Prohibited Sexual Behavior and Sexual Violence: Adult Sexual Contact with Children

Type of WorkOverview


Sexual contact between adults and children is a difficult topic for a general course like this. As an introduction, it may be useful to take note of three international conventions that are of some relevance here:

  1. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1990
  2. UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, 2002
  3. EU Council Framework Decision on combating the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, 2003

The first of the UN conventions has, in the meantime, been ratified by almost all countries, and the second is well on its way. The relatively new EU Framework Decision, on the other hand, has come under attack for its extensive definition of childhood. However, it only follows the example of the preceding UN conventions. Indeed, all three texts define “child” as “every human being below the age of eighteen years”.

Undoubtedly, the authors of these documents were motivated by the noble wish to secure and extend important personal rights also to children. However, as many sexologists and lawyers have pointed out, in the sphere of human sexuality, it is unwise to deny such rights to adolescents “for their own good” by simply calling them children. The legal extension of childhood beyond puberty wilfully disregards the biological facts and is bound to lead to some very negative unintended consequences. Indeed, the new definition is likely to end up criminalizing vast numbers of otherwise harmless teenagers. 

For example, they will break the law if they take “lascivious” photos of each other or have sexual intercourse “for remuneration”, which can include the invitation to a movie (*1). Moreover, the definition is in direct conflict with the criminal laws in many countries, to say nothing of current psychiatric handbooks.
As this example shows, there is no general agreement today on how to define a “child”, and there is no consensus about the sexual rights and duties of adolescents. The present inconsistent views merely reflect our society’s continuing ambivalence towards the young.

  • (*1) Helmut Graupner JD, “The 17-Year-Old Child: An Absurdity of the Late 20th Century”, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, Vol. 16, Nr 2/3. To read the abstract, click here.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Definitions

The issue of sexual contact between adults and children is as controversial as it is complex. The problems already begin with the definitions of “sexual contact”, “adults”, and “children”. Many people use these terms with different meanings in different contexts and some tend to define them very broadly:

- “Sexual contact” is any affectionate physical contact “out of the ordinary”.
- “Adults” are all sexually mature persons noticeably older than the “child”, and
- “Children” are all persons under the age of 18. (This definition is used by the United
   Nations and the European Union)

Others consider this arbitrary, unrealistic, impractical, and inconsistent and therefore use narrower definitions:

- “Sexual contact” is physical or visual contact with the sex organs of at least one of
   the participants for the purpose of sexual stimulation.
- “Adults” are persons of at least voting age (18 and older), and
- “Children” are females and males before puberty. (This definition is used in
   psychiatric handbooks and in most national criminal codes.)

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Definitions 2

The matter becomes even more complicated when one considers the age at which an individual becomes legally competent to agree to sexual intercourse. This “age of consent” is different in different countries. It ranges from 13 (in Spain) to 20 (in Tunesia). Moreover, some jurisdictions establish different age limits for different forms of sexual contact and also differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual activity (completely illegal in many countries, even for adults). There may also be a higher minimum age for commercial than for non-commercial sex. 

However, no matter how the age of consent is defined, sexual contact with a female or male “under age” is a crime. (In everyday language, people sometimes refer to such contact as “sex with a minor”, and this can be confusing. Strictly speaking, a “minor” is an individual who has not yet reached adulthood, but the age of entering legal adulthood is usually higher than the “age of consent”.) At any rate, consent given by someone under the age of consent is legally invalid, and the contact therefore amounts to “statutory rape”, i.e. rape as defined by legal statute.

Finally, there is often a great discrepancy between the law and public opinion. In some countries the general population regards the legal age limits as too strict and unrealistic. As a result, people ignore them in good conscience. In other countries, people find the laws too lenient. Often, they are even unknown to most citizens and are only rarely or selectively enforced.
In short, a general introductory course like this one cannot go into every detail of this very large topic and has to restrict itself to some general observations.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Definitions 3

When people today discuss adult sexual contact with children, the term most often heard is “pedophilia” (literally, love of children, from gr. pais: boy or child and philia: love). In psychiatry, pedophilia means an adult’s erotic love of children or the sexual attraction to children. Indeed, there are some adults - most of them men – who persistently and stronlgy feel this attraction. They are called “pedophiles”. In psychiatric manuals, pedophilia is listed as a mental disorder among the paraphilias.
However, it is important to understand two basic facts:

  1. Not every adult who has sexual contact with a child is a pedophile, and
  2. not every pedophile has sexual contact with a child.

