Harmful sexual behaviour

Harmful sexual behaviour is harmful both to the child it is inflicted on and the child displaying it, and requires immediate attention and reaction from adults.

Harmful sexual behaviour can often be characterised as being excessive, secretive, violating, forceful, regressive or threatening.

Some characteristics of sexual behaviours which cause harm:

  • An imbalance of power, maturity and age between the involved parties
  • Use of threats, coercion or force
  • Lack of consent
  • Typically acceptable behaviour, but is unacceptable in the current context
  • A not insignificant amount of secrecy and/or planning
  • Behaviour escalates despite attempts to stop it
  • The victim of a sexual violation displays negative emotions like fear and anger, potentially having an outburst or closing off

Harmful sexual behaviours – examples

Children under 5 years

  • Simulation of sexual touch or sexual activity
  • Persistently touching the genitals/private
    parts of others
  • Sexual behaviour between young children
    involving penetration with objects,
    masturbation of others, oral sex
  • Forcing other children to engage in
    sexual activity

Children between 5 and 9 years

  • Compulsive masturbation and seeking an audience
  • Accessing the rooms of sleeping children to
    touch or engage in sexual activity
  • Persistent bullying and threatening involving sexual aggression
  • Simulation of, or participation in, sexual activities
    e.g. oral sex, sexual intercourse

Children between 9 and 12 years

  • Deliberately sending and/or publishing sexual
    images of self or another person
  • Force or coercion of others into sexual activity
  • Engaging vulnerable others in a process to gain
    sexual activity
  • Compulsive masturbation e.g. self harming,
    seeking an audience

Children between 9 and 12 years

  • Deliberately sending and/or publishing sexual
    images of another person without their consent
  • Engaging others in a process to gain sexual
    activity by using grooming techniques
    e.g. gifts, manipulation, lies
  • Preoccupation with sexually aggressive and/or
    illegal pornography
  • Sexual harrasment and threatening
  • Sexual contact with others of significant age
    and/or developmental difference
  • Sexual contact with animals
  • Sexual activity in exchange for money, goods,
    accommodation, drugs or alcohol

More examples of sexual behaviours in children and young people are to be found in “Traffic Lights”. “Traffic Lights” is a guide to identify, understand and respond to sexual behaviours. 

Trafikklyset (Norwegian)

Traffic Lights (English)

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Characteristics of harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people

There may be several causes as to why children display harmful sexual behaviour.

It can be the result of unfortunate sexual experimentation, or maybe a reaction caused by emotional, physical or sexual assault or neglect. Some display this behaviour after having been shown or seen a lot of pornography, or after adults have had sexual intercourse in front of them. Others are more impulsive in their actions, with no apparent instigator or premeditative planning.

The problematic or harmful sexual behaviour is often only one of several issues (behavioural issues, psychological or neurological problems) the adolescent is dealing with, and must be understood as such; in context, rather than as “its own thing”. There are, however, a significant percentage of adolescents who are not otherwise troubled, and whose cognitive and social functions fall within the normal part of the spectrum.

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The proplem as a whole

When children and young people display sexual behaviour capable of hurting others or themselves, the adults have a duty to react and provide help and protection. Certain children and young people are more vulnerable to developing – or falling victim to – this unacceptable behaviour. Examples are children with different handicaps, or who have been victims of violence, assault or negligence, children from low socio-economic backgrounds or with stunted development or socialisation.

Most children will not reoffend

Most children will not repeat the harmful sexual behaviour if they are given clear boundaries and have the potential consequences of such behaviour explained to them; how it affects both the violated party and themselves. Some adolescents will need further counselling in how to manage and master social interaction, sexual emotions, rejection by peers, and guilt/shame about having committed a sexual violation. Nurses, teachers and other health care personnel can also assist the children in these matters.

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The need for something extra

A few of those who commit sexual violations will continue displaying the behaviour, and need more comprehensive help and assistance.

Harmful sexual behaviour is harmful both to the child it is inflicted on and the child displaying it, and indicates a need for an immediate reaction from adults. This is mentioned under RED BEHAVIOUR in The Traffic Light. Read more about what to do here.