A Model for Understanding Child Sexual Abuse
Many have tried to understand and explain why
child sexual abuse
place. Some have focused on the personality of the abuser or the victim.
Others have pointed to biological factors or to pressures within our
It is never easy to explain "why" anything happens. Right now, although
we have many theories about child sexual abuse, we have even more
questions. No one really knows “why" child sexual abuse takes place. We
do know what conditions are necessary for child sexual abuse to take
The Four Pre-Conditions Model of Child Sexual Abuse
Dr. David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research
Center at the University of New Hampshire, and his colleagues have
proposed a comprehensive model that identifies four factors necessary
for child sexual abuse to take place. This model gives us a basis for
understanding how child sexual abuse can happen. Dr. Finkelhor calls
each of the four factors a "pre-condition." When all four pre-conditions
are present, child sexual abuse can occur. When any one is missing,
child sexual abuse will not take place.
Pre-Condition 1. The potential
child sexual abuser must have some motivation to
have sex with the child. The potential molester or rapist must, first of all,
want to have sex with the child in order for child sexual abuse to take
place. This motivation may come from any of several sources:
The abuser’s primary sexual orientation is toward children.
Some abusers are motivated to have sex with children because they are
sexually aroused primarily by children. They have sex with children
because they find children more sexually exciting than adults. They
prefer to have sex with children rather than with people in their own
Where does this primary sexual orientation toward children come from?
Some suggest that genetic factors may make some individuals more easily
sexually aroused by children. Others point to factors in the abuser’s
personal history or environment, suggesting that some individuals may
have learned to become sexually aroused by children because of early
sexual experiences with other children or because of child pornography
or advertisements that portray children in sexual ways. Some abusers may
mistake strong emotional feelings for children as “sexual" when others
would identify them as "parental" or “affectionate." Others may have
learned only too well what our society teaches: the most desirable
sexual partners are youthful and subservient.
The abuser’s primary sexual orientation is toward peers, but the
abuser turns to children as a substitute when preferred sexual partners
are not available.
Some abusers prefer sexual activity with adults, and only turn to
children as a "second choice" to meet their sexual needs when adult
sexual partners are not available. The abuser’s adult partner may be
absent, ill, uncooperative, or otherwise unavailable so the abuser has
sex with a child as an alternative way of achieving sexual
gratification. Repressive teachings about sex, early unresolved
conflicts regarding parental figures, traumatic sexual experiences with
adults, blows to self-esteem, or lack of social skills can also cause
individuals to avoid social or sexual relationships with adults
temporarily or permanently. Instead, these individuals turn to children
as less threatening alternatives.
The abuser is seeking to meet non-sexual emotional needs by having
sex with children.
Some abusers may be trying to satisfy important emotional needs which
have nothing to do with sex, such as the need to be liked, or the need
for excitement, the need to feel powerful, or the need to be in control
of another person. Some abusers try to fulfill these emotional needs
through sexual activity with children.
Any of these motivations, or elements of several of these, may lead the
abuser to sexual activity with children.
Pre-Condition 2. The potential abuser must overcome his or her own
inhibitions against sexual activity with a child. The potential
abuser must find a way around whatever stops him or her from acting on
the desire to have sex with a child, whether it is conscience or a fear
Some abusers have few internal inhibitions against sexual activity with
children. Some of these, called sociopaths, are people who do not care
about any rules of society that interfere with their own desires. Their
only concern is how to avoid getting into trouble for their actions.
Others, whose consciences would normally stop them from hurting anyone,
have trouble recognizing or believing that child sexual abuse can cause
children harm. This comes from either from lack of knowledge or through
denial, that is, by hiding the unwelcome truth from themselves. Still
others may truly believe that sexual activity with children is
appropriate under certain conditions.
Many people think about having sexual activity with a child at some time
or another. Most of us stop ourselves from doing it. For most of us, our
internal inhibitions against this type of behavior or our fear of
getting in trouble are stronger than our
motivations to do it. Most people who sexually abuse children also have
inhibitions against sexual activity with children, but in certain
situations their other emotional or sexual needs become strong enough to
overcome their inhibitions.