Leaving aside the different legal definitions of “child” and the varying ages of consent, there are “clear-cut” cases that allow no dispute: Some adults have sexual contact with children, i.e. with girls and/or boys who have not yet reached puberty.
Most of these adults are not pedophiles. Their “real” sexual interest lies elsewhere, and their behavior therefore remains occasional or episodic. They simply seize an opportunity, or follow a fleeting impulse, or are curious, or take advantage of an unexpected situation, or find it convenient to exploit a child’s dependency. Such adults have been called “situational offenders” as opposed to “preferential offenders”, i.e. pedophiles who prefer children (*1).
However, many pedophiles manage to control their urges. Some even deliberately avoid the company of children. This self-control is the goal of preventive therapy programs for pedophiles, since their sexual interests are not likely to change.

  • (1) Kenneth V. Lanning, “Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis. For Law Enforcement Officers Investigating Cases of Child Sexual Exploitation. In Cooperation with the FBI”, Fourth Edition 2001. (For the full text of this very informative book click here)

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Definitions 4

PederastyThis detail of an ancient Greek vase painting shows the adult lover (Erastes) kissing the adolescent beloved (Eromenos).

Before proceeding further, it may be useful to clarify not only the term “pedophilia", but also some other terms often heard in this context:

  • Pedophilia: Recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (age 13 years or younger).
  • Hebephilia (from Gr. hebe: young): The sexual attraction of an adult - usually male - to young people around the age of puberty. Sometimes used as a synonym for “ephebophilia”.
  • Ephebophilia (from Gr. ephebos: adolescent): The sexual attraction of an adult - usually male - to young people after puberty. Sometimes used as a synonym for "hebephilia."
  • Pederasty (from Gr. eran: to love): The sexual attraction of an adult - usually male - to adolescents after puberty (ages 14-17). This term is often misused, but it is helpful to recall its original meaning: In ancient Greece, paiderastia was a socially approved custom, in which an adult male lover (the Erastes) courted an adolescent male and made him his beloved (the Eromenos). While this relationship usually involved sexual contact, it served, above all, an educational purpose.

These terms clearly distinguish between pre- and postpubescent young people, and, by implication, they provide a definition of childhood that is accepted in medicine, psychiatry, psychology, biology, ethnology, sociology, and history (but not always in criminal codes): Children are girls and boys before puberty. Only the desire for sexual contact with them should be called “pedophilia”. It is unrealistic and unwise to ignore this distinction. Pedophilia is rare. Hebephilia is more common and should be judged differently.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Historical Notes

Lewis Carroll(1832-1898). The English author of “Alice in Wonderland” felt attracted to very young girls, but never had sexual contact with them. [...]

There are many historical examples of adults having sexual contact with children. In the Western world, the best known is perhaps the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD), who kept not only adults and juveniles, but also little boys and girls for sexual purposes in his palace on the island of Capri. However, for this he was scolded even in antiquity. Small children were sexually taboo, although females and males were considered suitable partners once they approached or reached puberty. Tiberius was not a pedophile but simply used his imperial power to indulge in all kinds of sexual orgies.

In Christian Europe and America, this kind of behavior has never been accepted. Nevertheless, there have been - and there are now - adults who feel erotically attracted to children. An interesting example is Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”. He sought the company of young girls, entertained them, told them stories, and, with the permission of their parents, photographed some of them in the nude. However, he never overstepped the bounds of “propriety” and never attempted any close physical contact. According to our present terminology, he was probably a pedophile who managed to control his sexual impulses.

Today, this is an example pedophiles are encouraged to follow. Current treatments try, above all, to prevent them from breaking the law. Thus, training a pedophile to live with his fantasies without acting them out protects both him and the children he meets.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Historical Notes 2

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg(1742-1799) was a professor of physics, mathematics, and astronomy at the University of Göttingen, Germany. His witty aphorisms are still widely read today. In 1777, he met the 13-year old Maria Stechard and took her into his home where she became his housemaid and lover. She died at the age of 18.

While Western countries have long disapproved of sexual contact with children, such contact with young adolescents has usually been seen in a different light. After all, in many cultures of the past, girls were married as soon as they reached puberty. In ancient China, on the other hand, a “child bridegroom” could marry an adult woman, share her bed, and begin sexual intercourse with her as soon as his sexual response allowed it (*1).

  • (*1) See the comment by M.L.Ng here.

In 18th-century Germany it was still possible for the highly respected university professor Georg Christoph Lichtenberg to live with a 13-year old girl (*2). In the 20th century, two literary masterpieces described the passionate love of adult men for someone very young. In Mann’s “Death in Venice”, the object of desire is a 14-year old boy; in Nabokov’s “Lolita” it is a 12-year old girl (*3). 

