Harmful Sexual Behaviours


Harmful sexual behaviour is described as:

‘One or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts that are inappropriate for their age or stage of development.  These can range from using sexually explicit words and phrases to full penetrative sex with other children or adults’, NICE, September 2016.

Harmful sexual behaviour includes using sexually explicit words and phrases, inappropriate touching, using sexual violence or threats, and full penetrative sex with other children or adults.  It can happen face to face, virtual (on-line), through the use of gaming consoles (e.g. XBox, Play Station) and other social media and ‘apps’.

The understanding of harmful sexual behaviour needs to be within the context of healthy sexual behaviour and how to differentiate between harm and normal exploration and sexual development.

It is important that all practitioners working with children and young people understand the difference in characteristics and presentation between children presenting with harmful sexual behaviour and those who are being sexually abused or exploited.  They are different although research has identified a link between children and young people who develop harmful sexual behaviour that shows that they are likely to have been abused themselves either physically, emotionally, or sexually.


Examples of harmful sexual behaviours include a 5 year old simulating sexual activity in play, a 9 year old sourcing pornographic material online; and a 13 year old causing a genital injury to themselves or others.


The RSCP will support professionals working with children and young people to understand the difference between CSE and sexual harmful behaviours, and how to differentiate and address the overlapping complexities through the learning opportunities in the RSCP Training Programme, particularly the training course on Harmful Sexual Behaviours.

Further Information and Resources