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Title: Adult sexual experiences with children
Author(s): Chin-Keung Li
Affiliation: Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, England
Citation: Li, C.K., “Adult sexual experiences with children,” in Li, C.K., West, D.J., & Woodhouse, T.P., Children’s sexual encounters with adults, London: Duckworth, 1990a, pp. 139-316.



Most studies of the frequency of adult-child sexual behavior are conducted in the context of child sexual abuse (CSA). Twelve studies conducted in the U.S.A. between 1953 and 1986 reported 2% to 30% of boys were sexually abused in childhood. These figures varied so widely due to several factors:

Confirmations that child sexual abuse is common underlie calls for more action and the imposition of more stringent sexual morality on society. Yet a crucial issue is ignored: the proportion of what is called abuse that involves consensual activities. One 1973 study estimated that 80% of incidents involving boys were consensual. The estimate was conservative in that very stringent criteria for consent were used.

Effects of adult-child sexual interaction

It is generally observed that when harm occurs, psychological harm is more serious than physical injury. Even when there is no physical violence, psychological harm often results. Several researchers have found that victims experience various emotions, such as fear, excitement, confusion, guilt, or a sense of being trapped by something unknown.

A 1986 clinical study found that 69% of CSA victims showed some immediate psychological symptoms. In a 1984 Canadian study, a national hospital survey found 11% of sexually abused boys were physically injured, 54% showed immediate emotional harm, and 19% showed long-term harm. However, the same study also conducted a national population survey which showed very different results: only 4% were physically injured, and only 7% showed immediate emotional harm.

A 1984 study conducted by Finkelhor found long-term negative effects on sexual self-esteem that were independent of other causes. Other studies have found post-traumatic stress disorder long after the incident, with symptoms including “affect disturbance,” depression, guilt, and sleep problems. Other reported effects have included inappropriate sexual acting out, suicidal or self-injurious behavior, involvement in prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, abusive behavior, sexual maladjustment, and initiation into homosexual activity.

However, such studies have not made distinctions between the effects of unwanted sexual incidents and those willingly engaged in. Researchers agree on the harmfulness and unacceptability of sexual contact involving physical violence, but there is significant disagreement about psychological harm in the absence of coercion. Furthermore, noting that unwelcome sexual approaches elicit negative reactions is not the same as claiming that every incident leaves a permanent scar.

A 1981 review by Constantine examined about 30 studies and concluded that there is no single inevitable result of child-adult sexual contact. It may or may not lead to harm. Which of these possibilities occurs depends on several factors: the child’s freedom to consent, the child’s knowledge of sex and social norms, and the family’s and society’s reactions to the activity. Constantine commented that this applies to sexual relationships in general, not just to those between children and adults.

Another 1981 review of 12 studies conducted by Powell and Chalkley concluded that some children participate actively, that there are no long-term ill effects (including no induction into homosexuality), and that, although on the surface there seems to be a correlation between what is considered child sexual abuse and psychopatholgy, this connection is not causal—children found to be disturbed were so before the sexual activity occurred. But they pointed out that “catastrophic reactions may be shown by particular children under particular circumstances. Further research should concentrate upon pinpointing these children and circumstances.”

Other researchers disagree. One researcher criticized the above study on the grounds that most of the studies it examined were outdated. One 1981 summary of 50 studies conducted by Mrazek and Mrazek found that many more of the studies showed harm than not.

A 1981 review of long-term effects by Steele and Alexander concluded that children were badly affected long after the incidents. They wrote that even though other factors besides sexual abuse contribute to harm, the sexual abuse seems to be the “central core” around which other harmful experiences are organized. In addition, even when no obvious harm is observable, much pain and turmoil may exist beneath a seemingly normal appearance.

The Steele and Alexander study shows that there are two fundamental problems in attempting to determine the effects of child-adult sexual interaction.

A 1986 review conducted by Browne and Finkelhor examined 26 studies. It acknowledged that many of the studies were methodologically inadequate, but Brown and Finkelhor wrote that they believed the studies showed some CSA victims suffer from fear, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, inappropriate sexual behavior, stigma, low self-esteem, self-destructive behavior, substance abuse, sexual difficulties, mistrust, and revictimization.