  • (*2) See the the book by Gert Hoffmann, Die kleine Stechardin 1999, Engl. “Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl”, W.W. Norton, 2004
  • (*3) Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice” 1912 (Film by Luchino Visconti 1971and opera by Benjamin Britten 1973); Vladimir Nabokov “Lolita” 1955 (Film by Stanley Kubrick 1963)

The men who are in love with them are not at all portrayed as monsters, but as tragic figures deserving the reader’s compassion. 

The 1970s and early 1980s even saw the first attempts in the USA and other countries to organize men who loved boys, but they soon met with a great deal of hostility, even from the “gay liberation movement”. Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, a Swiss film director still received official financial support for a semi-documentary about his love affair with a 13-year old male prostitute in Rome. The film then won the praises of a Catholic jury at a film festival (4).

  • (4) “Er moretto”, a film by Simon Bischoff 1985

Since that time, however, Western public opinion has undergone a dramatic change. Today, any such relationships are severely condemned. Indeed, in many countries they are crimes, and the adults involved cannot expect the slightest sympathy either from the courts or from society at large.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Ethnological Note

Captain James Cook (1728 -1779), the English explorer, was invited to watch a traditional entertainment in Tahiti – public sexual intercourse performed by professionals, in this case a man and a prepubescent girl. Respecting local customs, he neither interfered nor expressed his disapproval. See also here.

When ethnologists discovered, described and analyzed adult sexual contact with children in preliterate societies, they learned that their Western concepts did not always apply. Their modern definitions of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, age of consent and even of “sexual contact” did not fit the realities in various non-European peoples. Many of these prohibited any sexual contact between partners of widely divergent ages, but some permitted or even required it under certain circumstances. 

The most obvious and most common example was the marriage of girls as soon as they reached puberty.The husbands were usually adults, sometimes older male adolescents. (Actually, this practice was formerly also found in Western countries). 

However, some societies also encouraged very young girls to have sexual intercourse with an adult male. For example, when Captain Cook came to Tahiti, he and his crew were invited to watch the public sexual intercourse of a man with an 11- or 12-year old girl (*1).
An African tribe believed that sexually immature girls needed to receive the semen of a warrior for their proper physical development (*2).
In some tribes young boys reaching puberty were encouraged or required to have their first intercourse with older women (*3). 
In many societies parents or nurses stimulated the sex organs of infants and young children or taught them to masturbate when they reached puberty (*4). (Again, this practice was also common in medieval Europe.)

In the present course, these few examples have to suffice to make a simple point: Our present Western ideas, attitudes and laws about adult sexual contact with children have not always been shared everywhere. This does not mean that our modern industrialized societies should now adopt the customs of ancient Greece, imperial China, tribal Africa, or pre-colonial Tahiti, but is does mean that we should be aware of the historical context in which we live. It determines our present moral values, but as this context may change, so may our values.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Pedophilia

[...] The term „erotic pedophilia“ was introduced by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his influential study “Psychopathia sexualis” (1886). He considered it a “sexual sickness of the mind” along with sadism and masochism (he introduced these terms as well). His colleagues adopted many of his terms and ideas, and today the psychiatric profession offers this characterization of pedophilia:

  • “Over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 or younger).”

The definition continues by explaining that these 

  • “fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”. 

It further states that the pedophile 

  • “is at least age 16 years and at least 5 years older than the child or children” 

The definition does not include 

  • “an individual in late adolescence involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with a 12 or 13 year old (straight or gay)”. 

Finally, the definition makes these observations: 

  • “Individuals with pedophilia generally report an attraction to children of a particular age range. Some individuals prefer males, others prefer females, and some are aroused by both males and females. Pedophila involving female victims is reported more than pedophilia involving male victims." (*1)
  • (*1) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition
    (DSM-IV,TR) 2000

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Pedophilia 2

In addition to using the criteria just mentioned, a psychiatric diagnosis also specifies whether the adult is sexually attracted to females, males, or both. It also distinguishes between 

  • an “exclusive type” of pedophile, i.e. one who feels attracted exclusively to children, 
  • and a “nonexclusive type”, i.e. a pedophile who is also attracted to adults. 
  • Finally, it has to be established whether the case is limited to incest.
There is no “typical pedophile”. 

However, we know that most pedophiles are men, and that many of them are married. Their sexual interests usually begin to manifest themselves in adolescence, in rare cases in adulthood. 

