Child sexual abuse has been a significant and relevant issue for a long time worldwide. Hence some theoretical models and scientific research have been developed regarding it. One of them is the Motivation-Facilitation Model of Sexual Offending (MFM), elaborated by Michael Seto.
First of all, what is the MFM? It is a model in which certain variables are interrelated, showing a higher probability that an individual might commit sexual abuse. It is important to highlight that each variable does not explain by itself the commission of a sexual offense but the way those variables influence one another. MFM examines motivational, facilitation, and situational variables that influence inhibition.
Motivation in this model refers to what energizes and directs your behavior; for example, a desire for sex is a motivation to engage in sexual behavior. This model focus on three primary sexual motivations: paraphilias (characterized by an intense, recurrent, and unusual sexual interest in atypical sexual activities or objects; here is pedophilia, among other things), high sex drive, and intense mating effort.
Seto clarifies that the relationship between them and sexual offending is not one-to-one, as it is not a linear cause-effect relationship. Not all those who are pedophiles act on their sexual attraction to children, while not all those who sexually abused children are pedophiles. Just 50-60% of child sexual abusers are pedophiles, which means that not all child molesters feel sexually attracted to children. You might wonder why someone, not a pedophile, could assault a child. Well, as we will discuss later, there exist other variables which play an important role. There is evidence that having paraphilias could help to explain sexual offenses due to “male sex offenders differing from other male offenders or nonoffending males in the likelihood they self-report paraphilic sexual thoughts, fantasies, or urges.” Seto highlights again that these correlations may not reflect causal effects, so we can not say that pedophilia causes sexual offense against children. The likelihood of a pedophile committing a sexual offense depends on the interrelation between other variables, not on being a pedophile.
The second sexual motivation, as said before, is high sex drive (a term usually associated with “hypersexuality,” “sexual addiction,” and “sexual compulsivity”), which refers to the strength of sexual desire or sex drive. Thus, someone with a high sex drive could have an excessive sexual preoccupation and an unusually high frequency of engaging in behavior such as masturbation, viewing pornography, or soliciting sexual partners, despite adverse effects on health, finances, or relationships in life. What role does a high sex drive play in the likelihood of committing sexual offenses? Increased sex drive can become a motivation for sexual offending if the person’s desire for sex overcomes any inhibitions they have about coercing someone into sex or having sex with someone who can’t legally consent (for example, children).
The third and last sexual motivation Seto talks about is an intense mating effort, defined as the effort (time, energy, resources) invested in acquiring new mates rather than investing in a current mate and one’s offspring with that mate. Men who are high in mating effort could be more likely to be sexually coercive.
We have already explained the three primary sexual motivations. Now we will talk about facilitation variables. Firstly, we need to clarify that having sexual motivations is insufficient in this model, as they can be countered by sufficiently strong inhibitions (self-control). Thus, facilitation variables are those factors that overcome any trait or state inhibitions against acting upon motivations (we mean upon primary sexual motivations). The MFM model sets two kinds of facilitation factors: trait facilitation factors (those that can vary across individuals) and state facilitation factors (those that vary within individuals). We will name some examples and explain them.
Some of the trait facilitation factors are self-regulation problems and hostility, whereas some state facilitation factors may be negatively affected by alcohol use. Regarding self-regulation problems, sex offenders have executive function deficits related to poor self-regulation (impulsivity recklessness, among other things). Hostile masculinity consists of the tendency to endorse misogynistic attitudes and beliefs and be suspicious/hostile toward women; aggressive attitudes about sex with children may include permissive attitudes.
Negative affect could play an important role as a state facilitation factor due to at-risk men who experience anger, depression, or stress following work or relationship conflict, may seek out sex as a way to cope. On the other hand, alcohol has disinhibiting effects on behavior, making it more likely that an individual could commit a sexual offense.
We have already mentioned the sexual motivations and facilitation factors (both trait and state). However, the MFM model emphasizes the role of situational factors since motivation and facilitation factors are not sufficient, and sexual offenses can’t take place without opportunities to act. Seto says we can conceive situational factors as state facilitation factors that exist outside the person and interact with personal facilitation factors. Some examples of situational factors are access to vulnerable victims, the presence of a potential guardian, as well as time and place.
Regarding the access to vulnerable victims, some vulnerable child victim characteristics include father absence or living in a blended family because children are at greater risk from step-father figures than from genetic fathers. Other factors could include living in a lower-income household or other family stressors like loneliness, social isolation, or rejection by peers.
The presence of a potential guardian refers to a responsible person who could intervene if a sexual offense is taking place, which could be a parent, an older sibling, a teacher, an older friend, or bystanders. The nearby presence of a guardian is associated with a lower likelihood of committing a sexual offense.
Concerning time and place, specific times and locations are associated with greater risk. For example, sexual offenses against children are more likely to occur in the afternoon or early evening than at other times and usually in the child’s residence or perpetrator’s residence (if they live separately). In contrast, children are less vulnerable to sexual offenses while at school, surrounded by other adults and children.
As previously stated, many variables exist that, interrelated with each other, may allow us to explain sexual offending. For example, here’s a graphic that could be useful in understanding these factors:
So how can we explain child sexual abuse? For example, if we take a look at the graphic above (figure 1), maybe someone could have a sex drive, antisocial traits, drink alcohol, and are in charge of caring for a child (probably their son, their stepdaughter) sometime in the afternoon, without being a pedophile and without feeling and intense mating effort. On the other hand, someone could be a pedophile but maybe has a low sex drive and good self-regulation skills, which stops them from drinking when they feel sad/angry. We might think of how these variables can relate to each other and how this can increase the likelihood that someone can commit a sexual offense in the future.
Finally, it is crucial to know those factors underlying sexual offending and how they relate to each other, as understanding them could lead to more effective prevention, assessment, and intervention.