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The Third Spotlight – bringing childrens’ Harmful Sexual Behaviour out of the dark

Jonathan Rallings explains how and why Barnardos are drawing attention sexual abuse of children committed by other children


Society has only recently, within the last couple of decades, begun to grasp the sheer scale of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA), within the UK and globally.  As the topic has come into the public eye we have been shocked to learn about various forms of child sexual abuse – familial, institutional – perhaps most notably Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE).  Much of the last decade has been spent unravelling organised sexual exploitation and abuse of minors in many British cities, and the horrors of CSE have become firmly lodged in both professional and public minds.

But now we are beginning to become aware of an even more taboo subject – sexual abuse of children committed by other children, or Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB).  At Barnardo’s we regard HSB as the third critical area to highlight.  We want to bring the topic – however unsettling it may be to some people – into the realm of public acknowledgement and discussion, thereby beginning to address the problem.  Only by recognising the complex interactions between CSA, CSE and HSB, which Barnardo’s sees on a daily basis through its service-based work with both victims and perpetrators, will we be able to make the progress we need to reduce the rates of children being abused.

In 2016 Barnardo’s worked with Nus Ghani MP (Wealden) to set up a Parliamentary Inquiry to kick-start public debate around the issue of HSB.  In the course of the Inquiry the committee, made up of MPs and Peers, heard from experts including professionals, academics and policymakers from across various sectors including health, education, social services and the police. Most strikingly the Inquiry also held a closed session with young people who had perpetrated HSB about the background to their abusive behaviour and their experiences of both the criminal justice system and rehabilitation.  At the end of the Inquiry we published the report Now I Know It Was Wrong (2016) compiling the principal findings of the committee, some key aspects of which are summarised in this article.

What is harmful sexual behaviour?

There is no agreed national or professional definition of ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ or even consensus that this term should be used. The Inquiry worked to the following definition:

‘Harmful sexual behaviour is when children and young people (under 18) engage in sexual discussions or activities that are inappropriate for their age or stage of development, often with other individuals who they have power over by virtue of age, emotional maturity, gender, physical strength, or intellect and where the victim in this relationship has suffered a betrayal of trust. These activities can range from using sexually explicit words and phrases to full penetrative sex with other children or adults.’

This is necessarily long and cumbersome, as the Inquiry realised it needed to reflect the breadth and complexity of the issue.  In determining what HSB constitutes, various factors needed to be considered:

  • The term ‘Harmful Sexual Behaviour’ was used by the Inquiry rather than an alternative of ‘Sexually Harmful Behaviour’ (which is used in some professional contexts).  This was felt to more clearly encompass behaviours that may be harmful to perpetrators themselves, even where they aren’t necessarily harmful to others – e.g. a 10 year-old boy exposing himself to his foster carers.
  • Terminology is crucial in avoiding stigmatisation.  The previously accepted term ‘Adolescent Sex Offenders’ risks labelling young people and lumping them in more broadly with adult offenders despite the context of their sexual development being significantly different.  ‘Adolescent’ also no longer accurately reflects the cohort that services are working with, as signs of HSB are identified in younger age groups.
  • HSB is very dependent on context – whether a particular behaviour is harmful depends on the age of the child/children involved and also their stage of maturity and sexual development.
  • Most pertinently, ‘power’ is an important element in most instances of HSB where a victim is involved, including differences in age, emotional maturity, gender, physical strength or intellect. This may not be straightforward where young people with learning difficulties or developmental needs are involved.

These factors help indicate why legal terms such as ‘offender’ are not helpful when dealing with this age group.  Whilst there are circumstances in which sexual behaviour by young people amounts to a criminal offence, this is not always ‘harmful’ and vice versa.  For instance, if two 15 year-olds in a consensual relationship share sexually explicit images of each other by smartphone – ‘sexting’ – this constitutes an offence under the law but is not necessarily sexually inappropriate to their age and development.  Conversely, a 7 year-old inappropriately touching a classmate would not be committing an ‘offence’ – not least as they are under 10 and below the age of criminal responsibility – but in certain contexts this may be considered harmful behaviour requiring a therapeutic response.

Who commits HSB?

Professionals advised the Inquiry that we must resist labelling young people displaying HSB as ‘mini sex offenders’.  Whilst there will be a small number of young people who rightly enter the criminal justice system for serious offences, many others will be making mistakes they regret and are unlikely to repeat. Many young people displaying HSB are themselves the victims of sexual abuse and could be reacting to the trauma they have experienced.  Research suggests that between 25% and 50% of these perpetrators have been sexually harmed.[i]

The profile of children displaying HSB is not straightforward.  The Inquiry heard that:

  •  Boys are more likely to display HSB, but a significant 10% of cases involve girls;
  • Research suggests that whilst HSB is most typically associated with adolescence, concerning or problematic sexual behaviours can often be detected at an earlier stage.  One study found that the average age for children beginning to display concerning sexual behaviours is 8½;
  • HSB can often be one aspect of a wider range of delinquent tendencies, especially those engaged in high-level behaviour;
  • There is no evidence to suggest any ethnic or cultural group has a greater propensity to display HSB;
  • HSB does not occur more frequently in any particular social or economic group.  Although children from lower socio-economic backgrounds were over-represented in clinical samples, the opinion of the experts was that this was largely because those from higher classes were more easily able to avoid attention from authorities.