When pedophiles approach children, they initially hide their erotic motivation, but, as a rule, are otherwise quite sensitive to their interests and needs. They rarely use force, but try to gain the children’s confidence and to obtain their consent to some sexual contact, usually short of oral, genital or anal intercourse. Violence, force and sexual penetration occur only in relatively few cases. Child murders with sexual connotations are much rarer still. Violent sexual offenders against children manifest severe personality disorders in addition to a possibly present pedophilia.

The causes of pedophilia are unknown. Some researchers suspect a biological cause, others a combination of psychosocial causes. It is also unknown how many pedophiles there are in any given population. In any case, as already mentioned, most sexual offenses against children are committed not by pedophiles, but by non-pedophilic men.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Pedophilia 3

Most pedophiles who appear for psychiatric treatment do so because of a court order, although some also volunteer. They usually undergo some form of psychotherapy, but in certain cases this may be combined with some medication that dampens their sexual urges. On the whole, the therapeutic success is uncertain. In most cases, the pedophile’s sexual interest in children remains, but if he learns to control his impulses and to stay clear of the law, one considers it an acceptable outcome.

In recent years, a debate has arisen about the usefulness of listing pedophilia among the paraphilias as a mental disorder. The American diagnostic handbook (DSM-IV-TR) has been criticized for specifying that pedophilia is associated with

  • “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”

For the critics, this implies that a happily functioning adult who is not distressed by his sexual contact with children is not a pedophile. (The authors of the handbook, however, never intended this implication.) 

On the other hand, some specialists believe that the DSM listing is misguided in any case, because it provides pedophiles with a convenient excuse – if they are mentally ill, they are not responsible for their behavior (see here). 

Others object to the listing for a different reason: The fact alone that a behavior is immoral and/or criminal does not necessarily make it a symptom of illness. 

  • And what if the behavior is socially accepted as it was in various cultures and various times? Were all the adults involved mentally ill? 
  • What about non-pedophiles who have some erotic fantasies about children? What if they also act on these fantasies? 
  • And finally: What about the pedophile who refrains from any sexual contact with children? 
  • By what criterion can or should he be called mentally disordered?
  • Is it in the interest of psychiatry to establish itself as a “thought police”? 
  • Isn’t it better to deal only with overt sexual acts? 
  • Shouldn’t one leave morality to the moral authorities and crime to the legislatures, the police, and the courts? (*1)

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Pedophilia: Organizations

Symbol used by pedophile organizations
The symbol is composed of one adult female heart (pink) and one adult male heart (blue). Together with the two smaller hearts for a girl and a boy, they represent the wings of a butterfly.

Current attempts of pedophiles to organize are not likely to go very far. 

First of all, the general hostility they encounter prevents most potentially interested individuals from joining. 

Second, the demands of pedophiles for lowering the age of consent or even for the complete abolition of age limits for sexual contact have no hope of being granted. 

Third, the small organizations that do exist are in constant danger of being infiltrated and subverted by unsavory characters who use the organizational cover for their own selfish ends: Producing, finding and exchanging “child pornography”, dicovering opportunities for approaching children, etc. 

Nevertheless, this has not discouraged some pedophiles and hebephiles from forming advocacy groups of their own. A few of their concerns deserve public discussion and are, in fact, shared by some psychiatrists, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and other professionals: 

  • Removal of the diagnosis of pedophilia from psychiatric handbooks,
  •  revision of laws defining everyone under 18 as a child, 
  • conducting more research on the subject, 
  • educating the public, 
  • helping pedophile prisoners, 
  • etc. 

However, all in all, adult sexual contact with children and juveniles remains such a forbidden subject that not much of a change can be expected in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, not only pedophiles, but also hebephiles remain isolated sexual outsiders who cannot hope to win recognition as sexual minorities. They keep trying to organize, but encounter massive resistance from all sides.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Pedophilia: Legal Aspects

Adult sexual contact with children before puberty is a crime in virtually all countries today. When juveniles during or shortly after puberty are involved, the law is less uniform (see here). In any case, the general public is primarily concerned about adults seeking out prepubescent girls and boys. This concern is often heightened by sensational press reports when whole groups of people are arrested and accused of sexually abusing children. 

However, the most widely publicized mass trials of this sort in the USA, Germany, and France ended with acquittals (*1). 

  • (*1) The McMartin Case, Los Angeles, USA 1983-90; the mass trial in Worms, Germany 1994-97; the Outreau trial, France 2001-05. These are just the most spectacular and notorious examples.

