Skip to main content

0800 917 1000   Open weekdays 9am-5pm

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Children in the care of the Nottinghamshire Councils Investigation Report

E.3: Understanding harmful sexual behaviour

4. Professor Hackett’s expert view was that there are a number of key points to assist in understanding harmful sexual behaviour: 

4.1. A child presenting with harmful sexual behaviour is likely to act it out to varying degrees over a period of time. That behaviour might range from normal and “developmentally appropriate” on the one hand and “highly abnormal and violent” on the other. Understanding this range can help professionals to respond appropriately to the risk presented by that behaviour.[1]

4.2. Though in each case intervention is needed,[2] it is important to distinguish between: (i) ‘abusive’ sexual behaviours that are manipulative or coercive where the victim is unable to give informed consent and (ii) ‘problematic’ sexual behaviours that have no intended victim but which may have a developmental impact on the children exhibiting the behaviour or cause them rejection or distress, or increase the risk of their victimisation[3]

4.3. Harmful sexual behaviour exhibited by younger children should be approached differently to that exhibited by adolescent children. Younger children’s behaviour is more likely to be a direct consequence of having been abused.[4]

4.4. A history of having been sexually abused is one of several possible pathways which may lead to harmful sexual behaviour. Around half of those children exhibiting harmful sexual behaviour have themselves previously been sexually abused.[5] However, of children who are victims of all kinds of abuse, the vast majority do not go on to sexually abuse others, and victims should not be labelled as potential abusers. Trauma, suffered through other experiences as well as sexual abuse, is a key indicator and causal factor for many children exhibiting harmful sexual behaviour.[6] Another pathway is general anti‑social attitudes and beliefs which can link with sexual bullying.[7] There are examples where harmful sexual behaviour appears to have been part of a culture of bullying and inappropriate behaviour.[8]

4.5. Most children exhibiting harmful sexual behaviour no longer do so by their mid‑ twenties. Previous assumptions about adolescent sexual offending being ‘addictive’ are not borne out by recent studies.[9]

4.6. Children abused by their peers are more likely to be abused by a group than by an individual. One incident of being abused by a group may lead to “a kind of chain effect” of further abuse by other members of the group.[10]

4.7. The fact that children have exhibited, or been the victims of, harmful sexual behaviour may be identified by adult perpetrators who “pick out” those vulnerabilities and use them to abuse the child.[11]

The prevalence of harmful sexual behaviour 

5. It is generally accepted that up to two‑thirds of allegations of child sexual abuse are made against young people under the age of 18.[12] Figures from 2017 show almost 30,000 reports of harmful sexual behaviour over the previous four years in England and Wales, with annual figures almost doubling in that time.[13] The “overwhelming majority” of cases of children exhibiting harmful sexual behaviour do not result in a prosecution or caution.[14] Around half of sexual abuse cases in residential care are of harmful sexual behaviour.[15]

6. However, these numbers are likely to be an under‑representation of the true scale. This is a result of the barriers to reporting, the variable ways of recording harmful sexual behaviour, and because the issue has only relatively recently been acknowledged and understood.[16] In Professor Hackett’s view, there is a “high likelihood that peer sexual abuse in care has been downplayed by professionals who have seen it as exploratory adolescent sexual behaviour”.[17]

7. Many accounts of abuse reviewed by this Inquiry were given in interviews during Operations Daybreak, Xeres and Equinox or in disciplinary cases, none of which focused on allegations of harmful sexual behaviour. 

Harmful sexual behaviour in relation to children in care

8. Harmful sexual behaviour between children in care has not been extensively researched, despite a large number of children exhibiting such behaviours subsequently entering the care system.[18] In Professor Hackett’s view, the mistaken belief that most children who commit sexual offences will continue to do so through adolescence and into adulthood has led to an “overly risk-averse approach” to children coming into care who had previously exhibited harmful sexual behaviour.[19] The “developing sexuality and sexual behaviour” of children in care is often subject to scrutiny in a way in which children in the family home is not, so there can be an assumption that they are more prone to exhibiting harmful sexual behaviour.[20] However, for some children, coming into care can stop further harmful sexual behaviour, as they will have been removed from an abusive or sexualised home environment.[21] This does not remove the need for a robust risk assessment when making placement decisions and formulating care plans in all cases in which a child has exhibited harmful sexual behaviour.[22] 

9. Professor Hackett has produced a model showing the relevance of the care environment and the attitudes and responses of staff in understanding harmful sexual behaviour.   


Back to top