There was more harm when the abuser was the father, when there was genital contact, when there was coercion, and when family members were unsupportive. They organized the effects into four categories, which they called “traumagenic dynamics.” However, these categories confuse rather than clarify the issue because Browne and Finkelhor later write as if they are powerful, concrete, objective entities which cause harmful effects, rather than being categories of effects as they had originally defined them.

It may be impossible to design a study that could find a causal link between childhood sexual experience with adults and subsequent effects—especially those that are long-term. Complex interactions among many factors are what produce later effects in life. Thus the research finds contradictory results. Attempts to solve this problem using sophisticated statistical analyses may cause the personal qualities of human experiences to be lost.

As a result, researchers who try to find causal links end up relying on post hoc or ad hoc explanations which read more into the statistics than they allow, and which depend on the researchers’ own tacit understanding of human life. Thus they speculate about the emotional experience of the victims. If researchers are going to study this experience, a narrative approach would be better.

The focus of researchers depends on value judgments and their definition of abuse. Those who view all types of adult-child sexual activity as abusive assume such activity always causes harm, and orient their search accordingly. For example, the Browne and Finkelhor review ignored earlier studies which found children participated willingly and no harm occurred when coercion was not present. Similarly, a 1985 review by Chesterman examined only certain studies to conclude that child-adult sexual interaction is always harmful.

On the other hand, those who are sympathetic to certain types of sexual contact in certain situations (e.g., consensual, without outside intervention, in the absence of abusive environments) may focus on such contact, and find no harm. Constantine’s review made such a conclusion, and used the results to promote the sexual liberation of children.

The inclusion of all types of sexual experiences in the same study confuses the issue. Finding certain results from one type of experience then claiming they apply to all types biases the conclusions. Thus, the general question, “Is child sexual contact with adults harmful?” may not even be a meaningful one.

Definitions of harm raise further problems. Both increased sexual activity (“promiscuity”) and decreased sexual activity (“sexual dissatisfaction”) are sometimes defined as harmful effects. Classifying them as such is based on value judgments.

An example of how the researcher’s view affects his or her interpretation of the data is seen in Fromuth’s 1986 survey of students. Her statistical calculations showed that sexual abuse accounted for less than 2% of the variation in students’ psychological adjustment, and that there was no difference in “sexual self-esteem” between abused and non-abused students. Far more correlations between abuse and effects were statistically insignificant than significant, and she admitted that sexual abuse might not in itself be related to later adjustment.

However, she still concluded that the “no harm” hypothesis could not be accepted. Her reasons were that her definition of abuse may have been too broad, that the healthy people in her study may have masked the effects of the unhealthy ones, and that the time between the abuse and the study may have been too short to find long-term effects. The author of this article writes that the two latter explanations were attempts to explain away her findings using ad hoc arguments.

Models for understanding adult-child sexual interaction

Several different theories have been proposed for understanding adult sexual interaction with children, determining its causes, and prescribing treatment.

Psychoanalytic. This theory is based on the agreement that “normal” sexuality involves the attraction to adults of the opposite gender, and has as its goal genital orgasm. Other attractions and activities are defined as “deviant” or “paraphilias.”

Any sexual behaviors that resemble childhood activities are assumed to indicate “regression” to, or “fixation” at, an immature stage. They must be due to some developmental difficulty in childhood, usually involving Freud’s “Oedipus complex.” The assumption is made that the man substitutes children for adult women because he can’t find sexual satisfaction with them, or because he is narcissistically in love with his previous self as a child.

This theory has not been scientifically verified; in fact, none of the tenets of psychoanalysis can be tested scientifically. Anthropological studies have shown these tenets to be culturally-based. Many critical researchers now claim that as a whole, psychoanalysis has more in common with religion than with science. Psychoanalysts reject outside scrutiny and seem to believe only they have access to truth.