In these cases, vengeful or even delusional individuals had made false accusations, newspapers and television had fed public hysteria and created a general atmosphere of hostility toward the defendants, police work had been sloppy, the children had been subjected to leading questions and suggestions that invalidated their testimony, “experts” had turned out to be utterly unqualified etc.

As can be learned from these trials, the persecution of sexual offenses against children can easily become unfair to either side: False accusations may be too easily believed. The children may be victimized not only by sex offenders, but also by an inadequate legal system that keeps interrogating them over and over with differing results. This can distort or undermine the case so that, in the end, the innocent are punished and the guilty go free. (For a detailed discussion of these issues, click here). 

Fortunately, in recent years, the courts have become more effective in many countries. They try to improve the qualifications of their experts and also take great care not to “lead” their child witnesses. These are now usually interviewed only once by specially trained interviewers, and this is recorded on video. Thus, children can be kept out of the courtroom altogether and avoid being traumatized by repeated, inappropriate and aggressive questioning.

The complexity of the problems involved makes it impossible to do them justice in a general course like this. Learning to deal effectively with any one of them requires a number of special advanced courses.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Pedophilia: Legal Aspects 2

As we have seen, courts cannot be careful enough in trying sexual offenses against children. However, this cautionary note is not intended to deny undeniable facts: There are indeed serious sexual crimes committed against children, and they need to be prosecuted. However, their number is lower than the public is often led to believe. 

Not only sensational mass trials of “child molesters”, but also gruesome murders of children receive extensive media coverage and shock newspaper readers and television viewers alike. Nevertheless, the general public is often left with a distorted picture. A simple look at the long-term statistics of ‘cases reported’ and ‘offenders convicted’ can bring a healthy dose of sobriety to the often heated discussion of this controversial topic.

 For example, there is strong evidence that, in the 1990s, the physical and sexual abuse of children has declined in the US. Another interesting statistic can be found in the Federal Republic of Germany: Over a period of 44 years, there was no significant increase in the number of convictions.

German police statistics of sexual child abuse

 Cases reported  Arrests  Convictions
  Entire Federal Republic after unification  Only the former West GermanySource: Hartmut A.G. Bosinski, Häufigkeit und Symptome sexuallen Kindesmißbrauchs,
in: Sexuologie 8 (1) 2000, pp. 55-62 (p. 56)

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Pedophilia: Psychological Aspects

Most sexual offenses against children are committed by men or male adolescents whom they know. These may be fathers, grandfathers, uncles or cousins, but more often they are friends or acquaintances of the family, neighbors, or babysitters. Strangers are involved only in a minority of cases. Female offenders are comparatively rare. Many of the offenders had themselves been victims of such offenses when they were children. 

In many cases, the sexual contact is not an isolated incident, but continues for quite some time as the adult usually tries to establish an ongoing relationship.As for the children, they may react to the sexual contact very differently, depending on the circumstances. Much depends on their own age at the time of the offense, the type of contact, and on the degree of closeness to the offender. If he is a close relative or some other trusted adult who violated this trust, they are more likely to sustain serious psychological damage. For example, they may develop a variety of behavioral problems, or suffer from a loss of self-esteem, anxiety attacks and depression. Some children may need pychological counseling or therapy for some time. Others do not seem to experience any lasting harm. 

Obviously, if the child was not traumatized by the offender, it should not be upset after the fact by the inappropriate reactions of other adults who “try to help”. Again, much depends on the specifics of the situation - how long the contact had gone on before it was discovered, whether force or violence had been involved, how the discovery is handled, and how supportive the family proves to be. A calm reaction of parents and siblings and their unconditional love can make an enormous, positive difference. It is also important that the children learn to understand that it was “not their fault”. 

At any rate, one should remember that each case is unique in the specific combination of the factors involved. It therefore also requires a specific combination of responses from those who want to help an individual child.


Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Incest

Osiris and IsisOsiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead, was married to his sister Isis, the goddess of life (...) Their example was followed by some pharaohs who made royal incest a tradition. The exact origin and meaning of this tradition are still being disputed, and it is also unclear how long and how strictly it was observed. However, we do know that the famous Cleopatra, a daughter of Ptolemy XII, was successively married to her younger brothers Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV.

Since time immemorial, the human race has observed the “incest taboo”, i.e. the prohibition of sexual intercourse between close relatives. Exceptions have been found only in ancient Egypt and have been reported about ancient Hawai’i and some other Pacific and pre-Columbian American cultures. However, even here the exceptions applied only to royal families and certain members of the upper classes.

