Sexually Harmful Behaviour
Learning about sex and sexual behaviour is a normal part of a child’s development. It will help them as they grow up, and as they start to make decisions about relationships. Children pass through different stages of development as they grow, and their awareness and curiosity about sexual matters changes with them.
Each child is individual and will develop in their own way. However, there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child’s age and developmental stage. Sometimes these will involve some exploration with other children of similar age. It can often be difficult to tell the difference between age-appropriate sexual exploration and warning signs of sexually harmful behaviour.
It is important to have a clear idea of what is normal sexual behaviour so that you can spot the warning signs if something might not be quite right.
Underage sexual activity
The age of consent for any form of sexual activity is 16 regardless of the gender or sexual orientation and whether the sexual activity is between people of the same or different gender.
It is a criminal offence for anyone to engage in any sexual activity with a person under the age of 16, although government guidelines say there is no intention to prosecute teenagers under the age of 16 where both mutually agree and where they are of a similar age. However, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 says that children under the age of 13 are legally deemed incapable of consenting to sexual activity and therefore all incidences of sexual behaviour involving children under 13 should be considered as a potential criminal or child protection matter.
Click here for the Pan-Sussex procedure regarding sexually active children.
What is harmful sexual behaviour?
Sexually harmful behaviour is the term used to describe children or young people who sexually abuse other children, young people or adults. Sexually harmful behaviours are likely to include elements of:
- power imbalance – possibly involving significant difference in age and developmental factors
- degradation and threats
- compulsive behaviours
- age inappropriate knowledge or experience
- use of bribes, gifts and removal of inhibitors, for instance using drugs or alcohol.
The sexual abuse perpetrated by children can be just as harmful as that perpetrated by an adult, so it is important to remember the impact on the victim of the abuse as well as to focus on the treatment of the child or young person exhibiting the sexually harmful behaviour.
Abusive/inappropriate behaviour is often characterised by a lack of true consent, the presence of a power imbalance and exploitation. The boundary between what is abusive and what is part of normal childhood or youthful experimentation can be blurred.
The ability of professionals to determine whether a child’s sexual behaviour is developmental, inappropriate or abusive will depend upon the related concepts of true consent, power imbalance and exploitation. This may include children who exhibit a range of sexually problematic behaviour such as indecent exposure, obscene telephone calls, fetishism, bestiality and sexual abuse against adults or children and downloading indecent images of children from the internet.
Children and young people, particularly living away from home, are vulnerable to physical, sexual and emotional bullying and abuse by their peers. Such abuse should always be taken as seriously as abuse perpetrated by an adult. It should be the same safeguarding children procedures as apply in respect of any child who is suffering or at risk of suffering Significant Harm from an adverse source.
A significant proportion of sex offences are committed by teenagers and, on occasion, such offences are committed by younger children. Staff and carers of children living away from home need clear guidance and training to identify the difference between consenting and abusive, and between appropriate and exploitative peer relationships. Staff should not dismiss some abusive sexual behaviour as “normal” between young people and should not develop high thresholds before taking action.
The NSPCC has a useful guide to keeping children safe, spotting warning signs and what to do if you’re worried.
Click here for the Pan Sussex procedure on children and young people displaying sexually harmful behaviour.