Medical. In this view, those who interact sexually with children have a disease which must be diagnosed and treated. The sexual behavior is a symptom of this disease, as well as the vehicle by which it is spread. Medical doctors are called to study its onset and course, and provide treatment. Treatment consists of castration (which is currently considered ethically problematic), drugs which suppress sex drive, or stereotaxic neurosurgery.

This theory is only a metaphor rather than a literal explanatory theory. No specific organic cause for pedophilia has been found. While several studies show sex-drive reducing drugs are effective at reducing sexual behavior, this fact does not prove an organic basis for adult-child sexual interaction.

Physiological. According to this theory, pedophilia is caused by a disturbance of hormonal systems. Little research has been conducted to examine this hypothesis. One study suggests that pedophiles show a higher than normal hormonal response when they are injected with a particular kind of hormone.

However, this phenomenon need not be causal, and there is no theory to explain why it would result in the frequently observed fact that pedophiles “fall in love” with children. In fact, all human behavior can be associated with certain physiological processes, but such process do not cause or explain these behaviors.

Genetic. A few speculative theories involve a chromosomal antigen which controls the development of sexuality and deviation through instinct and imprinting. However, these theories have no supporting evidence and fail to explain the age-specific attraction felt by pedophiles.

The above three theories (medical, physiological, and genetic) suffer from a fundamental shortcoming: they misuse the biological model. Firstly, they assume that the human experience of interpersonal relationships can be reduced to biology. Secondly, they assume that pedophilia – a theoretical idea – is a physical entity with a single biological cause.

Behavioral. This approach is based on the perspective that observable behavior is the most important source of information, that it can be studied by quantitative measurements, and that behavior can be changed by use of concepts of conditioning and learning.

It assumes that sexual deviance results from learning through repeated association of sexual gratification with deviant stimuli. Accordingly, if a person experiences unpleasant consequences in connection with normal sexual behavior, he will feel averse to them and develop deviant sexual practices. Research fails to support this theory: many homosexuals and pederasts do not show aversive responses to the adult female body or to sexual activity with women.

Other versions of the theory speculate that an inability to form emotional attachment to adult peers results in initial pedophilic tendencies, which are then reinforced by sexual contact with children.

More recently, researchers have felt it important to consider cognitive and perceptual influences: how the pedophile perceives relationships and children’s emotional responses. According to current theory, pedophiles perceive relationships in terms of dominance and submissiveness, perceive themselves as incapable of controlling their social environment, and perceive children as submissive and therefore approachable.

Two treatment approaches follow from the behavioral model. The first is based on the older assumption that deviant sexuality results from faulty conditioning which can be fixed by techniques of de-conditioning and reconditioning. Aversion therapy is a technique used to suppress sexual response to the deviant stimulus by associating an unpleasant consequence with it. Orgasmic reconditioning is used to associate sexual arousal with socially acceptable stimuli. Other techniques include covert sensitization and satiation.

The other approach is based on the newer considerations of cognitive influences. It assumes that pedophilia is caused by a lack of social skills and perceptions which prevent the formation of relationships with adults. Thus the method provides social skills training and change ways of thinking.

Trait approach. This approach is based on criminal samples. It uses questionnaires, personality inventories, and rating scales administered to sex offenders in order to construct “objective” profiles of them. The author writes that these assessments “serve the functions of categorizing individuals into neat pigeon-holes, enabling the professional to feel a sense of understanding regarding the problem at hand, and providing the practitioner with a direction and prescription for the handling of the offenders.”

One study using such an approach grouped offenders against minors by gender preference, degree of violence in their crime, and victim age. All three groups turned out to be similar in personal profiles: they exhibited signs of deprivation and anti-social behavior, which is common among all prisoners.

Another researcher used a three-dimensional model of sexual anomalies: he examined erotic preference, gender identity, and aggression. He concluded that pedophile offenders were not peculiar in their profiles on these dimensions.

Family System Theory. This is the approach most commonly used by those professionals who deal with children who are found to be abused. Based on repeated findings that most sexual abuse occurs in the family, it attempts to understand incest through the investigation of family dynamics.

