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Why we need to talk about harmful sexual behaviour

Published on
02 April 2019

The following contains sexual language and a real life story from one of our services that some readers may find distressing. Names and some details have been changed to protect identities.​​​​​​

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB):

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.

S Hackett (2014)

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) is not an easy topic to talk about. No one wants to think about children being sexually abused, and no one wants to think about the implications of children being sexually abused by other children. 

Young person in hoodie sitting in skate park

But we’ve reached a point where talking about HSB it is exactly what we need to do. 

So, meet David.*

He has an older sister, a younger sister and a younger brother. At the time of our story, David was 16.

David’s parents had always struggled to meet the children’s physical and emotional needs. After they separated, David and his siblings moved to live with their mother and her new partner in a different part of the country to where they grew up. 

The local authority in the new area became increasingly concerned that the children were suffering emotional abuse and neglect, and all four children were placed into foster care. 

Secret family history

After being taken into care, the true extent of the family’s trauma began to unravel when the youngest brother revealed that David had displayed sexual behaviour towards him.

David was arrested and interviewed by the police. During his interview, he described the ‘sadistic’ physical abuse subjected on him by his mother’s partner. He reported that he was made to watch pornographic films, and that he was physically and emotionally abused by his mother.​​​​​​

When the other children were interviewed, it emerged that they had also been sexually abused by their mother’s partner, and that David would frequently ‘take beatings’ to protect his siblings.

At our specialised services across the country, we understand how this sort of abuse can lead to distorted thinking patterns and behaviours. HSB is often a response to violent trauma.

Assessment and support

At this point, David was experiencing difficulties in most areas of his life. He was displaying challenging behaviour at school and not doing well academically. He was socially isolated, having no meaningful relationships with his peers.

David was referred to a specialised Barnardo’s service for an assessment. Through holistic assessment we were able to identify how past trauma was impacting his behaviour and what the key triggers were for him.

Our approach built on the many strengths David already had – the way he wanted to protect others and his strong resilience. We also introduced approaches that helped him manage his anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and resulting disassociation.

What became of David?

On completion of his programme of therapy, David and his foster carers reported improvements in many areas of his life and with his functioning in general.

David is now taking a vocational course at a local college, part of which involves a work experience placement where he is reported to be highly regarded by his employer. He has formed a circle of friends, mainly through college, but also through his involvement in a local sports club.

David’s abuser, his mother’s partner, was taken to the Crown Court for the sexual abuse and other forms of harm perpetrated against him and his siblings. David was called to provide evidence via video link, and the Crown Prosecution Service complemented David and the police’s investigating officer.

His abuser was acquitted and walked free.

Changing hearts and minds

People will react to David’s story in different ways. It doesn’t have the satisfaction of a fictional story. The loose ends remain dangling. The children’s abuser is not punished, which will spark anger and a sense of injustice in most.

Others may struggle with David’s story of redemption, his praise from the court at the end.

It certainly raises questions for anyone living in our society. Should David be complemented by the CPS after what he did to his brother? Should he have been locked up rather than helped? What do we call a child who displays harmful sexual behaviour towards their sibling? Are they a mini sex-offender or a victim too?

HSB: what’s the research?

A study by Hackett et al (2013) suggests that two thirds of children and young people who had engaged in harmful sexual behaviour had experienced some kind of abuse, neglect or trauma.

It is important to note that having a history like David’s does not cause somebody to engage in HSB – there is no concrete path in evidence terms leading from sexual victimisation to sexual perpetration, and obviously many victims do not go on to commit abuse.

But writing children off is never the answer. As a society, we need to look at the roots of harmful sexual behaviour and understand the young person’s past traumas and vulnerabilities so they can be addressed with high quality, specialist support.

Otherwise we’re in danger of skimming over the deeper issues and instead of helping young people like David, treating them as nothing more than criminals.

Find out more about how our services protect children across the UK.

If your family has been affected by the issues in this post, it’s vital to get support as early as possible. If you or someone you know needs immediate support, contact Childline on 0800 1111.

*David's name has been changed and a model used to protect his identity.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash.