South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

The four pre conditions model

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A model to understand why/how someone may sexually abuse

To bridge the gap between psychological and sociological interpretations of sexual abuse, Finkelhor (1984) proposed a multi-factor model which has explanatory power on both levels. In reviewing all the causal factors that researchers and clinicians have isolated as contributing to sexual abuse, Finkelhor developed a hierarchical model which included individual factors related to the victim, abuser and the family as well as social and cultural factors. It provides an adaptable and flexible framework which can accommodate new research to enhance our understanding of why sexual abuse occurs. The model accounts for both intra and extra familial sexual abuse. This perspective clearly places responsibility with the abuser. Finkelhor's model has more explanatory power than other approaches in that it incorporates both psychological factors such as:

  • the motivation of the abuser,
  • the existence of internal inhibitors,
  • and the ego strength of the child.

as well as sociological factors such as:

  • male socialisation,
  • pornography,
  • social tolerance of eroticising children,
  • unequal power relationships between men and women,
  • and the patriarchal prerogatives of fathers and men.

This model also views potential victims as not necessarily passive, but possessing the power to resist.

Finally, Finkelhor's model provides a vital enhancement to treatment in that it allows for evaluation and intervention on all four levels. Capitalising on the strengths while implementing problem solving techniques to ameliorate the weaknesses may facilitate cessation of abuse and prevent its re-occurrence.

All the factors known to contribute to child sexual abuse are grouped into four pre-conditions. These are:

1: Motivation

The potential abuser needs to have some motivation to sexually abuse. Finkelhor argues that there are three fundamental components subsumed under the motivation to sexually abuse children.

Emotional Congruence in which sexual contact with a child satisfies profound emotional needs.

Sexual Arousal in which the child represents the source of sexual gratification for the abuser, and

Blockage when alternative sources of sexual gratification are either not available or are less satisfactory.

These components are not actual pre-conditions and not all three need to be present for sexual abuse to occur. The three components do explain not only the instances of abusers who are not sexually motivated but enjoy degrading victims and welding power but also the paedophile and the sexually motivated abuser.

2: Internal inhibitions

The potential abuser must overcome internal inhibitions that may act against his motivation to sexually abuse. No matter how strong the sexual interest in children might be, if the abuser is inhibited by taboos then he will not abuse. Arguably, most people have some inhibitions against the sexual abuse of children. Disinhibition is not a source of motivation, it merely releases motivation. This second precondition aims to isolate factors that account for how inhibitions are overcome.

While preconditions 1 & 2 account for the abusers behaviour, preconditions 3 & 4 consider the environment outside the abuser and child which controls whether and whom he abusers.

3: External inhibitors

The potential abuser must overcome external obstacles and inhibitions prior to sexual abuse. External inhibitors that may restrain the abuser's action include family constellation, neighbours, peers and societal sanctions as well as the level of supervision a child receives. Although a child cannot be supervised 24 hours per day, lack of supervision has been found to be a contributing factor to sexual abuse as has physical proximity and opportunity. External inhibitors are easily overcome if the potential abuser is left alone with an unsupervised child.

4: Resistance

Finally, the potential abuser has to overcome the child's possible resistance to being sexually abused. This capacity to resist may operate in a very subtle covert way and does not necessarily involve overt protestations. Abusers may sense which children are good potential targets, who can be intimidated or co-coerced to keep a secret or otherwise manipulated. Abusers report that they can almost instinctively pick out a vulnerable child on whom to focus their sexual attentions while ignoring those who might resist. Frequently, these children may even be unaware that they are being sexually approached and have little or no capacity to resist. Some of the risk factor that inhibit the capacity to resist include emotional insecurity and deprivation etc.

Knowing which factors make children vulnerable to abuse is essential in formulating prevention programmes. Isolating behaviours that constitute a risk, while emphasising those that enhance resistance or avoidance can empower children to protect themselves. This is not to say that children who are not vulnerable are not abused. Many children may be forced or co-coerced despite displaying resistance and avoidance behaviours. Some instances of abuse are the result of force, threat or violence and no matter how much resistance the child displays it will not prevent the abuse. Precondition 4 has three possible outcomes:

1) The child may resist by overtly saying no and running away, or covertly by displaying a confident and assertive manner which conveys strong messages to the abuser not to try for fear of detection or exposure.

2) The child may resist but still be abused through force or violence.

3) A child may resist but be overcome through coercion.

The four pre-conditions for sexual abuse come into play in a logical sequence. The abuser must firstly have the motivation and be able to overcome any internal inhibitions. When these have been overcome the potential abuser will need to overcome external inhibitors and finally the resistance of the child.


The main limitation of the model is that it is essentially a descriptive framework which incorporates a range of dissonant theories and observed clinical data. As such, it cannot be viewed as a theory until it is tested empirically, in particular in its application to treatment and prevention. However, it does present us with a comprehensive, multi causal, hierarchical model with both psychological and sociological explanatory power for understanding why and how sexual abuse occurs, which is more than can be said of other theoretical approaches.

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