Does Finkelhor’s Preconditions Model of child sexual offending offer an adequate explanation for the perpetration of child sexual assault? Critically discuss.
Finkelhor (1984) developed a Preconditions Model of Child Sexual Offending upon review of all the factors that have previously been proposed as contributing to sexual abuse, (Lukianowicz, 1972; Lystad, 1982; Tierney & Corwin, 1983). In light of this information, Finkelhor (1984) suggested that all factors relating to child sexual abuse could be grouped as contributing to one of four preconditions that needed to be met before sexual abuse could occur; a potential offender needs to be motivated to abuse a child sexually, they need to be able to overcome internal inhibitions against acting on that motivation, they need to overcome external impediments to committing sexual abuse and the offender or some other factor needs to overcome a child’s possible resistance to the abuse.
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The first precondition; Motivation to Sexually Abuse, consists of three components that explain the motivational drive behind child sexual offending: Emotional Congruence, important emotional needs are met through relating sexually to the child; Sexual Arousal, the child becomes a potential source of sexual gratification for them and Blockage, sexual gratification is not available or is less satisfying through alternative sources. The second precondition: Overcoming Internal Inhibitors, explains the reasons why the motivation is then put into action. Otherwise known as disinhibition, examples include alcohol, psychosis and impulse disorder. Although they do not fully explain why abuse occurs, the aforementioned preconditions account for the behaviour of the offender. A man who is both entirely motivated to abuse sexually and disinhibited may not do so because there are factors outside of his control that determine whether and with whom he abuses, of which the final two preconditions explain, (Finkelhor, 1984).
The penultimate precondition: Overcoming External Inhibitors, explains the role of external influences in both the child and offender’s lives. For example, lack of privacy and the supervision a child receives from their family, neighbours, and friends; all contribute towards a restraining influence on the actions of a potential abuser. The final precondition: Overcoming the Resistance of the Child, suggests how the child themselves determines whether abuse is likely to occur. A child who is emotionally insecure, deprived or lacks knowledge about sexual abuse are examples which may make a child more vulnerable to sexual abuse. However, abuse may occur regardless of a child’s behaviour because of the use of force and coercion by the offender to involve the child in sexual activity. To explain child sexual offending, all four preconditions must be present, (Finkelhor, 1984).
Finkelhor’s Preconditions Model (1984) was one of the first comprehensive theories of child sexual offending and represents a significant achievement during that time and currently. Finkelhor’s model was the first multi-factorial explanations for child sexual abuse, where a rich integrated theory was developed by constructing associated concepts that explain the reasons behind child sexual offending, (Ward and Hudson, 2001). His model includes both psychological, sociological, attributional, cultural, and learning theories to explain child sexual offending, for example, emotional congruence can also be expressed socially such as teaching or coaching children’s sports. Although this approach is advantageous because of its flexibility and inclusiveness, the theory risks becoming inconsistent with competing causal mechanisms which could be interpreted as Finkelhor has merely developed a theoretical framework rather than a distinctive theory, (Ward and Hudson, 2001). However, Finkelhor makes it clear that his aim was to provide both an explanation of child sexual abuse and a typology as opposed to a multi-factorial framework to guide theory in the field, (Finkelhor, 1984) and evidence of this is shown by him suggesting that offenders may have different combinations of needs that motivate their offending, allowing his theory to account for all types of child sexual offenders and thus can be used as a typology.
However, it is questionable whether Finkelhor’s Precondition Model is a genuine multi-factorial theory of child sexual offending. Finkelhor theorises that sexual arousal, blockage and emotional congruence are motives for an individual to sexually abuse a child. Finkelhor suggests that the motivation behind sexually abusing a child exists solely within these factors included in the first precondition and that the subsequent preconditions represent overcoming control and obtaining sexual access to a child, (Ward and Beech, 2006). Thus, Finkelhor is arguing that some sexual offences are caused by a single psychological factor which contradicts his claim that a range of interacting factors can cause it. These complex interactions alone are not a problem, but it is a weakness of Finkelhor’s theory that it includes multiple single, two and three factor explanatory models and this reveals the lack of conceptual clarity regarding the basic theories and their relationship with one another and the environment, (Ward and Hudson, 2001). As a result, this makes the model difficult to come up with direct ways to test the theory’s validity as an explanation of child sexual offending.
An adequate child sexual offending theory should validate why psychological and social factors are expressed through sexual offenses and behaviours rather than some other type of behaviour, (Ward and Beech, 2004). Although Finkelhor’s model suggests that the primary motives driving sexual offenses against children are psychological; for example the need for intimacy, this however, is not sufficient as its own explanation. While Finkelhor’s model states that each of the three motivational factors may operate independently or in combination, (Finkelhor, 1984), if each factor can function independently, then it is hard to see why blockage and emotional congruence motives result in a sexual offense and therefore what is missing is an explanation of why in such circumstances non-sexual needs are expressed sexually, (Ward and Hudson, 2001). For example, an individual’s lack of social skills or castration anxiety are used to explain why some men turn to children as a means of sexual satisfaction as a result of their inability to establish intimate relationships with adults. This information is insufficient to explain why such individuals choose children as sexual partners rather than use an alternative way to meet their sexually frustrated needs such as pornography or prostitutes. Therefore, Finkelhor’s model requires the addition of processes or mechanisms that are capable of explaining why and how these psychological factors result in sexual offences against children.