Feminist Theory. This approach sees all adult-child sexual interaction as a matter of male oppression of children. It assumes that every incident is the result of the male attitude that women and children are their property, and regards every incident as abuse, assault, or rape.

It claims that perpetrators always use physical violence, threats, or enticement; that most sexual abuse lasts over a long period of time; that most victims suffer serious physical and psychological harm; that most victims dare not complain due to fear of being disbelieved or blamed; and that most victims receive no help for support from police or professionals.

Finkelhor’s Multifactor Theory. Finkelhor sees adult-child sexual behavior as resulting from four factors within patriarchal socialization: emotional congruence (sex with children fit the man’s emotional development), sexual arousal to children (due to social or psychological reasons), developmental or situational blockage which prevent the development of peer relationships, and the overcoming of inhibitions against sex with children. He also focuses on conditions which lead to abuse: motivation (which results from the first three factors), overcoming internal and external inhibiters (the last factor), and overcoming the child’s resistance (through exploiting the child’s loneliness or using force).

The author writes that Finkelhor’s approach is problematic because it amounts to a single model to describe all behavior defined as sexual abuse. Child-adult sexual contact and pedophilia are not a unitary phenomenon; they involve very different types of relationships and encounters.

In fact, the author notes three fundamental characteristics that limit all current theories. First, they assume the norm of adult heterosexuality (although some accept as a goal adult homosexuality for men attracted to boys), and believe in the concept of “abnormality.”

Secondly, theorists are less concerned about understanding than they are with control: they are “part of the state apparatus which aims at controlling deviant elements in society…[they] constitute a powerful regime to which the individuals and families concerned must submit.”

Thirdly, they leave out a crucial element: “it appears that most professionally/academically constructed models of intergenerational sexual contact have not given much consideration to the personal construction made by the ‘perpetrator’ himself. To that extent, it is questionable whether these models are adequate to subsume the experience of the central actor of the drama—the adult person involved in the sexual contact.”

The issue of consent

The author examines two opposing arguments regarding adult-sexual contact. He first summarizes the current public consensus which objects to child-adult sexual interaction on moral grounds. This consensus is best illustrated by Finkelhor who argues:

  1. Children and adolescents do not possess necessary knowledge about sexual relationships so they cannot make informed decisions about them.
  2. Children and adolescents are not truly free in relation to adults since they are taught to always obey adults.
  3. For these reasons, children and adolescents cannot give informed and free consent, which is the foundation for all sexual relationships.
  4. Thus, child-adult sexual interaction is always unethical and wrong.

This conclusion is intended to be independent of any scientific questions.

The author finds the following gaps in Finkelhor’s argument. First, his argument in fact is not independent of scientific considerations. Steps 1 and 2 can be verified scientifically.

Children may be able to acquire the necessary knowledge. Their knowledge about sex accumulates as they grow; they do not suddenly receive it when they reach the age of consent. Furthermore, Finkelhor does not explain how much knowledge one must have before one should be permitted to have sex. Many adults have little knowledge, but their freedom is not therefore restricted.

In addition, children and adolescents need not lack freedom in relation to adults. It is possible to study the extent to which they are able to circumvent what adults try to do to them.

Secondly, while it is a common argument that consent should form the basis of a sexual relationship, even in adult relationships it is rarely discussed, especially the adequacy of each person’s sexual knowledge. The ideal of informed consent often does not exist.

Thirdly, Finkelhor favors special protection for children and adolescents because they are powerless, and he therefore advocates for a benevolent paternalism. However, power is not necessarily associated with commission of unethical acts. In fact, wrongfulness is independent of the possession of power; a powerless person can commit wrong against one with power.

The argument that children need special protection from sex with adults is only valid if the sex is assumed to be wrong or found to be damaging. The first assumption begs the question, since Finkelhor’s argument is intended to prove that it is wrong. The second possibility requires scientific study which Finkelhor claims is not part of his argument. Thus, wrongfulness is still not proven, but rather assumed as a starting point.

