Harmful sexual behaviour: statistics briefing

Publication date 2021

How common is harmful sexual behaviour?

We do not know the true number of children and young people affected by harmful sexual behaviour (HSB). HSB covers a wide range of behaviours, many of which do not come to the attention of authorities. However, some attempts to estimate the prevalence of HSB have been made using data from children’s self-reported experiences of sexual abuse by peers and services which work with children who display HSB.

From this research we can estimate that around a third of child sexual abuse is by other children and young people.

This briefing looks at what data and statistics are available about HSB to help professionals, and the organisations they work for, make evidence-based decisions.

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Key findings from the data

  • There is some cross-over between online and offline HSB and between child sexual exploitation and HSB.
  • Harmful sexual behaviour is most commonly identified in adolescent boys, but girls and younger children can also exhibit HSB.
  • A significant proportion of children who display HSB also have a learning disability.
  • The majority of children who display HSB have themselves experienced trauma, including abuse or neglect.
  • The majority of children and young people displaying HSB do not become sexual offenders as adults.
  • Young people who display HSB often experience other emotional, behavioural and peer related difficulties.

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