Defining harmful sexual behaviour: exploring the language

Table of Contents:

There arc always sensitivities when discussing harmful sexual behaviour in relation to children. It is particularly important to use clear definitions when implementing and discussing the language used to describe the behaviour. Some authors may use terms such as ‘child-on-child sexual abuse’, ‘sexually offending behaviour’, ‘sexual assault’, or ‘sexually abusive behaviour’ interchangeably with ‘harmful sexual behaviour’. Such language positions children as sexual perpetrators, molesters, or offenders, establishing a label for children as criminals (Bonner, Walker, & Berliner 1999; Chaffin ct al. 2008; Flanagan 2010). Such terms are grounded in a knowledge of socio-legal norms which docs not reflect children’s context.

Terms such as ‘problem’, ‘problematic’, or 'harmful' when discussing sexual behaviour arc much more appropriate because they focus on the behaviour and not the child and appear to be more widely adopted in recent research. Hackett (2011) points out that the way professionals define the behaviour will influence how they respond. He argues that sexual behaviour can be seen as a continuum from normal through to violent and presents several categories of behaviour: normal, inappropriate, problematic, abusive, and violent. Hackett (2011) suggests that only the latter three categories give cause for concern. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017) uses the term ‘children with harmful sexual behaviours’ to reflect the breadth of behaviours and complexity of issues. They argue that:

This term covers children who display the full spectrum of sexual behaviour problems, including behaviours that arc problematic to the child’s own development, as well as those that are coercive, sexually aggressive and predatory towards others. Our use of the term, therefore, captures all child sexual abuse by children, including juvenile sexual offending.

(The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017, p. 32)

In an education context, many child protection training resources refer to sexual behaviour as ‘age appropriate’, ‘concerning’, or ‘serious’ in nature (see Department for Education 2019; True Relationships & Reproductive Health 2016). Self-focused sexual behaviour, such as masturbation or genital display, can be concerning or problematic but may be more readily accepted as typical sexual development since it docs not place others at risk. Intrusive sexual behaviours comprise a subset of harmful sexual behaviours that arc defined as invasive and/or aggressive, involving physical contact such as touching or penetrating another’s private parts (Smith, Lindsey, Bohora, & Silovsky 2019).

Children’s displays of sexual behaviour need to be interpreted according to the child’s developmental stage. For example, sexual behaviour that may be considered normal in young children may be considered concerning or problematic in primary or adolescent children and vice versa (Hackett 2011; Mesman ct al. 2019). Harmful sexual behaviour is generally not established as a medical or psychological disorder but rather identified as a ‘set of behaviours that fall well outside acceptable societal limits’ (Chaffin et al. 2008, p. 3). Intrapcrsonal sexual behaviour, although seen as problematic, usually refers to self-directed behaviours such as public or persistent masturbation or an overt interest in sex and sexual play

(Silovsky & Nice 2002). Interpersonal harmful sexual behaviour, on the other hand, commonly refers to sexual behaviour towards peers and can be described as children imposing sexual acts on others of the same or similar age (Silovsky & Niec 2002). If there is a significant age difference, power differentials, or violence involved, then there is an element of victimisation, and this may be considered sexually abusive behaviour (Hackett 2011; Mcsman ct al. 2019). Children who instigate sexual acts often try to lure, threaten, persuade, trick, or bribe other children to engage in sexual activity and will generally try to conceal the behaviour from adults (Briggs 2012). It is the children that engage in these behaviours who arc at greater risk of being labelled perpetrators, molesters, or offenders against other children. It is important to note that some forms of peer-on-peer harmful sexual behaviour may not include ill-intention (Flanagan 2010) or an clement of victimisation. Nevertheless, such behaviour may still result in development impediments, distress, or harm to the children involved (Hackett 2011).

Assessing concerning or problematic behaviours is thus related to the frequency of the behaviour, the degree of intrusion on others, the degree of coercion involved, and aspects of visibility or secrecy.