Fourthly, Finkelhor argues that because sex is so emotion-laden, contact with adults leads to long-term stigmatization. Similarly, Abel and colleagues argue that if the child were aware of the sexual standards of society and its consequences for his decision, he would not consent. This position assumes that current standards and social reactions should not be challenged.

It could be argued that this stigmatization results from society’s mystification of sex and irrational reaction to pedophilia, which make sexual contact unnecessarily emotion-laden. Finkelhor does not consider the possibility of teaching children about sex and giving them the freedom to choose.

The author concludes that Finkelhor’s argument is essentially circular:

He next addresses arguments that favor depathologizing and decriminalizing consensual adult-child sexual interaction. Such arguments typically rest on two bodies of evidence:

A typical proponent of this view is Tom O’Carroll, who argues as follows: Children are sexual, and need and seek affection. Affection and sex should not be dissociated, but rather they complement each other. In many non-Western cultures and in history, adult-child sexual contact was not problematic. Present western culture is irrationally sexually repressive, and this repression causes psychological maladjustment. Rather than doing harm, adult-child sexual activity helps avoid this maladjustment. Society’s traumatizing reactions do cause harm. Children could and would consent if left to their own devices. Willingness is sufficient; full knowledge is a red herring.

This line of argument suffers from its own problems. First, sexological studies do not make as strong a case as some would like to believe. They usually describe peer sexual activity, rather than addressing the issue of adult-child activity. Few deny that children are sexual, but they are not necessarily so in the same sense that adults are. The healthy sexual development of children found in communes has been attributed to the general atmosphere of freedom, rather than simply to early sexual activity.

In addition, the relevance of cross-cultural studies to modern western culture may be limited for several reasons. In other cultures, pedophilia as an exclusive or permanent orientation is rare, even in those such as ancient Greece. Child-adult sexual contact is usually part of a cultural or religious ritual, so that the meaning of the activity is very different from that in western society.

Some research suggests that the contact in some cultures, including that of ancient Greece, may have been exploitive and quite abusive. At any rate, it has not been shown convincingly that the sexual values or practices of other cultures are preferable or advantageous to those of western society.

O’Carroll’s version of the argument is also problematic. First, in a given situation, it is not always clear what the child is seeking. It is not necessarily sex—at least not in the way the adult understands it. The claim that sex should not be dissociated from affection is simplistic; most affectionate relationships do not involve sex. In addition, it is not clear that the prohibition of child-adult sex is a form of repression, or that modern western culture has more psychological problems due to sexual repression.

Furthermore, O’Carroll’s position that knowledge and awareness are irrelevant for consent is problematic: In general, willingness is not a sufficient criterion for endorsing an action if it is potentially harmful. Also, it is difficult to determine a child’s willingness when there is a possibility of deception or bribery. And speaking of “leaving children to their own device” is misleading; other adults are usually around to exert influence, including the pedophile. The argument does not justify the pedophile’s initiative in seeking children.

While O’Carroll’s argument is not successful, the author writes that it points out the urgent need to make two distinctions: between adults who use force and those who do not in their sexual contacts with children; and between children who endure sex acts done to them and those who actively participate in sexual relationships with adults.

Whether or not adult-child contact is harmless, or the harm that arises is due only to society’s reaction, is a complex issue that is far from settled. The effects of such contact are embedded in the social situation, and pedophiles must take this fact into account. Informed consent must include the knowledge of the social consequences of adult-child sex.

The author proposes the following ethical position:

Legal implications

Research findings have several legal implications. The law is a practical arrangement for the peaceful coexistence of individuals living in a community. It does not have an absolute moral status, and it must take into account the socially constituted nature of sexuality. The author makes the following recommendations with respect to the law.

  1. Legislation should differentiate between coercive contact and consensual activities, especially when a long sentence is being considered for the offender. If an evaluation of the offender’s dangerousness does not consider this issue, injustice may be done to pedophiles whose attractions are persistent but whose activities are always consensual.
  2. Age of consent laws should consider the variation in sexual maturity among children and teenagers, their sexual rights, and the need for equal treatment of heterosexual and homosexual activities.

Government intervention into the private lives of families and individuals through the criminal justice system should be kept to a minimum.

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