Children and young people with sexually harmful behaviour were the subject of increased attention throughout the 1990s and the National Committee of Enquiry report (NCH, 1992) continues to be one of the most comprehensive documents available. There is a broad consensus that there has been some progress in policy developments during the 1990s (Morrison, 1999). However, it is also worth noting that this is a new and developing area of work and a consensus has yet to be reached on a number of these issues (Masson, 2000, p.51).
It is difficult to define sexually harmful behaviour by children and young people for a number of reasons, including those listed below:
The sexual behaviour of young people can be seen on a continuum from mutually agreed experimentation to very serious crimes such as stalking and multiple rape. Many children engage in activities that form a normal part of their sexual development (Gil and Cavanagh-Johnson, 1993; Ryan and Lane, 1997). Much of this behaviour is not abusive and forms an important and necessary part of the learning process. Other types of behaviour are harmful and not appropriate.
Defining what behaviour is appropriate and what is harmful can be difficult. Most definitions acknowledge that abuse is bound up with concepts of consent, power and exploitation and define sexual abuse as meaning that force or coercion have been used upon another child to ensure participation (Bannister and Gallagher, 1995; Calder, 1997; NCH, 1992; Palmer, 1995; Ryan, 1999; Ryan and Lane, 1997). Becker (1988, p.197) describes nondeviant sexual behaviour in adolescence as 'noncoercive sexual interaction with a peer'. As Vizard et al (1995) point out, this then means that deviant sexual behaviour involves coercion, age inappropriate sexual behaviour, and partners who are not peers. But the problem of defining 'coercion', 'age inappropriate' and 'peers', remains (ibid.).
Some acts are clearly abusive, e.g. for an adolescent to have intercourse with a seven year old. The Committee of Enquiry report suggests that there is cause for concern if there is an age difference of more than two years, or if one of the children is pre-pubertal and the other post-pubertal (NCH, 1992, p.4). The issue of whether an action is abusive becomes less clear as the age gap narrows and the sexual acts become less physically intrusive. In addition, the Committee of Enquiry (ibid.) notes that a young child can abuse an older child if the older one is disempowered because of disability. There are also examples of young people who have sexually abused adults.
There are various legal definitions of what constitutes a sexual offence as well as differences in the age of criminal responsibility (Bala and Schwartz, 1993). However, a legal definition does not apply to children below the age of criminal responsibility (10 years in England and Wales). Furthermore, 'true consent' is not necessarily the same as 'legal consent'. Under the law a child under the age of 13 cannot give consent to sexual activity. This does not mean that consent to certain activities never occurs, nor should it imply that those over 13 are able to consent freely.
Practitioners find the following definition useful since it goes some way to getting over the limitations of the age differential:
'Consent is based on choice. Consent is active not passive. Consent is possible only when there is equal power. Forcing someone to give in is not consent. Going along with something because of wanting to fit in with the group is not consent ?? If you can't say 'no' comfortably then 'yes' has no meaning. If you are unwilling to accept 'no' then 'yes' has no meaning' (Adams et al, 1984).
There is a great deal of debate about the correct way to refer to children and young people who are involved in initiating sexual acts and a wide variety of terms are used (Masson and Erooga, 1999). These debates reflect the variety or continuum of behaviour engaged in, the different theories about the definition of the problem, its causes, and treatment models. The NSPCC suggests the term 'children and young people who display sexually harmful behaviour'. This term does not label children and young people but does identify the behaviour as being harmful and wrong. It also goes some way to covering all types of behaviour as it encapsulates the idea that despite the fact that behaviour exists on a continuum it is always harmful, not only to the victim but also to the perpetrator.
Retrospective studies present a broad consensus that between 25-35 per cent of all alleged sexual abuse involves young, mainly adolescent, perpetrators (Cawson et al, 2000; Horne et al, 1991; Kelly et al, 1991; Morrison, 1999; Royal Belfast Hospital and Queen's University of Belfast, 1991). Based on this estimate and child protection register statistics, Morrison calculates that over 10,000 children were sexually abused by another child or young person in 1994 (Morrison, 1999). Masson and Erooga (1999) present the following statistics based on the 1997 Home Office statistics which recorded the total level of sexual offences as 33,200 (Home Office, 1998):
Research emphasises the need to understand sexually harmful behaviour in the context of early life and family experiences (Morrison, 1999). The majority have been or continue to be suffering from some form of abuse be that sexual, physical, emotional or neglect (Blues et al, 1999; Cavanagh Johnson, 1989; Matthews et al, 1997; O'Callaghan and Print, 1994; Ryan and Lane, 1997; Saradjian, 1996). Displaying sexually harmful behaviour may be a way of exerting power or control over others. It may also fulfil a need for comfort or pleasure. The majority of these children and young people do not have a sexual interest in children but target them because they are more accessible and malleable than adults (Beckett, 1999, p.224).
Many of these children and young people have been sexually abused themselves, and research suggests that the younger the perpetrator the more likely this is the case. The Traumagenic Model (Finkelhor and Brown, 1986) suggests that sexually harmful behaviour by children and young people is a response to their own experience.
However, not all children who are sexually abused develop sexually harmful behaviour; and children who are not victims of sexual abuse do develop sexually harmful behaviour. Therefore, other factors are thought to be significant. The following are some of the leading theories in current literature:
Children and young people who display sexually harmful behaviour are a heterogeneous group. There is no 'typical' young person with sexually harmful behaviour. Some present a variety of characteristics that may increase the risk of offending, such as deviant sexual arousal (preference offenders), others do not (situational offenders) (Moore and Rosenthal, 1993).