Additionally, the motives outlined in precondition one; emotional congruence, sexual arousal and blockage are not explained in terms of the role of cognitive influences within these factors such as, attitudes or beliefs, (Ward and Hudson, 2001). For example, emotional congruence involves beliefs regarding children’s abilities to sexually satisfy an offender’s needs while blockage and sexual arousal are influenced by beliefs relating to desires for children but, Finkelhor assumes that cognitive factors interact with an offender’s needs, drives and emotions but he does not clarify their exact role to a sufficient level or consider the role of cognitive distortions, (Burn and Brown, 2006).
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Finkelhor’s lack of attention concerning developmental factors with the tendency to focus on proximal causes of sexual offending is another weakness of his model. The major task of a good etiological theory of child sexual offending is to account for the onset, development, and maintenance and although the motives for sexual offending are outlined in the first precondition; Motivation to Sexually Abuse, their developmental trajectory and how the factors merge to create the susceptibility to commit sexual offences against children is unclear, (Ward and Hudson, 2001). The lack of clarity in this aspect of Finkelhor’s model is in contrast to an opposing model; Marshall and Barbaree’s (1990) Integrated Theory, where developmental difficulties interact with socio-cultural factors, the onset of puberty and taking advantage of events to increase the likelihood of sexual offending to occur. Nevertheless, Finkelhor’s Precondition Model is still more comprehensive in the sense that it is able to link the process of child sexual offending with the offender’s motives and environmental conditions and is arguably the only multi-factorial theory to attempt to relate a broad range of casual factors to these offences against children. However, Finkelhor fails to be explicit regarding the distal causal factors, (Ward and Beech, 2006).
On the other hand, these causal factors have been useful is providing a clear framework for studying men who have sexually abused children and has led to clear treatment and rehabilitation methods and clinical innovations. It has been one of the most promising etiological theories for use in the rehabilitation of sexual offenders, (Ward and Beech, 2006) and has also been used as an application to understand female sex offending and non-contact offending. Collings and Duff (2016), reviewed the effectiveness of utilising Finkelhor’s model in the rehabilitation and risk assessment of female sex offenders. After intervention, they found that there were improvements in the offender’s areas such as control, the ability to maintain positive relationships and reduced dissociation and dysfunctional sexual behaviour and thus, provides support for the model guiding and being successful in the treatment of female offenders as well as males. Furthermore, the application of Finkelhor’s model also increases the individual’s awareness of their offending behaviour and helps to reduce denial and increase empathy for the victim. Collings and Duff (2016), stated that Finkelhor’s model was used as a preference over any other existing theoretical models of sexual offending because unlike Ward and Beech’s Integrated theory (2006), it focuses specifically on child sexual offending and unlike Marshall and Barbaree’s Integrated Theory (1990), it can effectively account for non-aggressive sexual offending and for those offenders who commit an offence at a later stage of their life and also prioritises the impact that external and environmental factors have in understanding the process of offending, unlike the Quadripartite Model (Hall and Hirschman, 1991). The model also has face validity and is able to assist in directing the clinician’s attention to important assessment and therapeutic targets, (Howell, 1994) which deemed to be extremely relevant in aiding Collings and Beech’s (2016) study. However, this research is significantly impacted by limitations of sample size, due to the minimal number of female sex offenders; of those that are referred for therapeutic intervention, and subsequently external validity of these findings is questionable.
To conclude, Finkelhor’s Preconditions Model was one of the first comprehensive multi-factorial models of child sexual offending. It has provided a clear framework for the study men who have committed sexual offences against children and has led to the treatment and rehabilitation of these offenders, as well as having applications to the explanation and treatment of female sex offending. However, these strengths are conflicted compared to the conceptual difficulties and lack of clarity within the model, suggesting that it needs to be updated in light of more current research and theory to make it a more adequate model to explain child sexual offending. Moreover, future research could combine Finkelhor’s opposing theories of child sexual abuse, Marshall and Barbaree’s (1990) Integrated Theory and Hall and Hirschman’s (1992) Quadripartite Model and attempt to integrate their strengths into a new model of child sexual offending in order to compensate for each theory’s weaknesses.
- Burn, M. F., & Brown, S. (2006). A review of the cognitive distortions in child sex offenders: An examination of the motivations and mechanisms that underlie the justification for abuse. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11(3), 225-236.
- Collins, S., & Duff, S. (2016). The precondition model as a method for developing understanding of female contact and non-contact sex offending: A single case study. International Journal of Forensic Mental Health, 15(1), 111-124.
- Finkelhor, D. (1984). Child sexual abuse: New Theory and Research. New York: The Free Press.
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- Lystad, M. H. (1982). Sexual abuse in the home: A review of the literature. International Journal of Family Psychiatry.
- Marshall, W. L., & Barbaree, H. E. (1990). An integrated theory of the etiology of sexual offending. In Handbook of sexual assault (pp. 257-275). Springer, Boston, MA.
- Tierney, K. J., & Corwin, D. L. (1983). Exploring intrafamilial child sexual abuse. The dark side of families: Current family violence research, 102-116.
- Ward, T., & Beech, A. (2006). An integrated theory of sexual offending. Aggression and violent behavior, 11(1), 44-63.
- Ward, T., & Beech, A. (2004). The integration of etiology and risk in sexual offenders: A theoretical framework. Aggression and violent behavior, 10(1), 31-63.
- Ward, T., & Hudson, S. M. (2001). Finkelhor’s precondition model of child sexual abuse: A critique. Psychology, Crime & Law, 7(4), 291-307.
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