Skip to main content

Exploring the relationship between neglect and harmful sexual behaviours in children and young people: Evidence Scope 3

This evidence scope explores the potential associations between a background of child neglect and children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviours (HSB). For the purpose of this scope, HSB is defined as: Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others and/ or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult. (Hackett, Holmes and Branigan, 2015)

This scope is the third of three linked evidence scopes commissioned by Action for Children and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) with Research in Practice.

> Scope 1 considers the potential relationship between neglect and child sexual exploitation (CSE) (Hanson, 2016).

> Scope 2 explores the relationship between neglect and adult-perpetrated intra-familial child sexual abuse (IFCSA) (Allnock, 2016).

So while the first two scopes deal primarily with children and young people as victims of differing types of sexual abuse, this review is specifically concerned with the challenging area of children and young people who harm or victimise others as a consequence of their sexual behaviours.

A note of caution is required about this distinction, however. As will be seen in the sections that follow, children and young people who present with harmful sexual behaviours (HSB) are commonly both victimised and victimisers and in many cases their harmful sexual behaviours represent ‘one element of a range of predisposing experiences, underlying vulnerabilities and presenting problems in their lives’ (Hackett, 2014).

Therefore, there is considerable overlap between issues associated with HSB and the two other scopes in this series. Readers should also bear in mind that there has been an unfortunate tendency to pathologise and demonise children and young people who present with HSB. In their paper entitled Don’t shoot, we’re your children, Chaffin and Bonner (1998) warn against the punitive, aversive and absolutist tone in which ‘treatment’ beliefs have grown about children and young people with HSB.

Collectively then, the three evidence scopes offer an opportunity to see beyond what at times is an arbitrary categorisation of children’s experiences of harm and

harming others. They offer an opportunity to investigate the broad question of the sexual abuse of children from three distinct vantage points. Together, they seek to assess the potential associations between these three varying elements of the sexual abuse of children and the wider issue of child neglect.