Skip to main content

The profile of the children and young people accessing an NSPCC service for harmful sexual behaviour

Summary Report

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) is defined 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” (Rich, 2011). A nationally representative survey of 2,275 children/young people aged 0–17 in the UK found that 65.9 per cent of contact sexual abuse was perpetrated by someone under the age of 18 (Radford et al, 2012).

One of the largest investigations into the profile of children and young people displaying HSB in the UK was carried out by Hackett, Phillips, Masson and Balfe in 2013 (Hackett et al, 2013). They investigated the characteristics of 700 children and young people referred to nine UK HSB services, finding that the vast majority were white  males and the most common age at referral was 15 years. Around one-third of these 700 children and young people were looked after in local authority care, two thirds had experienced trauma or abuse of at least one kind and, specifically, 50 per cent of young males were found to have been, or were suspected of having been, sexually abused. While a wide range of HSB was noted from this group, the majority chose a known, but unrelated, victim.

Hackett et al’s (2013) research sample was dominated by adolescent males without a learning difficulty, yet they identified that a third of all referrals to an HSB service were for children aged 13 or under and 38 per cent of the sample were identified as having a learning difficulty. HSB is not, therefore, limited to adolescent males. Indeed, research by Smith et al (2013) found that English local authorities reported a five-year increase in HSB cases by females (18 per cent of local authorities perceived an increase), children/young people with a learning difficulty (27 per cent perceived an increase), and children aged 8–12 (18 per cent perceived an increase) and under eight years (27 per cent perceived an increase).

It is, therefore, important that further research is carried out to understand more about the needs and characteristics of these children and young people, particularly as some differences have been identified between them and adolescent males. For example, younger children, females, and those with a learning difficulty appear to have experienced higher rates of sexual abuse than adolescent males (see, for example, Hutton and Whyte, 2008; Vizard, 2013) and tend to display more coercion than force in relation to their HSB (see, for example, Frey, 2010). Children and young people with learning difficulties are also more likely to have problems around social isolation, reduced selfcontrol, and have less sex education and sexual knowledge (Browne and McManus, 2010). They may also be involved in less penetrative HSB and violence during the incident than adolescent males (Almond and Giles, 2008).

Understanding more about females, younger children, and children and young people with a learning difficulty who display HSB will help to develop specialist HSB services for these young people. Such services are currently lacking, as are policies that make reference to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of children and young people with a learning difficulty (Hackett et al, 2005).

This research was designed to fill a gap in understanding of the needs of these specific groups and, therefore, had two main aims:

1. To explore and describe the profile of children and young people accessing an HSB service designed to work specifically with females, younger children, and children and young people with a learning difficulty.

2. To gain the reflections of the practitioners delivering this service in regards to providing a tailored HSB assessment and intervention service for these children and young people.