Some abusers reduce their normally adequate inhibitions against child
sexual abuse temporarily by using alcohol or other drugs. This may be
purposeful or may result from unplanned situational circumstances.
High levels of stress can also work to overcome inhibitions against
child sexual abuse. Stress makes it difficult to think clearly, and also
makes us uncomfortable in physical and psychological ways. Then the
pressures to satisfy sexual or emotional needs can overpower normal
Rarely, abusers have serious mental or emotional problems that interfere
with their thinking, and reduce their ability to control their behavior
appropriately. Mental retardation, brain damage, senility, or serious
mental illness such as schizophrenia, can lead to problems with judgment
and behavioral controls and these can reduce the person’s inhibitions
against sexual activity with children. Most individuals with these
problems do not abuse children, however.
The influence of society can strengthen or weaken an individual’s
inhibitions against child sexual abuse. Society reduces inhibitions
against child sexual abuse when it tolerates or encourages sexual
interest in children through child pornography or child prostitution.
Society also reduces inhibitions against child sexual abuse when
criminal sanctions against child sexual abuse are weak or uncertain.
Pre-Condition 3. The opportunity to engage in sexual activity with a
child must arise. The potential abuser must get a chance to be with
the potential victim, usually alone.
The more time a child spends away from appropriate supervision, the
greater is the opportunity for abuse. Physical separation of the child
from others is usually necessary for abuse to occur, but emotional or
social isolation can also play an important role in giving the potential
abuser access to a child. A child who is physically or emotionally
“alone" becomes more easily accessible to an abuser.
Generally, the type of access the abuser has to the child determines the
type of abuse that can take place. Different types of physical and
emotional access lead to brief incidents of abuse, to abuse in a
continuing relationship, or to incest.
Pre-Condition 4. The resistance of the child to the sexual activity
must be overcome. The abuser must find a way to get around whatever
resistance the child puts up.
Children do have some capacity to avoid or resist abuse, and often do
so. They are usually at a disadvantage in the confrontation, however,
because of the greater knowledge, power, or authority of the abuser.
Some abusers use this superior knowledge, power, or authority to
overpower the resistance of the child. Others exploit the physical or
emotional needs of the child to overcome resistance.
Some children, especially younger children, may not know that sexual
activity with the abuser is wrong. Others may sense that something is
wrong but accept the explanations or assurances of the abuser because he
or she is older and has more knowledge or authority. Some older children
who know the activity is wrong simply do not know how to deal with the
difficult situation. Others have been taught to obey adults without
Abusers may overcome the child’s resistance through physical force or
fear. Fears are many. They range from fear of physical harm to
embarrassment, shame, fear of hurting others or fear of losing valuable
companions or family members.
Abusers may take advantage of a child’s need for attention, love, or
companionship to overcome resistance to sexual activity. The child who
feels emotionally needy will be much more vulnerable to the attentions
of an abuser than the child who is confident in the love and concern of
others, as well as in his or her own self-worth.
Children living "on their own" are especially vulnerable to those who
will provide food, shelter, or money in exchange for sexual activity.
Runaways often become prostitutes to provide themselves with the basic
physical necessities of life.
When child sexual abuse has occurred Dr. Finkelhor’s model helps us
understand how it happened. We can see that the abuser has been
motivated to have sexual activity with a child and has overcome
whatever inhibitions he or she had against this activity. The abuser
had an opportunity to be with the victim and overcame the
victim’s resistance to the sexual activity. If any one of the
pre-conditions had not been present,
child sexual abuse would not have
occur. All four pre-conditions came together, and the child sexual abuse
Books by Dr. Lynn Daugherty about Child Sexual Abuse . . .
Voices of Survivors
Child Rapists, and
Child Sexual Abuse
Help for Victims of Child Sexual Abuse