Learning about sex and sexual behaviour is a normal part of a child’s development. It will help them as they grow up, and as they start to make decisions about relationships.
Children pass through different stages of development as they grow, and their awareness and curiosity about sexual matters changes with them.
Each child is individual and will develop in their own way. However, there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child’s age and developmental stage. Sometimes these will involve some exploration with other children of similar age. It can be difficult to tell the difference between age appropriate sexual exploration and warning signs of harmful behaviour.
It’s important to have a good idea of what is normal sexual behaviour so you can also spot the warning signs if something might not be quite right or if a child has been sexually abused.
The NSPCC has a useful guide to keeping children safe, spotting warning signs and what to do if you’re worried.
Underage sexual activity
The age of consent to any form of sexual activity is 16 for both men and women. The age of consent is the same regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of a person and whether the sexual activity is between people of the same or different gender.
It is an offence for anyone to have any sexual activity with a person under the age of 16. However, government guidelines say there is no intention to prosecute teenagers under the age of 16 where both mutually agree and where they are of a similar age.
Many young people will develop a healthy and developmentally appropriate interest in sexual relationships whilst they are still children and some will do this before they reach the age of consent. However, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 children under the age of 13 are legally deemed incapable of consenting to sexual activity and therefore all incidences of sexual behaviour involving children under 13 should be considered as a potential criminal or child protection matter.
Safeguarding practice guidance for professionals about underage sexual activity, including risks, indicators and actions is available in the Devon Children and Families Partnership Procedures Manual.
What is harmful sexual behaviour?
Harmful sexual behaviour involves one or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts that are inappropriate for their age or stage of development.
These can range from using sexually explicit words and phrases to full penetrative sex with other children or adults.
They may be harmful to themselves or others or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.
Sexually harmful behaviours are likely to include elements of:
- power imbalance – possibly involving significant difference in age and developmental factors
- degradation and threats
- compulsive behaviours
- age inappropriate knowledge or experience
- use of bribes, gifts and removal of inhibitors, for instance using drugs or alcohol.
As well as age, a child’s physical, intellectual and emotional development are considered when establishing if their sexual behaviour is harmful.
Communicating with children and young people about sexual activities can be an embarrassing experience for any parent or carer, but when they are displaying signs of sexually harmful behaviour it is essential to talk to them about their actions and seek help.