Professor David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire participated in a March 23 talk discussing the "elements of voluntary participation" by juveniles involved in sex crimes, saying that when trying to prevent sex crimes against children, it's key to realize that in some cases, it is the children themselves that are "initiating sexual activities with adults." Finkelhor is the Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at UNH.
"If young people are initiating sexual activities with adults, or enthusiastically involved," he said, "we can't be effective in working with them if we assume that all such relationships start with a predatory or criminally inclined adult. As we've seen in the discussion, young people bridle at being forced into this box of being seen as being the victim of a predator."
These remarks were made during a Haruv USA lecture about the "Implications for Prevention and Response" for sex crimes wherein there are "elements of voluntary participation" by the minors involved in those crimes.
It is Finkelhof's view that "there are reasons for learning about what the dynamics are and how to talk about them so that we can better help the young people who are in these situations."
He goes on to fully say that "even the most voluntary of these relationships are considered sex crimes." Finkelhor notes as well that sexual relationships wherein a minor "voluntarily" engages in sex with adults is a controversial topic of conversation precisely because "discussions of voluntary relationships to some people, opens the door for ex-offenders to feel like this is something that they can do."
It is as part of his research into how to identify, prevent, and treat the problems of child sexual abuse, child victimization,child maltreatment, and family violence that he was invited to speak with Haruv, and to give his perspective on those crimes.
Finkelhor described several kinds of underage sex crimes, many of which can be identified primarily by the ages of those involved, and discussed the reasons why these laws are in place.
"In some states, in some jurisdictions, there are restrictions for 16 and 17-year-olds, so their prohibitions are that it's illegal for a 16 or 17-year-old to have a relationship, say with an adult who is more than five years older than they are. And one of the problems in this area is nobody knows exactly where the law should create these distinctions. There's not good enough research on issues related to maturity with regard to sexual behavior, that allows a clear demarcation here," Finkelhor said. He noted that there can be elements of voluntary participation in statutory sex crimes, wherein juveniles engage in sex with adults who are at least five years older than they are. Statutory rape, he said, is "much narrower than statutory sex crimes in general."
Finkelhor differentiated between statutory sex crimes, which can be assessed simply by the ages of those involved, and statutory rape, where coercion is involved.
"If I were going to describe a statutory victim, I would say that it was a relationship between a juvenile and adult, it was illegal under the age of consent statutes. And that does not involve the degree of coercion or manipulation sufficient to qualify it under criminal statutes as a forcible crime. So it would be something that is classified as a statutory sex crime, but that also does not have the elements that would allow it to be prosecuted as a more forcible kind of sexual crime. Now, one of the big problems in this area is that I don't think people have talked enough and thought through why it is that we have these laws and these restrictions," he said.
For Finkelhor, the reasons behind these laws need to be made more explicit so that both minors and adults can know exactly why they are in place, and must be obeyed. His view about understanding the complicity of the minor in the case stems from the idea that, in many cases, minors are easily led by predatory adults because those children feel that the predatory adults care about them. Finkelhor's goal is to steer both children and adults away from engaging in these kinds of relationships, and notes that the current messaging may not be enough to dissuade either young people or adults from doing so.
To minors, Finkelhor believes that those underage persons need to be treated as responsible persons with agency, suggesting that "for young people, it seems to me, they need to have more of a perspective on what the problems are with relationships with older partners, why they don't work out, why we're not just saying, you know, 'you're too young to do this, you can't think responsibly about these kinds of relationships, if we're we're taking it out of your hand.' I think they need to understand from their point of view, why these relationships don't work out, why the age difference turns out to be a problem, why they need to have somebody who is more going through the experiences of life that they're going through.
"They also may need to know, not that they're being restricted from having a relationship that they want to have, but also that there are dangers that they are creating for this person who they say that they want to have as a lover or friend. 'How would you feel if this person went to jail as a result of the relationship that you're carrying on with this person?'
"And in some sense that keeps from infantilizing them and treats them as though they're the responsible person. 'You have power in this situation, in fact, potentially very damaging dangerous power. So you need to be careful with it.'
"They also need information about how to decide on who's an appropriate romantic partner that there are people who may be very nice to them very considerate of them, but who really are primarily interested in having sex with them and don't really have a long term commitment to them.
"What are the signs of a healthy relationship? Someone you can you actually can trust? Is this really something that is a healthy relationship? And what are some signals that you're being exploited, if somebody is asking you to do things that you're a little bit uncomfortable with, or rushing things, or asking you to hide what you're doing, these are signals that you are being exploited.
"They also need to have specific skills, and how to extricate themselves. Because sometimes, young people get involved in these relationships, and don't know how to break them off. Especially when the older partner is doing a lot of things to ingratiate themselves and make them feel indebted. And so they need to really think through how they could say 'no,' how they could break it off, what the strategies might be, that would be effective in this.
"We also need to educate the friend group, and the rest of the bystander environment. Because frequently, young people talk about these relationships with their friends, and the friends don't feel authorized or empowered enough, or there'll be a violation of their friendship, to make judgments about what their friend is doing. And to give them some reasons why they might want to discourage their friend from engaging in this kind of activity and really being a bit tough on their friends," he said of the ways that minors could be dissuaded from participating in relationships with predatory adults.
For Finkelhor, much of this prevention should be rolled into "comprehensive sex education," which to his view, mostly teaches children and teens avoidance strategies as to how to know adults are trying to take advantage of them, but do not account for a child or teen's feelings that they want to engage in this behavior with an adult.
"I think a big problem is that we do it trying to do a lot of prevention without actually doing it as part of comprehensive sex education, which is what we need," Finkelhor said.
"But it's very difficult to get accepted in a lot of places. At least I know that's true in the United States. But that's probably the best way. Teen curiosity about sex is an important part of what prompts some of these inappropriate relationships and when they're getting good information. That can be another way of discouraging there are investigation and treatment issues here. I think it needs to be recognized that when these relationships do come to light, the teams feel the young people feel ashamed and humiliated, they may be outed about their homosexuality. They're oftentimes angry at the parents and police for both interfering in their relationship with their autonomy. And you know, not understanding them and infantilizing them," he said.
"They oftentimes the ally with the offender, they refuse to cooperate, to do a better job on these investigations. It may be important for advocates and police not to automatically treat the youth as though they're a victim. They can treat them they can talk with them about the reason why we have these laws and why such people who violate these laws need to be prosecuted, but they don't need to necessarily treat the victim as the treat the youth as a victim if they that's not the way they see themselves.
"They need to anticipate resistance and anger and empathize with those reactions, and not just automatically discount the feelings that they have about the person or the relationship or the insult that they've experienced as a result of the discovery. Emphasizing the societal justification for the criminal justice action, I think is very important. Victims need time to process. They need a sense of the options that they have about how they want to respond to this and it may be useful for them to connect with other statutory victims so they can support each other and get a sense of what it is that they're in for," Finkelhor said.