Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment

Children and young people are targeted for sexual abuse and exploitation by adults and by one another. As a society, we have sometimes ignored the harm sexual violence and sexual harassment can cause.

Although anyone can experience sexual harassment and violence, research indicates that girls are disproportionately affected. In their 2020 report, How Safe are Our Children?, the NSPCC found 90 per cent of recorded offences of rape in 13 to 15-year-olds were committed against girls.

Every year, Girlguiding completes the Girl’s Attitudes Survey. The latest survey revealed that girls continue to feel unsafe in public, in school, online and when outside on their own.

In Ofsted’s Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges (2021), children and young people reported the following things happened “a lot or sometimes” to them or their peers:

  • unwanted touching;
  • pressure to do sexual things they didn’t want to;
  • sexual assault of any kind;
  • unwanted or inappropriate sexual comments;
  • sexist name calling;
  • being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see.

The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal.

Children and young people who are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender (LGBT) can be targeted by other children, and children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) are more likely to be abused than children and young people without additional needs.

Children and young people also told Ofsted that the sharing of nudes was widespread, along with “body shaming” and “slut shaming”, and they felt that teachers were out of touch with the realities of their pupils’ lives and what they had to endure, both in school and out of school, in terms of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

All children and young people have a right to grow up safe from abuse and harassment. Settings working with children and young people are central to framing a safeguarding ethos and creating protected spaces for children and young people to explore healthy relationships. There is a duty for settings to ensure they take action to keep children and young people safe. (See part five of Keeping Children Safe in Education for further information.)

There is a strong emphasis on safeguarding children and young people from harm by changing expectations, challenging unacceptable behavior and improving children and young people’s knowledge and understanding of healthy relationships.


Sexual violence is rape, assault by penetration, sexual assault or causing someone to engage in sexual activity without consent.

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.

Harmful sexual behaviour is problematic, abusive and violent behaviour by a child or young person that is developmentally inappropriate and may cause developmental damage.

Adapted from Keeping Children Safe in Education

Quotation marks

Expanding the definitions


Whilst the definitions above are short and to the point, what do they mean? Click on the expand button for further information about what is meant by sexual violence, sexual harassment and harmful sexual behaviour.

Adapted from Keeping Children Safe in Education

Sexual violence 

  • Rape is intentional penetration by the perpetrator with their penis without consent, and there is no reasonable belief that the victim consents.
  • Assault by penetration is intentional sexual penetration by the perpetrator with a part of their body or anything else without consent, and there is no reasonable belief that the victim consents.
  • Sexual assault is intentional sexual touching of the victim by the perpetrator without consent, and there is no reasonable belief that the victim consents. (Settings should be aware that sexual assault covers a very wide range of behaviour, so a single act of kissing someone without consent or touching someone’s bottom/breasts/genitalia without consent, can still constitute sexual assault.)
  • Intentionally causing someone to engage in sexual activity without their consent, and there is no reasonable belief that they consent, is also an offence. This could include forcing someone to strip, touch themselves sexually, or to engage in sexual activity with a third party.

What is consent?

Consent is about having the freedom and capacity to choose (saying yes when being pressured, coerced, or threatened is not consent). Consent to sexual activity may be given to one sort of sexual activity but not another, e.g. to vaginal but not anal sex, or penetration with conditions, such as wearing a condom. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual activity and each time activity occurs.

  • A child under the age of 13 can never consent to any sexual activity.
  • The age of consent is 16.
  • Sexual intercourse without consent is rape.

Sexual harassment – ‘Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature’ that can occur between children and young people, online or offline, and both inside and outside of an education setting. It includes:

  • sexual comments, such as telling sexual stories, making lewd comments, making sexual remarks about clothes and appearance, and calling someone sexualised names;
  • sexual “jokes” or taunting;
  • physical behaviour, such as, deliberately brushing against someone, interfering with someone’s clothes (settings should consider when any of this crosses a line into sexual violence – it is important to talk to and take into account the experience of the victim) and displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature;
  • online sexual harassment.

