Quick Exit

Harmful sexual behaviour

What is harmful sexual behaviour?

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) is developmentally inappropriate sexual behaviour displayed by children and young people which is harmful or abusive.

Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is a form of HSB where sexual abuse takes place between children of a similar age or stage of development.

Problematic sexual behaviour (PSB) is developmentally inappropriate or socially unexpected sexualised behaviour which doesn’t have an overt element of victimisation or abuse.  (Taken from NSPCC website)

What does research tell us?

  • Children and young people account for about a quarter of all sexual abuse convictions against victims of all ages (Vizard, 2004) and a third of all sexual abuse coming to the attention of the professional system in the UK (Erooga and Masson, 2006);
  • In many cases, children and young people occupy dual identities as perpetrator of abuse and victim of harm;
  • The average age of children being referred for therapeutic interventions as a result of their sexual behaviour is dropping and a significant proportion of referrals concern children in their pre-adolescent years;
  • Increase in sexual behaviours online but young people with these behaviours may not share the backgrounds and risk profiles of those who commit contact sexual offences;
  • Young people with a disability are a particularly vulnerable group and young people with ASD are over represented in internet enabled sexual offences

Hackett (2014)

Has abuse taken place?

In trying to determine whether abuse has taken place several factors need to be considered in relation to:

  • Absence of consent, the presence of power imbalance and exploitation which are common in all experiences of abuse;
  • The nature of the relationship between children/young people (the abuser) having authority over the victim;
  • Age inappropriate sexual behaviour;
  • Frequency and period of time the sexual activity has occurred;
  • The child/young person's perception of the sexual behaviour; and

Clearly not all sexual contact between children and young people can be described as sexually harmful and it is natural for children to explore their bodies as part of normal sexual development

How do I tell the difference between appropriate and harmful or problematic sexual behaviour?

Everyone who works or volunteers with children should be able to distinguish developmentally typical sexual behaviour from sexual behaviours that are problematic or harmful. This will help you respond appropriately and provide children and young people with the right protection and support.

NSPCC promotes the use of the Hackett (2010) sexualised behaviour continuum which distinguishes between green, amber and red behaviours.

Hackett 2010 sexualised behaviour continuum

Typical green behaviours

Typical Amber behaviours

What are harmful sexual (red) behaviours?

In partnership with Hackett, Durham University and NHS Health Education England, the NSPCC have produced a printable guide on how to recognise sexualised behaviour.

Stop It Now  also contains information to help to understand if a child’s sexual behaviour is age appropriate.

Parents, carers and other protective adults can access the traffic light tool here. 

How do I respond?

Anyone who has a concern that a child might have been harmed by another child in a sexual way or an adult has been the victim of harmful sexual behaviour by a child or young person under 18, should refer their concerns to the Police and Children's Social Care in line with the Referrals Procedure.

Access Warrington Safeguarding Partnership procedures on harmful sexual behaviour

Report Abuse in Education Helpline

Young people who have experienced abuse at school and parents and teachers who are concerned about sexual abuse in education settings can call 0800 136 663 or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

How do I support the prevention of harmful or problematic sexual behaviour?

children & young people presenting with harmful sexual behaviourThe NSPCC has a wealth of information to support the prevention of sexually harmful behaviour

There is also helpful preventing harmful sexual behaviour toolkit for parents, carers and professionals that can be accessed on the csepoliceandprevention.org website

Further information about preventing harmful sexual behaviour also be found on specific pages of the Stop it Now website