For prc-adolescent children, harmful sexual behaviours can include:

  • • persistent public masturbation;
  • • persistent flashing of genitals, breasts, or bottoms to peers;
  • • having sexual knowledge above what is typically known for their age, including demonstrations or re-enactments of sexual activity, using sexual language, and teaching or sharing this with their peers;
  • • having an obsession with sex or an interest in pornography and sharing this with peers;
  • • trying to touch peers in a sexual way, including touching genitals, bottoms, or breasts, or inviting peers to touch them in these areas;
  • • trying to insert objects into peers’ genitals, bottoms, or mouths;
  • • trying to put their genitals in their peers’ mouths or asking peers to mouth their genitals;
  • • encouraging peers to engage in sexual activity whilst they watch;
  • • simulated or attempted intercourse;
  • • behaviour involving injury to self or others;
  • • using threats to coerce others;
  • • sending sexually explicit photos of self or others, or sexually explicit messages to peers;
  • • violating personal space or sexually harassing peers.
  • (Briggs 2012; El-Murr 2017; Evcrtsz & Miller 2012;

Mesman et al. 2019; Staiger 2005)

For adolescents aged 13+ years, harmful sexual behaviours can also include:

  • • non-consensual fondling or touching of peers’ genitals, breasts, or bottoms, or forcing peers to fondle or touch them in these areas, including the use of coercion, trickery, or bribery;
  • • non-consensual oral sex or forcing peers to perform oral sex on them;
  • • sending sexually explicit photos of self or others, or sexual threats to peers;
  • • violating personal space or sexually harassing peers;
  • • sexual contact with animals;
  • • sexual contact and/or coercion of younger children;
  • • stalking or being excessively persistent after being warned or rejected by peers.
  • (Briggs 2012; El-Murr 2017; Staiger 2005)

The potential for harm escalates when the behaviours just described are persistent or obsessive, or carry elements of aggression, or arc targeted towards younger children. Children often rehearse or try out behaviours they have been exposed to as an exploration and growth strategy. If harmful sexual behaviour by a child has become a continuing issue, or if age-inappropriate sexual play has become coercive and secretive, there is an urgent protective need to intervene to support the safety of all children involved.

Pcer-on-pecr harmful sexual behaviour often occurs in isolated and concealed areas such as toilets, amongst heavy foliage, or behind buildings. Once detected, it is important that adults not only report the behaviour, but also support the child who engages in sexual behaviour and the other child or children involved. Strategies addressing the aftermath of harmful sexual behaviours are detailed in Chapter 4. Harmful sexual behaviours arc often learned, and it is important to act quickly to prevent a cumulative effect amongst a group of children such as a class cohort at school. It is equally important to explore ‘where has the child learnt this’ to facilitate support services.


Although there is an adequate consensus amongst Western scholars about what behaviours arc considered typical and problematic sexual expression across age groups, there arc still some inconsistencies in the literature around terminology. It is important that educators and other professionals concerned with the wellbeing of children arc aware of the discrepancies in the language used to describe children’s harmful sexual behaviour in order to label the behaviour rather than the child. It is equally important that professionals have a sound understanding of the research, ideas, and conceptual frameworks to enable them to identify concerning and harmful sexual behaviour, free from the potential bias of their own values and perspectives, which may influence their interpretation of harmful sexual behaviour. This is to avoid the risk of children’s normal sexual development being treated as problematic, or harmful sexual behaviours being dismissed as normal developmental behaviour. This chapter has outlined a Westernised view of these behaviours, based on the social, legal, and cultural constructs of Westernised ideologies. However, no universal definition currently exists about what constitutes harmful sexual behaviour. This chapter has attempted to provide a guide to discerning whether children’s behaviour meets the criteria for concerning or harmful sexual behaviour. The following chapter examines the prevalence of harmful sexual behaviours in Australia and elsewhere.


Berk, L 2012, Infants, children, and adolescents, 7th edn, Pearson Education, Boston.

Berk, L 2013, Child development, 9th edn, Pearson, Boston.

Bonner, BL, Walker, CE & Berliner, L 1999, Children with sexual behavior problems: Assessment and treatment, U.S Department of Health and Human Service.

Briggs, F 2012, Child protection: The essential guide for teachers and other professionals whose work involves children, Jo-Jo Publishing, Docklands, Victoria.

Carr-Greg, DM 2010, ‘Premature sexualisation’, Bratz, Britney and bralettes seminar, Australian Council on Children and the Media; Kids free 2B Kids.

