Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Basic Introduction to Harmful Sexual Behaviour Team Briefing June 2020 


Why Talk about Harmful Sexual Behaviour? 

Children and young people who display Harmful Sexual behaviour are often attempting to communicate that their needs are not being met. When a child or young person behaves in ways considered to be outside their age or developmental range, their behaviour may be called ‘harmful’ because it is harmful to themselves or others. 

Whilst there is evidence to suggest that there are higher sexual abuse experiences in children under the age of 10 it is the maltreatment of a child, rather than sexual abuse that is most strongly associated with later sexual offending. 

At least one third of sexual offences against children in the UK are committed by other children (Hackett 2014, Radford et al 2011). With two-thirds of allegations of child sexual abuse against those under 18 years. (RIP, 2017)

The “overwhelming majority” of children exhibiting HSB do not result in a prosecution or caution. (Simon Hackett


How to use this briefing? 

This briefing should provide you with some basic information to raise awareness within a staff team around the topic of Harmful Sexual Behaviour: 

  • Ask team members to read the briefing then as a group work through the information, using it as a prompt to promote discussions
  • Use the discussion points at the end to explore how your team works with the topic
  • Consider if there are any further learning and development needs in your team and who is best to pursue this


What is Harmful Sexual Behaviour? 

Harmful Sexual Behaviour’ (HSB) is a term used to describe a continuum of sexual behaviour’s, from inappropriate, to problematic to abusive. Younger children may be ‘acting out’ abuse they have experienced themselves or responding to other trauma and neglect. Whilst HSB in pre-adolescent children is more likely to be at the ‘inappropriate’ or ‘problematic’ end of the continuum rather than being ‘abusive’ or ‘violent’. 

“Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.” (Derived from Hackett, 2014) 


Healthy or Unhealthy Behaviours: 

Age 0-5 years 
Healthy  Behaviours
Holding or playing with own or attempts to touch other children's genitals. Enjoys nakedness and interested in body parts and what they do. 
Unhealthy Behaviours: Persistently touching the genitals of other children or attempts to touch adult genitals. Simulate sexual activity in play 
Age 5-9 years  Healthy Behaviours:  Feeling and touching own genitals curiosity about other children's genitals  Curiosity about sex and relationships, e.g. where babies come from, same-sex relationships 
Unhealthy Behaviours: Frequent masturbation in front of others
Sexual behaviour engaging younger or less able children
Age 9-13 years 
Healthy Behaviours: 
Solitary masturbation                             
Girl/boyfriends who are of the same, opposite or any gender 
Unhealthy Behaviours: Exposing genitals or masturbating in public                               Engaging in sexual activities Oral or Sexual Intercourse 
Age 13-17 years 
Healthy Behaviours: 
Solitary masturbation or engaging in sexual activity     
Sexually explicit conversations and jokes within the current cultural norm                         
Use of internet/e-media in sexual activity 
Unhealthy Behaviours: Exposing genitals or masturbating in public Sexual degradation/humiliation of self or others attempting/forcing others to expose genital. Genital injury to self or others 


What makes a child more vulnerable to HBS?

A study by Hackett et al (2013) of children displaying harmful sexual behaviour suggests that two-thirds had experienced some kind of abuse or trauma such as 

  • Physical, emotional or sexual  abuse
  • severe neglect
  • parental rejection, family breakdown
  • domestic violence
  • parental drug and alcohol abuse

Family history and backgrounds can impact the sexual behaviour of children e.g. if parents have been sexually abused themselves, or there is evidence of historic DV. Children who have been sexually abused often don’t realise that what has happened to them is wrong, and can lead to normalisation of HSB’s towards others (Ringrose et al, 2012). 


Signs and Indicators of HSB

There are early signs of developmentally inappropriate behaviour that carers and professionals may observe e.g. overt aggressive sexualised language.  

The best way to make a judgement is to develop confidence regarding what is healthy sexual development in children and young people. The best guide to use for this is the Brook Traffic Light Tool  as it covers all age ranges from 0-17 years of age.

Increasingly for older children the use of social media and the internet becomes important and their main vessel for learning. A possible indicator here would be ‘preoccupation’ with the viewing of pornography.  This means that the viewing of this material begins to impact on one or more areas of functioning for the child. The younger the exposure the more likely they may display sexual behaviours that do not fit with their developmental stage. 


How to Support Children presenting with HSB 

A child or young person presenting with or is subject to HSB should be referred to children’s services for multi-agency assessment and appropriate safeguarding measures drawn up. Accurate records should be kept on all HSB incidents to enable a professional overview of what is happening now and in the future. Identify the reasons behind the child’s behaviour and take appropriate action. 


How to work with the families

  • Consider a trauma-informed approach initially – some behaviours will trigger CJS involvement
  • Adopt a child-centred approach, focusing on their needs, strength’s and risks
  • Build trust, avoiding blame or judgement 
  • Education and support are key to preventing further incidence of HSB 
  • If safe to do so, parents should be involved 
  • Take a multi-agency approach which allows a full overview of the child’s situation 


Areas for Consideration

  • How do we currently recognise & respond to HSB in our service-user group?  
  • How do we work with these children avoid asking the why questions and shaming them?
  • What more can we do to raise awareness of HSB and support victims and their families? 
  • How can we find out more about HSB and who will do this? 


Further Information & References