The origins of this taboo are not entirely clear, because it precedes any adequate genetic knowledge. Therefore, the possible negative effects of inbreeding cannot have been the driving motive. Some scholars have speculated that the motive was simply to prevent sexual jealousies among relatives who had to live and work together. In any case, the prohibition did prevent marriages within the immediate family (endogamy) and forced people to marry outside their families (exogamy). This way, otherwise unrelated households became related and formed new alliances. As this process continued, an ever-enlarging network of allied families laid the foundations for their collective economic, cultural, and political progress. In this sense, the incest taboo is the source of any wider human solidarity and the bedrock of all complex social systems.

”Lot and his Daughters”In the biblical story of the widowed Lot, his two daughters make him drunk, because they want to get pregnant by him and thus continue the family line. Both of them succeed, and each gives birth to a son. [...] 

Over the centuries, many writers have dealt with the subject of incest, from the story of Lot and his daughters in theBible (Genesis 19:30-36) to Sophocles’ drama “Oedipus the King” (428 B.C.), John Ford’s play “T’is Pity She’s a Whore” (1633), and Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre” (1870). 

In these great theatrical masterpieces, the characters are treated with compassion and are more pitied than condemned. Nevertheless, their incest is seen as a source of tragedy. This usually mirrors the feelings of the audience as long as the incest involves only consenting adults or at least brother and sister of roughly the same age. In such cases, many people are prepared to show some sympathy and understanding. However, their tolerance quickly evaporates when force and children are involved.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Incest: Legal Aspects

Most people are probably content with the definition of incest as “sexual intercourse between close relatives” However, for the criminal law this is too vague. 

  • What exactly is meant by “sexual intercourse”? 
  • Does it mean only coitus or also manual, oral, anal, and even visual intercourse? 
  • And what are “close relatives”? 
  • Does this mean only the closest blood relatives like parent and child or brother and sister, or does it also include half-brothers, half-sisters, cousins and half-cousins? 
  • Does it include step-parents and step-children? 
  • Can incest also occur between relatives of the same sex?

Different legislatures have found different answers to these questions and have also specified different punishments. Indeed, in some countries incest as such is not a crime at all as long as the individuals involved are of the same generation, for example, two minors or two adults (*1). Incest between adults and their children is often prosecuted under different statutes. In view of all this, the present course cannot go into details. Instead, we will restrict ourselves to some general observations about the incest between adults and their children.

  • (*1) France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Japan, Turkey, and many Latin-American countries.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Incest: Psychological Aspects

Incest is a crime in most countries, but since it usually takes place in private, it is not easily discovered and prosecuted. Most cases of incest that do come before a criminal court involve fathers and their young daughters. 

In some cases, the girls have not even reached puberty. However, this usually does not mean that the father is a pedophile. (The exceptions are pedophiles who marry a woman for the purpose of getting close to her children.) As a rule, the father simply takes advantage of a defenseless and easily available sexual object. And this is indeed how he treats his child - as an object of his egotistical desire. He may use flattery, promises, deception, intimidation, coercion, threats or even outright force, and if the incest remains undiscovered, it may continue for years.

For the daughter, the experience is almost always psychologically devastating. It may take her many years to overcome her trauma, if she succeeds in this at all. She may also blame her mother – sometimes with good reason – for having “looked the other way” and having failed to help her. All in all, father-daughter incest creates an intolerable situation within a family. (Mother-son incest may have less serious consequences, but is, in any case, quite rare.)

Some families are, for a variety of reasons, reluctant to report the crime. They may need their breadwinner, fear the inevitable scandal, or hope to “handle it themselves”. Certainly, a trial and a conviction are not sufficient to resolve such a case. All family members, including the father, need psychological help if they are ever to regain a minimum of mutual trust. Very often, however, their relationship is damaged beyond repair.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Child Prostitution

Some adults have sexual contact with girls and boys who are forced to work as prostitutes because of their poverty. Child prostitution is found mostly in poor countries, and it is a serious international problem.As already mentioned, both the United Nations and the European Union have produced official documents demanding children’s rights and an end to their sexual exploitation. In addition, UNICEF and UNESCO have long been supporting the same goals, for example by sponsoring international congresses on the subject, and by co-operating with organizations and groups devoted to ending child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. Occasionally, some of these groups demand an end to the “commercial sexual exploitation of children”, but this obfuscates the issue. It should always be made clear that even their non-commercial exploitation is wrong. In fact, any exploitation of any human being is wrong, whether it is commercial or not.