Chaffin, M, Berliner, L, Block, R, Johnson, TC, Friedrich, WN, Louis, DG, Lyon, TD, Page, IJ, Prescott, DS & Silovsky, JF 2008, ‘Report of the ATSA task force on children with sexual behaviour problems’, Child Maltreatment, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 199-218.

DeLamater, J & Friedrich, WN 2002, ‘Human sexual development', The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 10-14.

Department for Education 2019, Responding to problem sexual behaviour in children and young people: Guidelines for staff in education and care settings, 3rd edn, Government of South Australia: Department for Education, Adelaide South Australia.

El-Murr, A 2017, Problem sexual behaviours and sexually abusive behaviours in Australian children and young people: A review of available literature, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, Victoria, .

Evertsz, J & Miller, R 2012, Children with problem sexual behaviours and their families: Best interests case practice model: Specialist practice resource, Victorian Government Department of Human Services, Melbourne, .

Ey, L, Mclnnes, E & Rigney, L 2017, ‘Educators’ understanding of young children’s typical and problematic sexual behaviour and their training in this area’, Sex Education, vol. 17, no. 6, pp. 682-696.

Flanagan, P 2010, 'Making molehills into mountains: Adults responses to child sexuality and behaviour’, Explorations: An E Journal of Narrative Practice, no. 1, pp. 57-69.

Friedrich, WN, Grambsch, P, Broughton, D, Kuiper, J & Beilke, RL 1991, ‘Normative sexual behaviour in children’, Pediatrics, vol. 88, no. 3, pp. 456-464.

Hackett, S 2011, ‘Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours’, in C Barter & D Berridge (eds), Children behaving badly? Peer violence between children and young people, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester.

Hamilton, M 2010, What's happening to our boys?, Penguin, Camberwell, Victoria.

Hoffnung, M, Hoffnung, RJ, Seifert, KL, Burton Smith, R & Hine, A 2010, Childhood, John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd, Milton.

Larsson, I & Svedin, C-G 2001, ‘Sexual behaviour in Swedish preschool children, as observed by their parents’, Acta Paediatric, vol. 90, no. 4, pp. 436-444.

Levin, D & Kilbourne, J 2008, So sexy so soon: The new sexualized childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids, Ballantine Books, New York.

Linn, S 2009, ‘A royal juggernaut: The Disney princesses and other commercialized threats to creative play and the path to realisation for young girls’, in S Olfman (ed), The sexualization of childhood, Praeger, Westport, pp. 33-50.

Mesman, GR, Harper, SL, Edge, NA, Brandt, TW & Pemberton, JL 2019, ‘Problematic sexual behaviour in children’, Journal of Pediatric Health Care, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 323-331.

O’Brien, W 2010, Australia s response to sexualised or sexually abuse behaviours in children and young people, Australian Crime Commission, Canberra, ACT, .

Peterson, C 2010, Looking forward through the lifespan: Developmental psychology, 5th edn, Pearson Australia, Frenchs Forest.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017, Final report: Volume 10, children with harmful sexual behaviours, Sydney,

Silovsky, J & Niec, L 2002, ‘Characteristics of young children with sexual behaviour problems: A pilot study’, Child Maltreatment, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 187-197.

Simon, W & Gagnon, J 1998, ‘Psychosexual development’, Society, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 60-67.

Smith, TJ, Lindsey, RA, Bohora, S & Silovsky, JF 2019, ‘Predictors of intrusive sexual behaviors in preschool-aged children'. The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 56, no. 2, pp. 229-238,

Staiger, P 2005, Children who engage in problem sexual behaviours: Context, characteristics and treatment: A review of the literature, Australian Childhood Foundation and Deakin University, Melbourne.

Steingraber, S 2009, 'Girls gone grown up: Why are U.S. girls reaching puberty earlier and earlier?’, in S Oilman (ed), The sexualization of childhood, Praeger, Westport, pp. 51-63.

True Relationships & Reproductive Health 2016, Sexual behaviour in children and young people: A guide to identify, understand and respond to sexual behaviours, True Relationships & Reproductive Health, Queensland, .

Worthman, CM, Plotsky, PM, Schechter, DS & Cummings, CA (eds) 2010, Formative experiences: The interaction of caregiving, culture, and developmental psychology, Cambridge University Press, New York.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >