Recognising harmful sexual behaviour by young people

Recognising harmful sexual behaviour by young people

It's important to be able to recognise when a young person's sexual behaviour may be harmful to others. Dr Elly Hanson, clinical psychologist and adviser to CEOP, outlines the warning signs.

Parents text content

What kinds of sexual behaviour are a problem?

You might be worried that your child, or another young person, is doing sexual things that are wrong or hurting someone.

It can sometimes be hard to know if this is the case, or whether in fact their behaviour is a normal part of teenage development that you don’t need to be worried about. 

The questions below are here to help – if the answer is ‘yes’ to any of them, there is reason for at least initial concern and a further exploration of what is going on.

  • Are they more able than the other person to get things they want, or to prevent things they don’t? – for example, because they’re significantly older, more sober, or more dominating?
  • Are they disregarding or minimizing the other person’s feelings?
  • Are they using deception or trickery; repetitive persuasion; isolation; or threat, intimidation or force, over a period of time or in the moment, to get the other person to do something sexual with them?
  • Are they saying or doing things which make it hard for the other person to tell anyone else about the sexual activity?
  • Did one or both people feel negative during the sexual activity? – for example, angry, depressed, ashamed or scared?

Consider whether their behaviour fits with the basic principles of healthy sexual behaviour.

Here are some examples of harmful sexual behaviour in teens (they would each merit a ‘yes’ to one or more of the questions above):

  • Sharing sexual images of someone without their consent
  • Sharing sexual images of themselves without the recipient being clear that they would like to see them
  • Pretending love or liking for someone so they agree to sexual activity
  • Viewing sexual images of children online
  • Having sexual activity with someone who is significantly more drunk than themselves
  • Befriending a younger child in order to engage in sexual activity and asking them not to tell
  • Having sexual activity with someone who passively ‘lets’ it happen
  • Touching someone’s bottom, breasts or crotch area without in-the-moment indications that the touching is desired

Why might a young person behave like this?

Negative ideas about sex and gender can invite people to act in sexually harmful ways. These ideas are communicated in things like porn, and sometimes in peer groups and families. Young people may be more vulnerable to these ideas because of their life stage. During adolescence (from the onset of puberty until about the age of 19), people are more concerned with their image and reputation in the eyes of their peers, and will go further to fit in with what they believe their peers think than at other times in their life.

Many other things can also contribute to harmful sexual behaviour, including:

  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Witnessing or being the target of aggression (sexual, physical or psychological) at home, at school, or in the community
  • Limited skills or opportunities for consensual peer sexual activity
  • A lack of knowledge about sexual boundaries
  • Lots of negative feeling with few skills or options for dealing with it
  • The behaviour being met with positive and/or little or no negative consequences (for example, adults turn a blind eye and peers offer respect)

Naturally every situation is different, and in most a few things in combination are playing a part.

If we understand the factors playing into a young person’s behaviour, we can more effectively tackle them, and in doing so, help the young person to stop.

This should be done whilst recognising the part that the young person’s personal responsibility played. Remember, there are situations in which a young person has no responsibility for their sexual behaviour because they are being controlled, coerced or intimidated – the thinking and advice here is not relevant to these circumstances.