Thus, there are no clear indicators to easily identify which children are likely to display HSB.  Apart from a few children who can be identified early as having extremely dangerous sexual tendencies (usually within a wider frame of psychological conditions), it is difficult to spot which behaviour is an aberration in the child’s development, and which is likely to continue into adulthood.  This is particularly important given the Inquiry was told that the younger the perpetrator, the easier it is to shift their ‘cognitive distortions’ around sex.  Young people who undergo treatment for HSB are very unlikely to sexually reoffend – the Inquiry heard that recidivism rates are generally considered to be as low as 3 to 12%.

Society must realise that a label of ‘sex offender’ at such an early age is likely to have an enormous impact on a child’s future life chances, even perhaps increasing the risk of them being drawn into adult offending, sexual or otherwise.  Some children’s behaviours undoubtedly require a criminal justice approach due to their severity, and to suggest otherwise would set a dangerous precedent.  But the Inquiry was clearly directed that for perpetrators under 18, authorities should emphasise rehabilitation ahead of punishment, beyond immediate public protection.  It was posed the question: whilst almost all parents nowadays will have a clear idea of what they might feel if their child was a victim of sexual abuse, how many will have thought about how they might react if their child was found to be a perpetrator?

How prevalent is HSB?

There are no definitive figures on the prevalence of HSB, and what data there is sits across a range of agencies – including health, education and criminal justice. The Inquiry was told that research has generally indicated that about a third of all of the incidents of sexual abuse involve children as the perpetrators, but some studies warn that it could be as high as 65%.  Under-reporting is likely to be huge – particularly if the abuse is inter-familial, for example between siblings.  Incidents involving children below the age of criminal responsibility will also likely be more difficult to detect.

However, over-reporting may also be an issue where increased awareness of sexual abuse leads to all sexual contact between children being mistakenly classed by adults as ‘harmful’, regardless of circumstances – for example the natural childish curiosity of the ‘doctors and nurses’ variety.  To counter this risk, the advisory charity Brook has published a ‘traffic light’ tool which can help parents and professionals to distinguish which behaviours are normal and which more concerning at four different age stages.[ii]

The impact of pornography

It would be churlish to think that HSB is a fundamentally new phenomenon – indeed it is likely that such behaviour has been present throughout human history.  What is new is the world which children and young people are growing up in today.  Given the dearth of clear data we cannot yet really understand trends in prevalence, but experts at the Inquiry indicated that they believe both the volume and severity of incidents is increasing, and the age of perpetrators is becoming younger.  The Inquiry heard the reason for this could be due, at least in part, to the impact modern technology may be having in driving HSB.

Firstly, the internet has made pornography exponentially more prevalent in children and young people’s lives.  It is important for adults to fully appreciate that adolescent rites of passage no longer involve catching the odd glimpse of nudity in a magazine behind the bike sheds, but unfettered access to a full range of graphic and disturbing content showing every conceivable sexual act.  It is difficult to make any direct causal links between inappropriate media and sexual acting out, just as it has been with previous worries about media content from ‘video nasties’ to ‘gangsta rap’.  More research is needed in this area. But even if most children appear to have a degree of resilience when exposed to such content, for some, the access to violent and extreme pornography may be encouraging and exacerbating harmful sexual behaviours.  Worryingly, most teenagers report having encountered pornographic content on the internet accidently, even if they are not specifically searching for it.[iii]

Secondly, the proliferation of smartphones and the adoption of ‘sexting’ as part of teenage culture, is perhaps making HSB more visible. Sexting involves the sharing of indecent images and can be a normal part of safe, healthy relationships between teens. However, in other contexts, sexting can be harmful, particularly when coercion is involved.  Under the law, indecent images of minors (which for photographs, is anyone under 18) are illegal regardless of circumstances.  Too often teenagers are unaware of the fact they are committing a serious sexual offence by taking or sharing images on their phones.  Distinguishing between ‘legitimate’ and ‘harmful’ sexting can be extremely difficult – particularly, for example, if conflict only comes to light after a relationship has ended.  Given the potential severity of the offence, institutions are often unwilling or unable to deal with more trivial incidences without police involvement, even where the incident might be resolved less traumatically for both victim and perpetrator within existing safeguarding policies and practices.

This short summary highlights some of the key points the Inquiry uncovered as it began to shine a spotlight on the hidden topic of HSB.  The full report, containing a deeper exploration of the subject, as well as recommendations for how to better understand and deal with the problems, can be downloaded at


[i] Unpublished research into 700 case files by Professor Simon Hackett who gave evidence to the Inquiry – the largest conducted in the UK so far – found that around 50% of the sample had themselves be abused.  This is slightly higher than the 23-40% suggested in NICE guidance on this topic:



About the author

Jonathan RallingsJonathan Rallings has worked as a policy and research professional in the children’s sector for nearly twenty years.  Beginning his career at the NSPCC working on the policy underpinning the Full Stop Campaign, he proceeded to gain experience in further public and voluntary sector roles, including at London Councils.  In 2012 he became Assistant Director for Policy at Barnardo’s and since July 2017 has been Acting Head of Policy.




Back to: SPECIAL FEATURE: StopSo tackling sexual abuse in the 21st century

This article is part of a special feature section produced with the organisation StopSo, looking at the issues raised by working with both sex offenders and survivors. Views expressed are those of the author not UKCP.