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Extracts from

Child Sexual Abuse 

Chapter 2: Sexual Abuse as a Moral Problem

David Finkelhor 
The Free Press, New York, pp.14-22, 1984



Simple Arguments Are Not Sufficient

There are at least two "intuitive" arguments that are often made against the idea of sex between adults and children, both of which fall short of being convincing.


A third argument about what's wrong with sex between adults and children remains, simply, that it is harmful. This one is probably the most common argument one hears currently, and it is an argument containing a good deal of validity. Certainly clinicians are encountering an increasing number of both children and adults who appear to have been badly traumatized by childhood sexual contacts with adults. Clinicians are convinced that sexual abuse can result in long-term effects on a child's self-esteem and on a child's ability to develop healthy sexual and intimate relationships (Herman, 1981).

Research studies do support the idea that sexual abuse can have serious negative consequences (DeFrancis, 1969; Kaufman, Peck & Taquiri, 1954; Tsai, Feldman-Summers & Edgar, 1979). Studies among populations of prostitutes, drug abusers, and adolescent runaways suggest that a high proportion of such people have a history of sexual abuse. In Chapter 12 we review evidence on long-term effects, showing that the group of ordinary college students who 


were sexually victimized as children are significantly impaired in terms of their feelings about their own sexual behavior compared to a non-victimized group.

However, the research is somewhat more equivocal on the issue of whether the effects of sexual contact between adults and children are inevitably negative. In our own research we found that the vast majority of adults who reported that they had such sexual contacts as children said the effects were negative (Finkelhor, 1979). It is also true that some children who have sexual contacts with adults report these as positive. 

In our student study (Finkelhor, 1979) 7% of the women, for example, rated their experience as a positive one. 

(Only about half of these positive experiences were with actual adults, the rest being with other children at least five years older.) 

Some researchers have recently captured media attention reporting what they call "positive incest" (Farell, 1982; Nelson, 1981; Nobile, 1977). 

It turns out that most of what these researchers are terming positive incest are experiences between two children or two mature partners, not cross-generational incest. But it is probably true that a small number of children do have sexual experiences with adults that they feel are positive (Sandfort, 1982).

Given that positive experiences between adults and children may be possible, can one still argue that sexual contact between adults and children is wrong because it is harmful? Yes, I think one can. The evidence suggests that such sexual contact can be harmful, often extremely so. The evidence also suggests that such sexual contact is frequently felt to be negative and unpleasant even if it does not always leave permanent scars. On the other side, the evidence of positive or therapeutic effects is small - and controversial. In short, most people would agree that even if not inevitably harmful, sexual contact between adults and children carries high risk. These high risks justify the prohibitions society places on this activity. 

[...not just empirical issue ... moral dimension ought to be addressed ...]

Even though one can argue against sexual contact between adults and children on the basis on the risk involved, it remains, however, that such an argument underemphasizes the real extend of the wrong and the basic ethical issue at stake. Whether such activity should be sanctioned or not is not just an empirical issue like whether we should allow children to ingest caffeine, something to be decided by a balancing of negative and positive consequences. Thinking about the question is these terms misses the whole moral dimension, which also ought to be addressed.

For example, we would bridle at the notion that the question of slavery should be decided on the empirical question of whether black people or any other slave group experience more well-being under slavery than in freedom. Something about slavery is so offensive to our fundamental notion about human relationships, to our system of ethics, that we do not decide the issue on [p.17] purely empirical grounds. Testimony from even large numbers of slaves that they preferred the condition of slavery would not convince us that "consensual" slavery should be allowed. Similarly, there is an ethical dimension beyond the empirical dimension that needs to be included in our understanding of what is wrong with sex between adults and children. 

The Issue of Consent

The ethical dimension of the problem can be approached through the issue of consent. Consent is one of the key notions around which we organize the ethics of our social interactions. As a society, we are moving toward a sexual ethic that holds that sex of all sorts between consenting persons should be permitted, but sex in situations where a person does not consent should be considered as illegal and taboo. [...] Sex between adults and children can be condemned for the same reason.

But don't many children "consent" to sex acts with adults? It is true that sex between adults and children commonly is much less coercive than rape because, in many cases, children appear to consent passively or even cooperate. If we say that sex id "Okay" if consent is present, doesn't this legitimate much adult-child sex?

