Harmful sexual behaviour includes:
- using sexually explicit words and phrases
- inappropriate touching
- using sexual violence or threats
- full penetrative sex with other children or adults.
Children and young people who develop harmful sexual behaviour harm themselves and others.
Sexual behaviour between children is also considered harmful if one of the children is much older – particularly if there is more than two years’ difference in age or if one of the children is pre-pubescent and the other isn’t (Davies, 2012).
However, a younger child can abuse an older child, particularly if they have power over them – for example, if the older child is disabled (Rich, 2011).
If you’re not sure whether a sexual behaviour is harmful find out about the signs, symptoms and effects of harmful sexual behaviour.
A study by Hackett et al (2013) of children and young people with harmful sexual behaviour suggests that two-thirds had experienced some kind of abuse or trauma such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, severe neglect, parental rejection, family breakdown, domestic violence, and parental drug and alcohol abuse. Around half of them had experienced sexual abuse.
Research by Hawkes (2009) into the family histories of sexually abusive boys found:
“[C]hildren had grown up in an environment where their physical or verbal expressions of distress or arousal were not understood, but rather met with angry or fearful responses from their caregivers. Wilful or unconscious ignoring, misunderstanding or repressing of the children’s needs were also recurring themes. Even developmentally normal sexual behaviour by the boys was not understood by caregivers, who tended to react as though the child was a sexual threat or in some other way a sexual peer. The child’s sexual needs were not recognised and in the most extreme cases they appeared to create a pseudo-adult sexual persona to meet the expectations of caregivers.”
Research by Masson et al (2015) into the family histories of sexually abusive girls found:
“[G]irls and female adolescents with abusive sexual behaviours come from particularly chaotic and dysfunctional family backgrounds, with higher levels of sexual victimisation than males, higher levels of other forms of abuse, frequent exposure to family violence and often very problematic relationships with parents. Compared to the males in our sample, the young females were likely to be referred at a younger age, they were much less likely to have any criminal convictions at the point of referral, they had higher rates of sexual victimisation in their histories and they tended to have fewer victims drawn from a more narrow age range.”
Children who have been sexually abused may not know that what has happened to them is wrong. This can lead to normalisation of harmful sexual behaviours towards others (Ringrose et al, 2012).
In the vast majority of cases, children abuse someone they know (Hackett et al, 2013). Children and young people who abuse their brothers or sisters may be motivated by jealousy or anger (Yates et al, 2012).
Power is an important factor in sexual abuse. Erooga and Masson (2006) built on the work of Finkelhor and Browne (1985)to explain how a child’s early powerlessness during their own abuse can lead to them needing to dominate others.