Three organizations working for an end to child prostitution

In additon to the United Nations and the European Union, there are other organizations trying to protect children from sexual exploitation. The most prominent of these are 

  • 1. UNICEF - the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. 
  • 2. UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 
  • 3. ECPAT is a network of organisations and individuals working together to eliminate the sexual exploitation of children. (...)

Child prostitution in some countries(in thousands). According to UNICEF estimates, a great number of children around the world are sexually exploited. [...] The estimate for Brazil lies somewhere between 500 000 and 2 million. [...]

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Child Prostitution 2

The problem of child prostitution is connected with another problem – that of child trafficking, i.e. the illicit trading of children, moving them from one place to another for the purpose of exploitation. The parents and the children themselves are usually unaware of what is in store for them when they allow certain “agents” to take them to far-away places. They hope to find regular employment, but soon discover that they are in the hands of unscrupulous criminals. 

Most of this exploitation is of an economic kind – the children are simply used as cheap labor or as underpaid or unpaid domestics. However, there is also national and international trafficking for sexual purposes – the children are forced into prostitution in order to make money for their “employers”. UNICEF has estimated that, world-wide, every year ca. 1 million minors fall victim to these practices.

In recent decades, the problem has become aggravated by the growing tourism industry which includes a certain amount of “sex tourism”. It is difficult to determine how many children are exploited in this “business”. Estimates vary with the varying definitions of “child”. While international organizations usually mean “any individual below the age of 18”, many national criminal codes use much narrower definitions. Moreover, as pointed out earlier, they also define different “ages of consent”, and this can muddle the issue. Finally, it is not always clear what exactly is meant by the term “minor”. However, there is no question that in many cases very young adolescents and even girls and boys before puberty are involved.

[...] It is important to realize, however, that only a very small minority of these tourists has a sexual interest in children. The overwhelming majority is looking for sexually mature prostitutes who are capable of full sexual responses - mostly young women, in some cases young men.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Child Prostitution 3

The main child trafficking routes are from poorer to richer countries, that is to say, generally from south to north and east to west. However, the exact itineraries can change quickly with changing economic conditions. The traffickers are interested only in money and follow the demands of their “market”. 

Today, child prostitution is found mostly in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, and in some poor countries of Eastern Europe. These areas are also known as destinations for sex tourism.

Sex tourism, of course, moves in the opposite direction, i.e. from the richer to the poorer countries - from north to south and west to east. Relatively rich tourists from the USA, Australia, Europe, and Japan can afford to pay for sexual contacts in relatively poor developing countries, and a few of these tourists seek out children. This does not mean that local men do not take advantage of the increased sexual opportunities. Indeed, some of these men erroneously believe that AIDS can be cured by sexual intercourse with a virgin, and this superstition puts very young girls in great danger. In many developing countries it is the low social status of girls that makes them especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation. However, unemployment and a lack of education also force some boys to become prostitutes.

"Fighting sexual exploitation and poverty": This UNICEF-supported congress of 2001 in Yokohama, Japan, was specific in many of its demands for stricter laws and law enforcement, but with regard to poverty it remained content with generalities: “We welcome the following developments - the greater emphasis on the rights of the child---, - better educational access for children, social support measures for families and children to counter poverty”.  (...)

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Child Prostitution 4

As the preceding sections have made clear, at the root of child prostitution lies poverty. This was true of Victorian England with its child prostitutes, and it is still true today in many developing countries. It is poverty that forces some girls and boys to support their parents and siblings as “sex workers”. Others find themselves in even more desparate circumstances: As abandoned “street children”, they depend on begging, stealing, and prostitution for their very survival.

It should therefore be well understood that the commendable efforts by national and international organizations to end child prostitution can succeed only to the extent that they contribute to eliminating poverty. Organizing congresses, stretching the definition of “childhood” to include adolescence, enacting stricter criminal laws, arresting and punishing customers, closing brothels etc. can do nothing more than treat the symptoms of a much more serious underlying condition. All of these well-meaning efforts miss their real target if they do not address the political and economic causes of poverty. Even the grandest “cleaning-up campaign” will not help the children as long their poverty persists and keeps forcing them into prostitution.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Child Pornography

The depiction of children engaged in sexual activity, either alone or with others, is prohibited practically everywhere as “child pornography”. Depending on the case, this can also include pictures of nude children in “provocative poses” or even without any obvious sexual connotations. The legal definition of “child” in this context may, once again, include “any person under the age of 18”. The depictions are often circulated with the help of personal computers, either in the form of drawings, paintings, and photos, or as films, videos, DVDs, and live webcams. Producing and possessing such material is a serious crime. 