The key argument we make is that children are incapable of truly consenting to sex with adults because they are children. For this reason, sex between an adult and a child cannot be sanctioned under our moral standard, which requires that consent be given. However, to make this statement, a more detailed discussion of consent is necessary.

For consent truly to occur, two conditions must prevail. A person must know what it is that he or she is consenting to and must have true freedom to say yes or no.

Can children fulfill these conditions in relation to sex with adults? It is fairly evident that they cannot. For one thing, children lack the information necessary to make an "informed" decision about the matter. They are ignorant about sex and sexual relationships. It is not only that they may be unfamiliar with the mechanics of sex and reproduction. More important, they are generally unaware of the social meanings of sexuality. For example, they are unlikely to be aware of the rules and regulations surrounding sexual intimacy - what it is supposed to signify. They are uninformed and inexperienced about what criteria to use in judging the acceptability of a sexual partner. They do not know much about the "natural history" of a sexual relationship - what course it will take. And finally, children have little way of knowing how other people are likely to react to the experience they are about to undertake - what likely consequences it will have for them in the future.

Children may know that they like the adult, that the physical sensations feel good, and on this basis may make a choice. But they lack the knowledge the adult has about sex and about what they are undertaking. This "ignorance" stems from the very fact of being a child and inexperienced. In this sense, a child cannot give informed consent to sex with an adult.

For another thing, a child does not have the freedom to say yes or no. This is true in a legal sense and also in a psychological sense. In a legal sense, a child is under the authority of an adult and has no free will. In a more important psychological sense, children have a hard time saying "no" to adults, who control all kinds of resources that are essential to them. Food, money, freedom all lie in adults hands. In this sense, the child is like the prisoner who volunteers to be a research subject. The child has no freedom in which to consider the choice.

This lack of freedom is especially true when the adult propositioning the child is a parent or a relative or another important figure in the child's life, as is so often the case. Most of what we see as "consensual" behavior among children is a response to the powerful incentives and authority that such adults hold. As one of my interviewees said, "He was my uncle. He told me what to do and I obeyed. I was taught to obey adults." Thus a child cannot consent, in a moral sense, to sex with an adult because a child is not truly free to say no.


A somewhat analogous situation, I think, is that of sex between therapists and patients. Many patients may benefit from sex with their therapist, but the argument that such sex is wrong does not hinge on the positive or negative outcome that results. Rather it lies in the fundamental asymmetry of the relationship. A patient, I would argue, cannot freely consent to sex with a therapist. The main consideration here is that, in the context of a therapeutic relationship, a patient is not really free to say yes or no. Even if the patient liked it, a moral wrong would have been committed.





[...] Is a secretary being propositioned by her boss truly free to refuse? In many cases, no. Full consent is not present in all adult-adult encounters. Some adults probably deserve protection along with children. However, the greater potential access that adults have to both knowledge and freedom puts them in a different category. Children constitute a clearly identifiable class where these conditions do not prevail; they deserve special protection.

Second, some people argue that the notion of "inability to consent" involves an oppressive type of paternalism. Most of the new champions of eliminating so-called "age-of-consent laws" have made their arguments on behalf of the "rights of children," such as the right of children to express themselves sexually and choose whomever they wish for sexual partners (O'Carroll, 1980; Presland, 1981). 

It may be true that children are oppressed by arbitrary adult-imposed controls. But it seems extremely doubtful that any large group of children are complaining that they are not "allowed" to engage in sex with adults. If polled, we suspect children would vote for better protection against adult sexual overtures, not more "freedom."

These self-proclaimed children's liberationists tend to minimize two parts of the problem. They do not truly believe that adults are vastly more powerful than children. They think, for example, that the fact that the adult badly wants the child to like him, or the fact that the child's disclosure could put the adult in jail, really equalizes the power imbalance that exists between an adult and a child. They also do not acknowledge the enormous manipulativeness and callous lack of regard for children's well-being that characterize the behavior of many persons who try to seduce children. Most children are not capable of protecting their own interests in the face of this power and this guile (Gay Left Collective, 1981). There is nothing wrong with paternalism where it provides children with protection they need and cannot give themselves.

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