Safeguarding: Responding to harmful sexual behaviours

Written by: Carmel Glassbrook | Published:
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Responding to and addressing harmful sexual behaviours is now a key part of safeguarding practice. Carmel Glassbrook considers 10 forms this behaviour might take and how we can respond and support students


How can you identify and manage harmful sexual behaviour in school?

It is important to clarify the term. Harmful sexual behaviour is “sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult”. (Hackett, 2014).

As you would expect, responding to harmful sexual behaviour, including being aware that a child displaying such behaviours may be an indication that they are a victim of abuse themselves, is included within the statutory Keeping children safe in education guidance (DfE, 2021a). There is also further advice on harmful sexual behaviour in the DfE’s guidance Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges (DfE, 2021b).

What is clear is that the term covers a broad range of behaviours and, as a result, it can be particularly difficult for teachers and other professionals to distinguish between those behaviours that would be viewed as developmentally appropriate and those that are sexually problematic or abusive.

A rapid thematic review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges conducted in 2021 by Ofsted found sexual harassment and online sexual abuse of young people to be “more prevalent than adults realise” and that, for some students, incidents are “so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them” and “consider them normal” (Ofsted, 2021).

It is important to “believe it could happen here” (DfE, 2021a) and work to develop a culture where unacceptable behaviour is not normalised or accepted, leading to children feeling safe to come forward and report incidents.

Harmful sexual behaviour can become apparent to you in many different ways. As children develop, their sexual behaviours, both normal and potentially harmful, may become visible to those of you who work with them.

Below are 10 examples of how harmful sexual behaviour could be displayed by students of secondary age, and how you can respond to these kinds of behaviours. This is by no means an exhaustive list.


1, Talking about pornography or other age-inappropriate sexual material

This may be a sign that a student is accessing age-inappropriate sexual material online, which presents an opportunity for you to discuss it with them.

It is important to understand why they are viewing this material – by talking to them, you may get the chance to see if there are any aggravating factors making them want to view this type of material.

Depending on the age of the student, the act of seeking this material may be a “normal” part of sexual curiosity and you may be able to guide them to more appropriate sex educational sites.

If you find it difficult to talk to a child directly about what they might be watching, you might want to talk more broadly about the behaviours displayed in pornography and how behaving like this may impact on themselves and others.

Obviously, pornography and related issues form part of the relationships, sex, and health education (RSHE) statutory curriculum (DfE, 2019).

When talking to children and young people on the subject of sex, relationships and/or porn, it is important for you to be non-judgemental in your approach, not shame anyone and accept what you hear in a neutral manner.

This will create a more comfortable space for the conversation, making it easier for the children to talk about it openly. It will also make you more approachable in the future.

There are also lots of useful resources out there, including the SWGfL’s Let’s talk about porn resource (see further information)


2, Frequently using aggressive or sexualised language about others

This type of harmful language can sometimes be a result of other influences in the child’s home or activities outside school, and so can be difficult to deal with in the classroom.

However, you can challenge the use of aggressive language by explaining clearly why sexist and sexualised language is inappropriate and damaging both to individuals and for all in a school community. Any harmful language presented as a “joke” should be taken just as seriously as other incidents.


3, Talking about sexual experiences with anxiety or uncertainty

Students may be participating in sexual activity with others before they are ready. It can be difficult for young people to know if they are ready to engage in sexual activity; as they mature, social and/or peer pressure can make this decision particularly difficult for them as new hormones add to the confusion and sexual feelings begin to develop.

It is essential that young people understand the principals of consent and trust their own instincts. With this knowledge, they will hopefully be able to explore their sexuality without encountering too many risks or negative experiences.

However, one sign that a child has been affected by harmful sexual activity could be when they talk about the experiences with any uncertainty or anxiety or appear visibly uncomfortable around certain students. Always try to approach the subject sensitively, and ask the child whether anything is troubling them, listening carefully to what they say.

You can, and should, advise young people on the importance of enthusiastic consent, and assure them that they can always talk to you if someone has behaved in a way which upset them, even if they were unable to say “no” at the time. During these conversations, you can relate to what students have been learning in lessons, especially if they have been learning about sex and relationships.


