this enormous destructive power to these events and harbor this intense moral condemnation of the adult responsible?


I have reviewed the arguments most commonly used when it comes to judging the moral permissibility of sexual experiences between children and adults. The authors, focusing on the issue of consent, exploitation and damage, seem to base their ideas on a sensualist concept of sexuality and the fundamental premises of the ethics of duty, applying the same principles to the question of eroticism as they apply to any other field.

I have also taken the principal criticisms to these arguments into consideration, concluding that there are sufficient reasons, even of a prudential nature, to uphold the social rejection of sexual relationships between adults and minors under a certain age.
My aim, however, was focused on showing how these arguments are incapable of justifying a definitive and universal rejection of these relationships, as they always leave the possibility open that some of them are or could be morally permissible.

As I have tried to show, one of the greatest weaknesses in these arguments lies in the fact that the authors attempt to uphold a sensualist concept of sexuality by recognizing and at the same time defending the existence of child sexuality, which makes their objections unconvincing regarding sexual relationships between children and adults, something which they do tolerate or even regard positively between children of similar ages or as solitary activities. But as well as putting forward considerable logical contradictions, these approaches are enormously limited when it comes to really understanding the complex moral reaction of most people with regards these events.

In my opinion their basic weakness stems from the belief that sex can be morally judged using the same criteria as that applied to any other relational experience, which implies reducing it as stated to a phenomenon of physical and genital pleasure which in itself has little or no moral relevance. But this is the same weakness that affects those who attempt to defend the legitimacy of these experiences and to promote a social, moral, and legal change regarding the issue.

All this brings us, as I mentioned in the introduction, to the need to refer to authors and approaches that have addressed the problem of sexual morality, and in particular sexual relationships between children and adults, from perspectives very different from those reviewed here so far. Not because they are not relevant, but because of the many limitations and contradictions they raise when addressing this issue.