“Is this sexual abuse?” The concerns being raised to the NSPCC helpline and Childline about peer sexual abuse

It’s normal for children to display a range of sexual behaviours as they grow up, but sometimes their behaviour can be harmful to themselves and others. Around a third of child sexual abuse is committed by other children and young people (Hackett, 2014). We call this peer sexual abuse.

We wanted to find out more about how to support children and young people who have experienced peer sexual abuse. So we analysed the concerns being raised by those who contact our helpline and Childline.

We looked at how peer sexual abuse takes place; the impact it has on young people’s lives; how best to provide support after peer sexual abuse; and how to prevent it from happening.

Authors: NSPCC
Published: 2018

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  • Many adults contacting our helpline for advice about children’s sexualised behaviour are unclear about which behaviours are part of ‘normal’ sexual development, and what is harmful and/or abusive.
  • Parents and professionals don’t always know the most appropriate way to respond to children who display harmful sexual behaviour and/or who have experienced peer sexual abuse.
  • Peer sexual abuse can happen in a range of settings, including:
    • at school; 
    • at home; 
    • in public spaces; 
    • at parties; at a friend’s house; and 
    • online.
  • Young people can be confused about whether or not they have experienced peer sexual abuse. Reasons for this include:
    • they are confused about what constitutes ‘normal’ sexual activity;
    • they don’t know whether they gave consent;
    • they were drunk when the abuse took place;
    • the abuse was carried out by a friend or partner; 
    • the abuse took place online; and/or
    • they blame themselves for what happened.
  • Young people are often reluctant to tell anybody about peer sexual abuse. They may:
    • worry that they won’t be taken seriously;
    • fear they will be blamed or bullied about what happened;
    • be frightened of what the other young person will do to them if they speak out; and/or
    • not think that what happened was serious enough to report.
  • Experiencing peer sexual abuse can have a long lasting impact on a young person. In some cases it can result in symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Where the data comes from 3
Introduction 4
Key messages 6
Contacts to the NSPCC helpline about children's sexualised behaviour 7
Childline counselling sessions about peer sexual abuse 10
Young people's concerns about peer sexual abuse 13
Impact of peer sexual abuse 19
Seeking help after experiencing peer sexual abuse 20
Preventing and responding to peer sexual abuse 24
References 26

“My daughter’s friend came to play at our house. I went upstairs and walked into the bedroom to see my daughter pulling her knickers down and her friend sat with her mobile phone about to take a photo.”

“Me and my boyfriend are both 14 and he came over earlier because we had talked about having sex for the first time. Although I had said yes before, I told him I didn’t want to do it. If two people were going to “do it” but one of them decides they don’t want to and lets the other person know, but the other person goes through with it and does it anyway, is that classed as rape?”

“I met up with a boy that I knew in a park. I thought we were just hanging out as friends, but he forced me to do things and touch him in ways that I didn't want to. I'm really shocked about it all, I feel awful. I'm scared to go anywhere on my own now and I'm terrified about seeing him again, even though he thinks everything is fine and texted me saying he had a good time. I feel like telling the police but what could they do? If he denies what happened then there's no proof, and they'll probably just think that it could have been worse. Plus they'll just blame me because I agreed to meet with him in the first place, even though I had no idea that any of this was going to happen.”

Please cite as: NSPCC (2018) “Is this sexual abuse?”: NSPCC helplines report about peer sexual abuse . London: NSPCC.

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  1. Hackett, S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours. London: Research in Practice.

    Explanation: Hackett's overview of research and crime statistics suggests that anywhere from one-fifth to two-thirds of sexual abuse is committed by other children and young people. The NSPCC uses the figure of “around a third” as a mid-way point between the lower end and the higher end of the estimates.