Online sexual harassment includes non-consensual sharing of nude and semi-nude images or videos, sharing of unwanted explicit content, upskirting, sexualised online bullying, unwanted sexual comments or messages (including on social media), sexual exploitation, coercion and threats.

Unchallenged sexual harassment creates a culture that can normalise inappropriate behaviours and provide an environment that may lead to sexual violence.

Harmful sexual behaviour – Children and young people’s sexual behaviour exists on a wide continuum. Problematic, abusive and violent sexual behaviour is developmentally inappropriate and may cause developmental damage. A useful umbrella term for this is “harmful sexual behaviour”. The term has been widely adopted in child protection.

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) can occur online and/or offline and can also occur simultaneously between the two. HSB should be considered in a child protection context and take into account the ages and stages of development of the children and young people involved.

Children and young people displaying HSB have often experienced their own abuse and trauma. It is important that they are offered appropriate support.

“My boyfriend is sometimes violent towards me and recently he’s forced me into doing sexual things when I didn’t want to. It wasn’t always this way but it’s been going on for a few weeks now and I’m worried it’s going to get worse. I’m scared of how he would react if I tried to end the relationship. I don’t feel like I can speak to someone without my parents or friends at school finding out. I’m really scared.”

Young person to Childline

FREE Sexual violence & sexual harassment poster

This downloadable resource raises the profile of safeguarding for your staff team. For use in staff rooms, on safeguarding boards or on the back of toilet doors the poster includes tips, a space for local contact details together with a link and QR Codes to this resource page.


To order hard copies of our current month’s poster, please complete the following form:


What to look for

Sometimes children and young people, or their friends, report sexual violence or harassment. At other times staff may observe something of concern and intervene.

Often children and young people do not disclose their experiences. Staff should be aware of the possible signs and talk to their safeguarding lead about how to open a conversation.

Children and young people may feel angry, upset, stressed, worried, scared and confused, and might:

  • experience flashbacks;
  • have difficulty sleeping and night terrors;
  • have anxiety;
  • find it difficult to concentrate;
  • block out the memory and/or avoid remembering what happened;
  • be unable to remember exactly what happened;
  • find it difficult to trust people;
  • think that no one else understands them;
  • relive the experience of sexual abuse.

NSPCC, Is this sexual abuse? (2018)

Some children and young people may not perceive they are being abused or harassed and need support, through sex and relationships education, to understand their experiences. However, sometimes lessons about sex, relationships and consent, could bring back bad memories that are difficult to deal with.

The Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges recommends that schools, colleges and multi-agency partners act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening, even when there are no specific reports. It found, concerningly, that for some children and young people, incidents are so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them.

The Our Streets Now Survey found 76 per cent of pupils don’t feel confident reporting incidents of public sexual harassment to staff, and 72 per cent of the pupils who did report said they received a negative response.

“It’s not what actually happens that has the worst effect on you, it’s what comes after it. It’s the being disbelieved – it’s the people failing you.”

Young person

What to do

It’s crucial that children and young people get the right response immediately from the adults they approach.

  • Concerns, whether observed or disclosed, should be taken seriously and reported to the designated safeguarding lead without delay.
  • Don’t assume the concern has already been reported by someone else.
  • Take immediate action to keep children and young people safe.
  • Provide reassurance and support to everyone involved. It’s essential that all victims are reassured that they are being taken seriously, regardless of how long it has taken them to come forward. They should never be made to feel ashamed for making a report or have their experience minimised.
  • Don’t promise confidentiality, but do explain that only people who need to know will be told.
  • Listen carefully, reflect back, be non-judgemental and don’t ask leading questions. Guidance recommends having two people present if possible.
  • Write up a thorough factual summary after the child or young person has finished, using their own words as much as possible.
  • If there is an online element (such as pictures or videos), do not view or forward this – you may refer to DfE advice on searching, screening and confiscation, and UKCIS Sharing nudes and semi-nudes: advice for education settings working with children and young people guidance.

