Sexual Violence & Sexual Harassment

Children/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.

The Girlguiding’s Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2020 found a “significant number of girls aged 11 to 21 feel worried and unsafe outside, with the number who say they receive unwanted attention when they go outside doubling across the age range.” This builds on previous reports (e.g. the 2017 report) which identified that 39% experienced having their bra strap pulled by a boy and 27% having their skirts pulled up within the previous week. The same report found that 31% of female respondents aged 13-17 years saying they had received unwanted sexual images or messages in the last year (compared to 11% of male respondents).

The Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, Ofsted 2021 found that nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. Also, 92% of girls, and 74% of boys, said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal.

In England, Wales and Scotland, the three nations for which data is available, around 90 per cent of recorded offences of rape against a 13- to 15-year-old were against girls (How safe are our children, NSPCC 2020).

It should also be noted that children/young people who are, or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bi, or trans (LGBT) can be targeted by other children, and children/young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) are more likely to be abused than children/young people without additional needs.

All our children/young people have a right to grow up safe from abuse and harassment. Education settings are central to framing a safe ethos and creating safe spaces for children/young people to explore healthy relationships, and there is a duty on settings to ensure they take action to keep children/young people safe.  The concern around the level sexual violence and sexual harassment in schools led to the government publishing a review into sexual abuse in schools and colleges  in June 2021.  This led to specific government advice being developed which was then incorporated into the statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education.

There is a strong movement to safeguard children and young people from harm by changing expectations, challenging unacceptable behaviour 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/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 a short and to the point, what do they mean?  We provide further information about what is meant by sexual violence, sexual harassment and harmful sexual behaviour.

Sexual violence  adapted from The Sexual Offences Act 2003:

  • 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 (e.g. saying yes when being pressured, coerced, threatened etc. is not consent). Consent to sexual activity may be given to one sort of sexual activity but not another, 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/young people, online or offline and both inside and outside of an education setting. It can include:

  • 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 be considering when any of this crosses a line into sexual violence – it is important to talk to and consider the experience of the victim) and displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature;
  • and 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/young people’s sexual behaviour exists on a wide continuum, from normal and developmentally expected; to inappropriate, problematic, abusive and violent. Problematic, abusive and violent sexual behaviour is developmentally inappropriate and may cause developmental damage. A useful umbrella term 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/young people involved. Children/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, The Guardian

What to look for

Sometimes children/young people or their friends report sexual violence or harassment. At other times staff may observe something of concern and intervene. Often children/young people do not disclose their experiences. Staff should be aware of the possible signs and consider with their safeguarding lead how to open up a conversation. Children/young people may be feeling angry, upset, stressed, worried, scared and confused, and having:

  • flashbacks;
  • difficulty sleeping and night terrors;
  • anxiety;
  • difficulty concentrating;
  • blocking out the memory and/or avoiding remembering what happened;
  • being unable to remember exactly what happened;
  • difficulty in trusting people;
  • thinking that no one else understands them;
  • reliving the experience of sexual abuse.

NSPCC, Is this sexual abuse?, 2018

Some children/young people may not perceive they are being abused or harassed and need work through sex and relationships education to understand their experiences. However, sometimes lessons about sex, relationships and consent could bring back bad memories that were very hard 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/young people, incidents are so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them.

“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, The Guardian, 2017

What to do

It’s crucial children/young people get the right response first time 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 any immediate action to keep children/young people safe.
  • Provide reassurance and support to everyone involved. It is particularly essential that all victims are reassured that they are being taken seriously, regardless of how long it has taken them to come forward, and they should never be made to feel ashamed for making a report or 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/young person has finished.
  • If there is an online element, do not view or forward this – you may refer to DfE advice on searching, screening and confiscation, and the UKCIS Sharing nudes and semi-nudes: advice for education settings working with children and young people.

Designated Safeguarding Leads should follow DfE guidance (Keeping Children Safe in Education, part five) and consider the most proportionate response, in consultation with the child/young person who experienced the abuse and their parents or carers. This must include a risk assessment around the potential for reoccurrence taking particular care to ensure the child/young person is safe from further abuse or reprisals, that other children/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/young people for positive relationships and adult life. Staff should live 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, clear and easy to understand for staff, pupils, students, parents and carers. All staff in the setting should be aware of and take account of extra-familial harms around the local community, groups and gangs of children/young people, criminal/sexual exploitation, each child/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 earlier in 2021: ‘It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys’.

Staff training

Its 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/young people and how to manage a safeguarding report from a child/young person.

The Ofsted 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/young people, unsafe spaces within the setting, peer power dynamics and unhealthy peer cultures. Children/young people reported feeling disillusioned, embarrassed and left at risk of significant harm as a result of failures in their settings.

Ensure staff have had training on what to look for and practised 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/young people

Intervening early to ensure children/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, that builds 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/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, equality;
  • body confidence and self-esteem;
  • prejudiced behaviour;
  • that sexual violence and sexual harassment is always wrong; and
  • addressing cultures of sexual harassment.

Good practice allows children/young people an open forum to talk things through and ensures that children/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/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. Nor should a victim ever be made to feel ashamed for making a report.

Dependent on the level of concern raised, and the needs of the children/young people concerned; 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 and will not be tolerated; and that all the children/young people involved (including perpetrators) will need said support.

Work with children/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 5%. Settings should have access to specialist support around harmful sexual behaviour to contribute to their training, and to help them support children/young people where appropriate. There should also be access to specialist counselling or support for children/young people involved in concerning incidents.


  • Consent: It’s as simple as tea

    YouTube video by Blue Seat Studios helping people of all ages understand what is meant by consent by using the analogy of a cup of tea.

  • Childline – healthy & unhealthy relationships

    Advice & guidance for young people on what makes a healthy and unhealthy relationship, together with tips on how to recognise this and make decisions to end an unhealthy relationship.

  • Is this sexual abuse?

    2018 research by the NSPCC and ChildLine on young people’s perspectives about peer abuse, 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.

  • 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, so that we know what we can do to prevent it. It’s got support, advice and information, plus resources and links to useful organisations.

  • Consent is everything

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

  • Harmful Sexual Behaviour guidance and resources for education professionals

    The Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse has produced a guide and safety plan template to provide practical support for education professionals in responding to children’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.

  • Our Streets Now

    Our Streets Now have launched their Our Schools Now campaign which is dedicated to educating secondary school pupils about PSH. Their vision is for every young person to be taught about PSH in schools.  Contains teaching resources for KS3 & 4 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

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