As with “pornography” in general, there is no universal agreement about the concrete definition of “child pornography”, because people with different cultural backgrounds have different attitudes. Indeed, even those with the same background may change their views over time. In the USA and Europe, for example, certain sex education books containing photographs of nude children were recommended by pedagogical experts and widely used in the 1970s. Today, they are considered pornographic and are no longer for sale. 

Similarly, the nude photographs of young girls taken by Lewis Carroll over 100 years ago were innocently enjoyed not only by their parents, but also by countless photo enthusiasts until quite recently when they became controversial.
Finally, as visitors to Italian Renaissance and Baroque Churches can easily discover, some of them contain paintings, frescos, and statues of nude children in poses that today would lead to the immediate arrest of the artists.

Nevertheless, outside a certain large “grey area” there are many sexually explicit photos and films about which there is general agreement: They could not have been made without the sexual exploitation of children. Indeed, some of the children are clearly the victims of sexual violence.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Child Pornography 2

The Virtual Global Taskforce is an alliance of law enforcement agencies from around the world working together to fight online child abuse. (...)

Today, most pornographic material involving children is collected, transmitted and shared in the internet. In view of the sexual exploitation involved, new laws have been passed to take account of this new situation. At the same time, law enforcement agencies have been brought up to date and their international co-operation has been strengthened. A good example of such co-operation is the Virtual Global Task Force fighting “online child abuse”. For this term, it gives the following definition:

  • Online child abuse includes:
    1. making and downloading images of children being sexually abused; and
    2. approaching a child online for sex. This could be sex online (e.g. sexual
       activity via text or webcam) or sex offline (e.g. grooming a child online for the
       purpose of meeting up for sex in the "real" world).

As this statement makes clear, the Task Force is not content with fighting child pornography, but sees a possible connection to actual sexual contact and therefore tries to prevent both. 

It seems logical to assume such a connection, but how close and how important it is remains unknown at this time. It is also unknown how many children and adults are involved in either form of sexual exploitation. The Task Force itself estimates that “25-35% of young internet users have been exposed to sexual material.” However, once again, the concrete meaning of this estimate remains elusive. It all depends on the definitions of “young” and “sexual material”.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the internet has created new opportunities for criminals to take advantage of the unwary, and that especially children need to be protected from adults who try to exploit them for their own sexual purposes.

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Child Pornography 3

The commercial and psychological exploitation of children for pornographic purposes runs the gamut from seemingly harmless “nudist portraits” to scenes of extreme sexual violence. The producers of this material come from all over the world and from all walks of life. Indeed, occasionally even the children’s own parents are involved. There is a general agreement that all of these exploiters need to be tracked down and stopped.

However, the issue becomes less clear once we deal with teenagers who take sexually explicit pictures of themselves and share them with their own teenage friends. Not only the internet, but also the mobile picture phone now allows the transmission of images. As long as the senders are younger than 18, they are, in this context, legally defined as children. Therefore, they are guilty of spreading child pornography, and the recipients are guilty of possessing it. 

This means that the teenagers involved are both perpetrators and victims at the same time. Such exchanges can already be assumed to occur and to increase in the future, but they have not yet been very widely discussed. How the law and law enforcement will eventually deal with them remains to be seen.

This example is only one of many that point to possible problems with fighting child pornography. [... ...] 

Adult Sexual Contact with Children: Child Pornography 4

The varying definitions of childhood and the different “ages of consent” in different countries already indicate that the fight against child pornography is not a straightforward, simple matter. Indeed, it has raised several other unresolved technical and legal issues. For example:

  • Some men accused of having collected child pornography had to be cleared by the courts, because it turned out that a special computer virus (a “Trojan horse”) had infected their PCs and had downloaded the images without their knowledge.
  • Civil libertarians have pointed out that it is problematical to punish people for the mere private possession of pictures, whatever their character might be. This kind of governmental intrusion into the private sphere sets a worrisome precedent and might end up establishing a “thought police” that would try to suppress all kinds of unpopular interests and dissident opinions.
  • Punishing the possession of child pornography has been justified on the grounds that it rewards its producers for their crimes and encourages them to hurt and exploit even more children. However, modern computer technology allows the creation of “virtual” pornographic images, i.e. artificial, but realistic looking images of children who never existed in reality. Trying to prohibit such images raises entirely new questions. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has struck down such a prohibition as violating the constitutional guarantee of free speech. (United States Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 2002)

In view of these and other contentious issues, private civil rights groups try to monitor current developments and to warn of excesses in either direction.