4, You discover a child is sending or receiving illegal images or pornography

The motivations for taking and sharing nude and semi-nude images, videos and live streams are not always criminal. If it is reported to you that a student possesses or is sharing self-generated sexual imagery or child sexual abuse material, you should report it to your designated safeguarding lead. If you are the DSL, you should ascertain if the creation and/or sharing is with consent.

Explain that any kind of relationship or friendship, whether it be online or offline, should make us feel safe and comfortable and should involve mutual respect. Always try to get an understanding of what the young person would like to happen as a result of the relationship. If you need to respond to an incident the UK Council for Internet Safety has produced useful guidance (2020).


5, Displaying abusive or sexually violent behaviour online and/or offline

Abusive or sexually violent behaviour could include stalking, sexual harassment or using sexually aggressive language both on and offline, coercive control, manipulation, and sexual assault. If you believe that any student has been affected by these types of activities, talk to them to understand further what is going on.

If you believe that there has been a serious incident, seek support from law enforcement. If you would like further advice about how to approach online harmful sexual abuse among students, the Marie Collins Foundation has produced useful guidance (see further information).


6, Spending an unusual amount of time in the company of younger children

If you have noticed any students spending increased time together alone, especially if an older teenager has befriended a younger student, you should check in with the students to assess the nature of their relationship.

If the behaviour becomes more frequent or worrying, you have the opportunity to explain to the students, individually and in more detail, what is wrong with this behaviour, and check their understanding of power imbalances within a relationship.

It could also be worth explaining the difference between keeping “good” and “bad” secrets from others. If possible, the behaviour should be monitored and additional support options considered, including referring the case to an external authority.


7, Disclosure of non-consensual sexual contact

School staff should be alert to any non-consensual contact between students both in and outside the classroom/school. To avoid perpetuating this kind of harmful behaviour, students should be informed and empowered in RSHE lessons about what is appropriate and inappropriate touching. When approaching the subject, try to use language that young people will understand to avoid any misunderstanding.


8, Displaying sexual behaviour that’s inappropriate for their age

It is important to get an understanding of where the behaviour you are witnessing or have been told about is coming from. If the student is expressing inappropriate sexual ideations, verbalising sexual acts that are outside of the norm for their age and understanding, or expressing sexual interest in adults or children of different ages to their own, ask them where they saw or learned the behaviour from. This may help you to understand what has been causing it before deciding what to do next.


9, Engaging in sexual behaviour that’s becoming a compulsive habit or happening frequently

By this we mean sexual behaviour that is becoming problematic and becoming more compulsive than usual at school (for example wanting to self-stimulate in the classroom or school). You do not need any physical proof or evidence to wait to seek advice. The earlier children get help, the more chance there is of preventing them from moving on to more serious harmful behaviour.


10, Disclosure of rape or sexual assault

No-one should feel pressured into doing anything, particularly sexual behaviour, they are not comfortable with. If a student has disclosed to you that they have been raped or forced to engage in sexual acts by another student, it is vital that you respond appropriately.

The student needs to be reassured that they are not to blame for what has happened and that they were right to come forward. There are things that need to happen now, and it is important to ensure the victim does not feel responsible for what happens next. You must accept this burden and refer to social services for a strategy discussion.

Ensure the victim is supported and protected not just from the alleged perpetrator, but from the possible backlash from other students if and when this becomes known more widely in the school community. The perpetrator must be isolated from the victim – the victim must not be “punished” by being the one who is removed from the school population.


More support

If you believe a student may be displaying any of the harmful or inappropriate sexual behaviours as described, you can receive further support and access to relevant resources from the Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service, which was launched in January by SWGfL and the Marie Collins Foundation (see below).

  • Carmel Glassbrook is the harmful sexual behaviour support service lead at SWGfL.


Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service

The free service provides advice for professionals in the children’s workforce across England, who encounter or have concerns about harmful sexual behaviour among the children and young people they work with.

The service, funded by the Home Office and developed in collaboration with the Department for Education, is available from Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm, on 0344 225 0623 or via hsbsupport@swgfl.org.uk. For details, visit https://swgfl.org.uk/harmful-sexual-behaviour-support-service/


Further information & resources

Further reading & listening


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