Follow part five of Keeping Children Safe in Education and consider the most proportionate response, in consultation with the child or young person who experienced the abuse, and their parents or carers.

The response must include a risk assessment around the potential for reoccurrence, taking particular care to ensure the child or young person is safe from further abuse or reprisals, that other children or young people are protected, and that the alleged perpetrator is receiving appropriate support. Action in some circumstances must involve children’s social care and/or the police.

A preventative approach


Settings should have in place an effective policy framework including clear communication routes for safeguarding concerns, a clear and understood behaviour policy, and a core set of underpinning standards and values that equip children and young people for positive relationships and adult life.

Staff should assert these values, with structural support from the safeguarding and pastoral teams and a supportive curriculum that addresses the potential for sexual violence and sexual harassment directly.

Contextual approach

A setting’s approach to sexual violence and sexual harassment should reflect and be part of the broader approach to safeguarding, transparent, and clear and easy to understand for staff, pupils, students, parents and carers.

All staff in the setting should be aware of, and consider, extra-familial harms around the local community, groups and gangs of children and young people, criminal/sexual exploitation, each child and young person’s family environment, and online activity/risks in devising an effective strategy to minimise the risk of sexual violence and harassment.

As one girl put it to the Ofsted review team: ‘It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys’.

Staff training

It’s crucial staff are aware of behaviour that constitutes sexual violence or harassment and do not minimise or dismiss concerns. All staff should be aware of how to support children and young people and how to manage a safeguarding report from a child or young person.

Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges revealed that many settings underestimated the scale of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse.

Some settings dealt with incidents in an isolated way, without considering the context and wider safeguarding risks, such as risks to other children and young people, unsafe spaces within the setting, peer power dynamics and unhealthy peer cultures.

Children and young people reported feeling disillusioned, embarrassed and left at risk of significant harm as a result of failures in their settings.

Ensure staff receive training on what to look for and practise how to respond. Such training should be focussed on improving outcomes for children and young people, be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise, include collaboration and expert challenge, and be sustained over time. Scenario work is effective in helping staff embed their learning.

Education of children and young people

Intervening early to ensure children and young people understand the boundaries of healthy relationships is key to preventative work.

Settings should have a planned programme of evidence-based content, delivered through the whole curriculum. The programme should build upon the setting’s clear set of values and standards, which are upheld and demonstrated throughout all aspects of pupil/student life and are underpinned by the setting’s behaviour policy and pastoral support system.

The content should be age and stage of development appropriate (especially when considering children and young people with SEND and their cognitive understanding), and may tackle such issues as:

  • healthy and respectful relationships;
  • what respectful behaviour looks like;
  • consent;
  • gender roles, stereotyping and equality;
  • body confidence and self-esteem;
  • prejudiced behaviour;
  • understanding that sexual violence and sexual harassment is always wrong;
  • addressing cultures of sexual harassment;
  • addressing misogyny.

Good practice allows children and young people an open forum to talk things through and ensures that children and young people are made aware of how to raise concerns (including about friends/peers), make a report and how reports are handled.

Support for children and young people

It is essential that all victims are reassured that they are being taken seriously and that they will be supported and kept safe.

A victim should never be given the impression that they are creating a problem by reporting sexual violence or sexual harassment. A victim should never be made to feel ashamed for making a report.

Depending on the level of concern raised, and the needs of the children and young people involved, support may include that from the setting’s pastoral support team, early help services or more specialist support, such as counselling.

Whatever the setting’s response, it should be underpinned by the principle that sexual violence and sexual harassment is never acceptable, will not be tolerated and that all the children and young people involved (including perpetrators) will need support.

Working with children and young people whose behaviour is sexually harmful to reduce the potential to re-offend has marked success, with rates of returning to such behaviours as low as five percent.

Settings should have access to specialist support around harmful sexual behaviour to contribute to their training, and to help them support children and young people where appropriate. There should also be access to specialist counselling or support for children and young people involved in concerning incidents.


  • Childline – Healthy and unhealthy relationships

    Childline has produced advice and guidance for young people about what makes a healthy and unhealthy relationship. It includes tips on how to recognise and how to end an unhealthy relationship.

  • Preventing Harmful Sexual Behaviour

    A toolkit for parents, carers and professionals developed by Stop It Now to help us be aware of the risks of harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people and what we can do to prevent it. It’s got support, advice and information, plus resources and links to useful organisations.

  • Consent is Everything

    This young person friendly website was developed by Thames Valley Police and others to explain consent and the need for consent to be central to everything.

    It also features a YouTube video to help people of all ages understand what is meant by consent using the analogy of a cup of tea, and posters to help promote understanding of consent.

  • Harmful sexual behaviour – guidance and resources for education professionals

    The CSA Centre has also produced a guide and safety plan template to provide practical support for education professionals when responding to children’s and young people’s needs and safety when incidents of HSB occur.

    Part A looks at key actions and reviewing arrangements for settings and includes the safety plan template. Part B focusses on broader practical advice, such as how to communicate with children and their parents in these circumstances, and an appendix with useful links and resources.

  • Advice regarding the sharing of nude and semi-nude images

    This is guidance from UKCIS is for staff in educational settings to learn more about what is meant by sharing nudes and how to respond to incidents where nude or semi-nude images have been shared.

  • Childnet – campaign toolkit

    These resources and guidance from Childnet can help education professionals raise awareness about online sexual harassment.

  • Children and Young People who Display Harmful Sexual Behaviour

    This latest research from the CSA Centre covers the extent of harmful sexual behaviour, what is known about children who display HSB and the role of technology. There are also sections regarding effective assessment, intervention and prevention.

  • Our Streets Now

    The Our Schools Now campaign, by Our Streets Now, is dedicated to educating secondary school pupils about public sexual harassment. Their vision is for every young person to be taught about PSH in schools. Here you’ll find teaching resources for KS3 and KS4 pupils.

  • Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges

    Ofsted’s findings and recommendations on sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse.

  • Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Audit Tool

    This audit tool developed by Safeguarding Network allows DSLs and safeguarding teams to consider their setting’s preparedness for, and response to, reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment.

  • Enough – Teaching Resources

    As part of the government campaign to end abuse, Enough has put together several resources to help teach about sexual harassment and sexual violence.

  • Childline – Report Remove tool

    Childline’s Report Remove tool works with the Internet Watch Foundation to try to remove nudes or semi-nudes of children and young people from the internet. You can also listen to this podcast to learn more about why a tool like Report Remove is needed, how the tool works, and how you can signpost young people to the tool as part of your response to incidents of sharing nudes.

  • Sexual abuse learning programme

    This online learning programme from Parents Protect has been developed for parents, carers and professionals. The programme aims to provide information about the risks, recognising the signs and where to go to for help if you need to talk to someone about sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.

  • Anti-social media

    This research from Revealing Reality shares the stories and experiences of vulnerable young people viewing illegal activity on mainstream social media platforms. The research is also informed by the experiences and observations of a range of professionals and practitioners, including youth workers, police officers, liaison officers and teachers.

  • A safe space for young people worried about sexual behaviour

    If you know a young person who is worried about harmful sexual behaviour, signpost them to this web page from Shore. Part of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, Shore provides anonymous advice and support when young people are worried about their (or someone else’s) sexual thoughts, feelings or actions and to help them learn more about living safely both online and offline.

  • Addressing School Avoidance

    This resource from the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families looks at some of the reasons behind school avoidance and aims to help educational staff address the issue.

    You can also watch this video which provides practical ways that educational staff can help students by creating a space that allows them to feel both physically and emotionally safe.