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Harmful Sexual Behaviour



Often the thought of Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) can be unsettling and professionals can worry about how best to approach the subject or deal with emerging issues demonstrated by the young people they work with. One of the common issues people can have is that they struggle to identify which sexual behaviours are potentially harmful and which might represent healthy sexual development.

Here’s a quick guide to responding to an incident; 

  1. What is it?
  2. How serious is it?
  3. Why do I need to take action?
  4. What do I do now? 

What is it?

Harmful Sexual Behaviours (HSB) are 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, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.

How serious is it?

It’s important to remember that sexualised behaviours occur on a continuum from normal to inappropriate, problematic, abusive and violent and that to ensure consistency in responding to an incident is taken, a standardised approach should be used to identify where the behaviour sits on this continuum.  Further information is available on the CYSCP Tools webpage.

Why do I need to take action?

It’s important that incidents of HSB are not ignored and that they are responded to in a timely and consistent manner. Early intervention in cases of harmful sexual behaviour can enable young people to adopt a healthy development pathways and proceed to make healthy relationships.

Taking decisive steps to respond to HSB helps to;

  • Identify potential risk of repeated harmful sexual behaviour
  • Identify risks to either the child/young person carrying out the behaviours or their actual/potential victim(s)
  • Identify the child/young person’s needs including immediate sexual health needs
  • Assess the child/young person’s motivation and capacity to engage in services and plans
  • Identify the capacity of the parents/carers to manage and support the child/young person

What do I do now?

If concerns around HSB are identified by a professional or a disclosure of potential HSB is made to a professional then in the first instance you should check the information on the CYSCP Tools webpage.

Where can I get Advice if I am unsure?

The Youth Justice Service can offer advice and guidance if you have concerns around potential Harmful Sexual behaviour. The Youth Justice Service can be contacted during office hours on our duty number – 01904 554565. They do not provide an out of hours service. If you have safeguarding concerns whereby you consider a child is at risk, you must contact the MASH immediately.

If there is concern that a child, young person or an adult might have been harmed by the behaviour of the child or young person then the behaviour should be reported to the Police if it has not already been done so. Allegations of peer abuse should be taken as seriously as allegations of abuse perpetrated by an adult. In cases of peer on abuse both young people will need to be considered and allocated separate Social Workers.

New Service available in relation to Harmful Sexual Behaviour

The Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service, run by SWGfL in partnership with the Marie Collins Foundation, is now available to safeguarding professionals across England and provides the tools to equip and empower practitioners to address the alarming normalisation of harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people.

The telephone and email support, which is funded by the Home Office and developed in collaboration with the Department for Education, is available Monday – Friday, 8am to 8pm.

Call: 0344 255 0623                  Email:

How will it support you?

The Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service is for education and safeguarding professionals and will provide:

  1. Advice on individual cases or incidents of harmful sexual behaviour, to ensure an appropriate response both for children displaying this behaviour and others affected by it
  2. Guidance on policy development on tackling harmful sexual behaviour
  3. Relevant resources, best practice and contacts around harmful sexual behaviour, both locally and nationally

 Find out more about the service

Why act now?

The service has been established in response to the 2021 Ofsted review, which revealed a prevalence of child-on-child sexual harassment and abuse so widespread that, for some children, incidents are ‘so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them’ and ‘consider them normal’. 

What is Harmful Sexual Behaviour?

Developmentally inappropriate sexual behaviour which is displayed by children and young people (under the age of 18) and which may be harmful or abusive. It can be displayed towards younger children, peers, older children or adults. It can be harmful to the children and young people who display it, as well as those it is directed towards.

 Get in touch today


What Happens next?

A lot depends on whether there is going to be a police investigation or prosecution. If there is, then the young person will be supported through the process and the Youth Justice Service will ensure that any identified HSB will be assessed and appropriate intervention delivered at the earliest opportunity. However where it is concluded it is either not in the public interest to do so or there is insufficient evidence to charge then there remains the need to address the identified HSB though targeted HSB intervention.

In April 2019 the Youth Justice Service (YJS) launched a Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) Service seeking to provide intervention work with young people around identified HSB concerns that had not resulted in ongoing police investigation or prosecution.

The Youth Justice Service has the opportunity to engage with children and young people displaying these behaviours with the aim of preventing offending and reducing re-offending. Using identification, assessment and intervention tools such as AIM3, the primary objective of Youth Justice Service intervention remains at all times the protection of victims, potential victims and the avoidance of any repetition of inappropriate or harmful behaviour. Government findings indicate that those young people offered early intervention benefit from the child centred approach of youth justice practitioners and their chances of rehabilitation improve. Such intervention can enable young people to adopt a healthy development pathway and proceed to make healthy future relationships.

The Youth Justice Service currently only take referrals for the HSB service directly from Children’s Social Care. The following information will be required on the referral before it is accepted by the Youth Justice Service.

  • Basic information and contact details including phone numbers                                                               
  • Confirmation of written consent from the young person and family for the referral                                  
  • Full details of all incidents of alleged Harmful Sexual Behaviour                                                                                                                                           
  • Concerns around Risk to others including to professionals                                                                                         
  • Safety and Wellbeing concerns                                                                                                                       
  • Education, Training or Employment details

Written consent from the young person and parents/ carers for the referral to the Youth Justice Service HSB Service will be required.  Referral forms are available upon contacting the Youth Justice Service on 01904 554565 and completed referrals should be emailed to


The CYSCP are now providing Multi-Agency training in Harmful Sexual Behaviour.  More information about the 'Developing an Understanding of Harmful Sexual Behaviour' is available on the Multi-Agency Training page.

Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) Procedure

For further information and guidance please look at the CYSCP HSB Procedure.  This is available on the CYSCP Procedures webpage and also on the right hand tool bar of this webpage.

Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) One Minute Guide

A useful One Minute Guide has been produced for professionals which can easily be downloaded.

Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) Presentation

Ross Holden from the Youth Justice Service has produced a presentation regarding HSB. This was also delivered at the CYSCP Learning Masterclass Event in June 2021 which contains useful information in relation to Harmful Sexual Behaviour.

**Please note this will download as a presentation on your PC.  Once in Powerpoint you will need to click on Slide Show and play from start to listen to the recorded version**

Peer on Peer Sexual Abuse

Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is sexual abuse that happens between children of a similar age or stage of development. It can happen between any number of children, and can affect any age group (Department for Education (DfE), 2018).  The NSPCC website has further information regarding this.

Online Safety/Sexting


Removing a child or young person's imagine online - Report Remove - 
A tool that works to help young people get nude images or videos removed from the internet has been launched the NSPCC’s Childline service and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). Further information is available on the Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation webpage.“‘TA-HSB’ refers to one or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts - using the internet and / or any image-creating / sharing or communication device -which is considered inappropriate and / or harmful given their age or stage of development.” (Hollis & Belton, 2017)

  • Child Exploitation and Online Protection - Are you worried about online sexual abuse or the way someone has been communicating with you online? Make a report to one of CEOP's Child Protection Advisors.
  • Net Aware - Your guide to apps, games and social media sites.
  • Safe Internet - Your guide to staying safe online - A guide to staying safe on the internet.
  • NSPCC Sexting guidance - Sexting is when people share a sexual message and/or a naked or semi-naked image, video or text message with another person. It's also known as nude image sharing.
  • The Marie Collins Foundation, who specialise in preventing and tackling online sexual abuse and exploitation of children collaborated with LadBible to produce a short story to raise awareness of how revenge porn can happen and the impact this abuse can have on a young person:

Harmful Sexual Behaviour Useful Links

  • NSPCC Learning Hub - This Hub has lots of useful information with regards to identifying Harmful Sexual Behaviour and also provides a lot of useful resources.
  • NSPCC - Responding to children who display Sexualised Behaviour - It’s important for health practitioners to be able to distinguish normal sexual behaviours from those that may be harmful, and make sure children get appropriate support.  This is a guide to help assist with decision making.
  • NSPCC HSB Framework - This framework helps local areas develop and improve multi-agency responses to children displaying HSB. It provides a coordinated, systematic and evidence-based approach to recognising and responding to the risks and needs of this vulnerable group.
  • NICE Harmful Sexual Behaviour guidelines - This guideline covers children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour, including those on remand or serving community or custodial sentences. It aims to ensure these problems don’t escalate and possibly lead to them being charged with a sexual offence. It also aims to ensure no-one is unnecessarily referred to specialist services.
  • Centre of Expertise on child sexual abuse research - Key messages from research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour
  • Thinkuknow warning signs - Recognising harmful sexual behaviour by young people
  • Barnado's - An organisation who can helpn with working with children, young people, families and professionals to help understand the behaviour, build self-worth, keep safe and make the right choices to improve life chances.
  • Home Office Disrepect Nobody campaign - A Home Office campaign regarding healthy relationships and respect.  This contains lots of useful animated videos.
  • NSPCCSexual Behaviour in children - Information regarding healthy sexual relationships in children and young people.
  • DfE Keeping children safe in education
  • MESMAC offers one to one support for LGBTQ and those questioning young people aged 14-25. This includes support around sexual health and support with coming out and peer support within a youth group.  The youth group sessions cover some targeted work, such as online safety, what's makes a healthy relationship.  
  • Contextual Safeguarding Research Programme - A useful website with research and publications.
  • DfE Keeping children safe in education - The latest government guidance.

Useful Documents

Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours Simon Hackett Research in Pratcice

 Belton, E. and Hollis, V. (2016) A review of the research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour online: what is developmentally appropriate online sexual behaviour, do children and young people with online versus offline harmful sexual behaviours (HSB) differ, and is there an association between online and offline HSB? London: NSPCC

Hollis, V. and Belton, E. (2017) Children and young people who engage in technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour; a study of their behaviours, backgrounds and characteristics. London: NSPCC

That Difficult Age: Developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence: Evidence Scope (2015) Hanson E, Holmes D

“Everyone deserves to be happy and safe” A mixed methods study exploring how online and offline child sexual abuse impact young people and how professionals respond to it Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis Elly Hanson Helen Whittle Anthony Beec.h November 2017

Government guidance sexting in schools and colleges

Hackett, S, Branigan, P and Holmes, D (2019). Harmful sexual behaviour framework: an evidence-informed operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours, second edition, London, NSPCC.

Harmful sexual behaviour in schools: a briefing on the findings, implications and resources for schools and multi-agency partners Jenny Lloyd, Joanne Walker and Vanessa Bradbury June 2020 

Completing the Harmful sexual behaviour framework audit tool. A guide for designated safeguarding leads in health