Finkelhor’s Flaws: Why David Finkelhor is misguided on child-adult sex

April 26th, 2008 by Stephen James

At David Finkelhor says this:

Ultimately, I do continue to believe that the prohibition on adult-child sexual contact is primarily a moral issue. While empirical findings have some relevance they are not the final arbiter. The social judgment that slavery is reprehensible would not have been challenged by empirical findings that some slaves felt positively about being a slave (as some undoubtedly did) or even benefited from it. The social judgment that child labor needed to be prohibited similarly would not have been vitiated by evidence that some children felt positively and benefited from it (as they undoubtedly did as well). Some types of social relationships violate deeply held values and principles in our culture about equality and self-determination. Sex between adults and children is one of them. Evidence that certain children have positive experiences does not challenge these values, which have deep roots in our worldview.

I propose to show that Finkelhor’s analogies between slavery and child labour on the one hand and consensual child-adult sex on the other are deeply flawed and that when the flaws are revealed his argument against the latter is seen to be unconvincing.

But first a word about the context in which Finkelhor offers his argument. A number of studies in recent years have appeared to show that in some cases sex between adults and children does not have harmful consequences for the child, particularly when the child is a willing participant. Finkelhor does not entirely repudiate these findings, though he tends to minimise their significance, partly by setting them against other studies that appear to contradict them. But, as indicated by the passage just quoted, he does not think that harm is the critical issue when justifying legal proscription of child-adult sex. So exactly why is this proscription justified in his view? Because it ’violate[s] deeply held values and principles in our culture about equality and self-determination.’ In this respect, Finkelhor says, it is like slavery and child labour.

So let us investigate more carefully how these analogies are supposed to work and ask whether they do really work in the way Finkelhor intends. First, slavery. Finkelhor argues that even though some slaves felt positively about being a slave and even benefited from it, this does nothing to lessen the wrongness of slavery. But the key question is not whether some slaves felt positively about being slaves or benefited from it but whether or not slavery is ever consensual, for only if there exists such a thing as consensual slavery can one draw a defensible analogy between slavery and those instances of child-adult sex in which the child is a willing participant. Note that for slavery to be completely consensual it is not enough that the slave prefers slavery to the other alternatives available to her. That must often have been the case, but it does not follow that complete consent would have been present. Complete consent implies that the slave consents to every single requirement that her master makes of her i.e. she does not merely have to obey it–she does it because she wants to do it. Even the most benevolent slave-master will occasionally make demands that the slave would rather not carry out. (She would prefer to stay a little longer in bed than make her master’s breakfast, for example.) The alternative–that the slave willingly obeys every instruction is practically unthinkable. Even if such a situation has ever arisen, which seems highly unlikely, to call it ‘slavery’ would seem quite inappropriate. And this is because, though there is a kind of coercion present, it seems redundant. (The master has to tell the slave what to do, but once she knows what the master wants, she invariably finds that she wants to do it anyway.)

Real slavery, in contrast, involves masters making regular demands of slaves that they would just rather not carry out. In this respect it is nothing like consensual child-adult sex, in which sexual activities are often initiated by the child and, even when requested by the adult, do not go ahead unless they are to the child’s liking. Finkelhor’s analogy collapses, then, because of something that he has failed to notice — that real slavery is not consensual. Finkelhor admittedly denies that child-adult sex can ever be truly consensual owing to the power imbalance between adults and children. I will not argue this point here, but will merely point out that there exists ample empirical evidence that children do often consent to sex with adults.

Let’s now turn to Finkelhor’s other analogy, the one concerning child labour. He asserts that even though some children may feel positively about their paid work and even benefit from it, this does not show that it is morally acceptable. But Finkelhor’s view of this matter seems over-conventional and jaundiced in the extreme. We might all deplore the circumstances that lead children to undertake this sort of work instead of schooling, for example. But does it follow that they should not be permitted to do so? Since their very survival and that of their families is often at stake it would seem deeply wrong to forbid them to work. Those august bodies, such as the United Nations, that seek to eliminate child labour might better employ their campaigning skills to press for improved conditions for child workers.

I conclude that Finkelhor’s attempt to show that child-adult sex is morally wrong even when it is desired by the child, is wholly unconvincing.

8 Responses to “Finkelhor’s Flaws: Why David Finkelhor is misguided on child-adult sex”

  1. Strato Says:

    Interesting post. I agree with the tenor of your argument and conclusion, though my objections to the utterances proffered by Finkelhor and his ilk tend towards the structural. In essence, to the extent that “deeply held values and principles” exist in our culture (which I would dispute), they are received, i.e. they are in fact the values of a minority; the values constructed by a self-interested social order for the purpose of perpetuating that order. That the masses believe such values to be in their own interests is a testament to the success of their indoctrination.

    In any event, Finkelhor’s argument leads to an unavoidably bizarre position, since even the genuine existence of a sincere majority position could never justify persecuting a minority. Absent harm, the enforcing of the ‘values and principles’ of a majority on a minority is oppression. If the ‘values’ of the majority include white supremacy, is the regime justified in persecuting non-whites? If the ‘majority values’ include the belief that Jews are sub-human, then Finkelhor’s argument would justify gassing in concentration camps.

    Ultimately, a regime that bases legislation on its own (nebulous) ‘values’, ‘principles’ or ‘morals’ is an authoritarian one, and as such is owed no obligation or allegiance.

    Finkelhor is scrambling. His case has always been based on his ‘moral beliefs’, which he originally cloaked under the guise of ‘science’. When his ‘science’ appears to sit on rather less firm ground, he adopts the timeless position of last-resort: “in any case, it’s immoral”.

  2. Steve Diamond Says:

    I’ve often said, “There is no rule book on living the perfect life”.

    Sometimes, the best we can do is to just get by. Often times, what works out best for the individual, in their particular set of circumstances, is not the supposed “ideal” which gets promoted by the sterile minds, of those who think “safety above all else [including living ones life]“…

    It is amazing how many people out there fantasize, of how an ideal will “trump” the realities of nature, and a life truly lived.

    There is “no” room outside the ideal, because anything outside of the ideal is “not safe”…and “safe” is where everybody “needs” to be…

    Allegedly, everyone “deserves” this “safety”…whether it is truly safe, or anyone particular person even wants it, is entirely beside the point. We all “deserve” it, regardless of whether it is a personal benefit or a bain. If it makes you happy, or it makes you sad and just want to die…well, it’s “all the same”…

    The ideal makes the moral elitists feel too good about themselves, to allow them to abandon this crusade to “deliver” the rest of us “lowly lives” from our own nature, and being able to experience and live our own lives.

    “So what if the child forced to work will starve to death, within months of our taking away their ability to earn money…The idea of “children not having to work” is what is important…not that those same children will survive into adulthood.”

    “So what that many children love sex and could benefit from it personally”…the illusion that we are fighting all conceivable forms of “child abuse” is what holds utmost importance here…We don’t give a damn about individuality, uniqueness in life and personal standards, or human rights of any sort that might allow anyone to judge by their own standards and embrace the taboo…the “unconventional”…

    Some things are just “too kinky” to be afforded respect…right?…

    The above is a short bit I wrote for something else, but it is of relevance here I think. There are too many people who just are not deep thinkers, and who avoid reason and logic as though they were the plague. David Finkelhor is one of those sorts of people.

    He is perfectly happy and content to go with the flow, when it comes to public standards arguments. “That is just the way it is”, so David has no problems treating it as the “standard setter” in all things concerning ethics. [Perhaps the fact that he's spent his life exploiting this field to advance his own career, may have held significance as well?]

    Finkelhor is a strange fellow, in that he is remarkably quotable for so, so many of our own citation needs, because he is honest enough to report the true statistics…yet he shoots off into left field for his “conclusions” at every possible chance. You would not catch him failing to carry or push the party line, in the end.

    I agree with Strato…Finkelhor reminds me of an “intelligent design” proponent, who sees nothing wrong with trying to intentionally confuse religious lore for science.

    Of course, these two things are entirely separate and vastly different, but the one tracked minds of many people, somehow renders them incapable of distinguishing where the line is drawn or that there even is a line at all.

    Good post, by the way…

  3. Steve Diamond Says:

    I would also have to ask, if Finkelhor considers all acts of sexually pleasuring the “legally incapable of consent” population as being tantamount with slavery, does this not essentially render every interaction (no matter how pleasurable and desired) between those with a “power imbalance” to the status of some kind of “slavery”?

    If you cant even do anything fun and life enriching, without it being called “abuse”…then what on earth is not abuse?

    Everyone of us is just an individual with needs to pursue, who interacts with others having needs to pursue…our relationships are never honestly balanced in power, but they are a trade off which works to the benefit of both participants.

    That is not slavery, especially if the relationship can come to a mutual end.

  4. PiedPiper Says:

    One thing I strive for is truth and reading about this David Finkelhor proves to me that I’m on the right path his ideas are amusing to say the least saying that his attack on us is because in any circumstances even if positive it is equivalent to slavery and child labour.

    Two points………

    Child labour and Slavery are simply social constructs while our sexuality is nature itself to show them as similar is wrong there is no Slavery gene or child labour gene. No one gets hurt in the long run as it is not an issue with the mind or body it is not nature while condemning a feeling in humans is destructive and harmful and endangers many people including children and just for being human.

    And by taking our liberty our right to speak up and defend ourselves is enslavement, slavery hasn’t stopped in the west and of course the more you control the more perverse the response is.

    One question I’ll like to ask him is when are morals learned?

    As a so called adult I have a thicker skin the morals don’t attack me but the child and can cause severe mental harm and Finkelhor is one of those people who allows this.

  5. Daniel Says:

    Steve- Finkelhor has said that he thinks the same of other power-imbalanced sexual relationships. I have never seen him make the case for sex as an exclusive case or inherently risky, exploitation-ridden category of behaviour, though.

    Above all points that require stressing, David Finkelhor knows that he is a fraud and a spin doctor. Even with his (limited) analytical capacity, there is absolutely no way that he could internalise his sample manipulation as at all fair. We can only hope that despite the moralistic whitewash so often seen, this researcher knows that the said manipulation is necessary for his stated values, and leaves behind some written acknowledgement of his highly profitable legacy of deception.

  6. Daniel Lièvre Says:

    Here he is on youtube:

  7. Viamund Says:

    For what purpose would any person attempt to draw any manner of similarity between sexual pleasure and slavery? Human sexuality and expression is universal. Sex is a harmless act without any moral implications apart form that individuals choose to impart it with. Sex is a recreational activity. All Humans enjoy a good orgasm, of all ages both old and young. To try to create classifications of this is to do the same to Humanity itself. To imply there are some who are more or less Human and worthy of respect depending on some type of class imposed – sex, sexuality, race religion etc. -. It is known that this is false. All rape is the same, all victims are the same and all consensual sex is the same. Anything is just “smoke and mirrors”.

  8. Richard Kramer Says:

    You may wish to read my summary of a critique of Finkelhor’s argument, published by a credible researcher in 1990. See . The researcher also critiqued Tom O’Carroll’s pro-sex argument, although I think one can respond to those critiques fairly easily. You might find many of his conclusions at the end of the article interesting.

    I’d like to add my own critique of Finkelhor’s analogy with child labor. Depending on how you define “child labor,” we still have it today. Many adults pay their own or neighborhood kids to babysit, rake leaves, mow the lawn, walk dogs, etc. In the U.S., kids at age 14 can hold down jobs as long as certain laws are followed. These laws, of course, minimize the possibility of exploitation. The mere act of working is not considered exploitative. Adults who employ children are not called predators.

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