Adolescent males are responsible for the majority of sexual offences (Vizard et al, 1995). They are likely to have social skills deficits, be isolated, lack sexual knowledge, have high levels of anxiety (Awad and Saunders, 1989; Becker and Abel, 1985; Fehrenback et al, 1986; Graves, 1993; Shorr et al, 1966), and suffer from low self-esteem and emotional loneliness. Young male abusers are often doing poorly at school both in terms of their behaviour and educational attainment (Kahn and Chambers, 1991).
Research suggests that approximately 10 per cent of victims of child sexual abuse are molested by women and girls (Elliott, 1993; Finkelhor, 1984; Matthews et al, 1989; Mayer, 1992; Saradjian, 1996; Scavo, 1989). However, girls are less frequently identified and referred for treatment. They tend to have particularly disturbed backgrounds (Lane with Lobanov-Rostovsky, 1997), with very high levels of both sexual and physical victimisation, problematic relationships with parents, family separation, and difficulties at school and with peers (ibid.).
Younger children also display sexually harmful behaviour (Araji, 1997) and a number of NSPCC projects report that the average age of referral has gone down from 17 to 12 years. Thirty-one per cent of those seen at the NSPCC Coventry project are under 10 years old. From 1999 to 2002, 30 per cent of the children or young people receiving a service from NSPCC Lincolnshire for this behaviour were aged under ten years. This group are also have particularly troubled backgrounds with a history of physical and sexual abuse, substance misuse, emotional victimisation or abandonment and display a high rate of psychiatric, learning or medical problems (Cavanagh-Johnson, 1988; Lane with Lobanov-Rostovsky, 1997).
Children and young people with learning disabilities are over-represented within this group. The following are UK studies of adolescent sexual offenders that identify between one third and a half of their samples as learning disabled or having significant educational problems: Vizard (2000); Beckett and Brown (1999) cited in Erooga and Masson (1999); Hawkes et al (1997); Dolan et al (1996); and Monck and New (1996). Their behaviour is similar to those without learning difficulties, although research suggests some differences in context of behaviour and level of sophistication (Lane with Labanov-Rostovsky, 1997). It is unclear why they are over-represented in this group: it could be theorised that they are simply more likely to get caught. O'Callaghan (2001) notes that this group are very vulnerable to abuse, isolation and poorer attachment, and receive less sex education and space to develop appropriate sexual expression.
Most of the victims of children and young people who display sexually harmful behaviour are siblings, extended family members, friends or neighbours (Awad and Saunders, 1989; 1991). Foster and step-siblings and those in care settings are particularly vulnerable. Some of those who display inappropriate or sexually abusive behaviour abuse either boys or girls, while others abuse both groups (Epps, 1999). The age of victims ranges from less than two years to adult.
The causes of sexual offending in young people can comprise social, cultural, physiological and developmental factors. Therefore, intervention must consider the young person as a whole, in their social, familial and cultural contexts (Hackett, 2000). Services need to take into account the needs of carers/ parents and other significant individuals (Steen and Monnet, 1989; Kahn, 1990). It is generally agreed that treatment should include 'sex offence specific' work as well as treatment to address, for example, the offender's own abuse and victimisation if relevant and other more general developmental issues (Ryan, 1999; Masson, 1995). Treatment needs to be age-appropriate and based on an age-appropriate assessment (Department of Health et al, 1999; Calder, 1997 and 1999). A range of techniques is used in programmes with children and young people, including cognitive behavioural, groupwork and other therapeutic interventions. A body of useful resources for professionals has been developing in this area, see for example Cunningham and MacFarlane, 1990 and 1996; Kahn, 2001; Calder, 1997 and 1999).
The proportion of children and adolescents who display sexually harmful behaviour who continue to abuse as adults is unknown. There are very few studies identifying those characteristics which predict which adolescent sexual offenders will continue their sexual offending into adulthood and those studies that do exist are fraught with methodological problems (Beckett, 1999). There seems to be little evidence to suggest that the majority of young people with harmful sexual behaviour go on to become adult sex offenders (ibid; Glasser et al, 2001). Current research suggests that for adolescents the risk of both violent and general re-offending is greater than the risk of sexual recidivism (Beckett, 1999; O'Callaghan, 2000 also cites: Prentky et al, 2000; Worling and Curwen, 2000; Rasmussen, 1999). There is also evidence from NSPCC projects that those young people who receive treatment are less likely to re-offend than those not provided with services. However, it should also be noted here that high risk adult sex offenders are often found to have had a troubled childhood (Salter, 1988).
There has been a failure to develop an overall systematic approach to children and young people who exhibit sexually harmful behaviour. This issue currently crosses a number of Government departments, specifically the Home Office and the Department of Health, with the result that there is no agreed approach or guidance. The NSPCC is currently urging the Government to develop an overarching strategy including a coherent, multi-agency approach based on a 'child first' philosophy. Our policy calls also include an increase in funding, improved service provision, a more consistent and age-appropriate social service and criminal justice response, education and awareness raising in schools and funding for further research.
The NSPCC believes that the sexual abuse of children must stop and that to achieve this it is critical to address the problem of children and young people who display sexually harmful behaviour. Furthermore, the NSPCC believes that it is important that children and young people who display sexually harmful behaviour receive the best possible treatment and support. These children and young people are first and foremost just that: children and young people. They are all vulnerable and many have severe emotional and/ or learning difficulties. They are children in need and their welfare, treatment and rehabilitation are vital, both for their own wellbeing, and for that of their potential victims.
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This research briefing is based on a review of research and literature. It reports the findings and views of a range of authors. These views are not necessarily the views of the NSPCC.
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