Sexual Violence & Sexual Harassment

Young people have always been 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).

Our children have a right to grow up safe from abuse and harassment. Schools are central to framing a safe ethos and creating safe spaces for young people to explore healthy relationships, and there is a duty on schools to ensure they take action to keep young people safe.  The concern around the level sexual violence and sexual harassment in schools led to the government launching a review in the sexual abuse in schools at the end of March 2021.

There is a strong movement to safeguard children and young people from harm by changing expectations, bringing forward a challenge to unacceptable behaviour and improving young people’s knowledge and understanding of healthy relationships.


Sexual violence is rape, assault by penetration or sexual assault.

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.

Harmful sexual behaviour is problematic, abusive and violent behaviour that is developmentally inappropriate and may cause developmental damage.

DfE: Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges

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  The Sexual Offences Act (2003) sets the sexual violence crimes as follows:

  • Rape is intentional penetration by the abuser with their penis without consent and there is no reasonable belief that the victim consents
  • Assault by penetration is intentional sexual penetration by the abuser with any part of their body other than a penis without consent and there is no reasonable belief that the victim consents
  • Intentional sexual touching of the victim by the abuser without consent and there is no reasonable belief that the victim consents

Sexual harassment – This can occur between children, online or offline and 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 (schools and colleges 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 sexual images or videos, sexualised online bullying, unwanted sexual comments or messages, sexual exploitation, coercion and threats.

Harmful sexual behaviour – Children’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 and is used in this advice. Harmful sexual behaviour can occur online and/or offline and can also occur simultaneously between the two.

“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 young people or their friends report sexual violence or harassment. At other times staff may observe something of concern and intervene. Often 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. 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 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 school lessons about sex, relationships and consent could bring back bad memories that were very hard to deal with.


“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 young people get the right response first time from the adults they approach.

  • Where there are concerns these should be taken seriously and reported to the Designated Safeguarding Lead
  • Don’t assume the concern has already been reported by someone else
  • Take any immediate action to keep young people safe
  • Provide reassurance and support to everyone involved
  • Don’t promise confidentiality, but that only people who need to know will be told
  • Listen carefully and don’t ask leading questions – ideally have two people present
  • Write up a thorough factual summary after the young person has finished
  • If there is an online element, do not view this – you may refer to advice on confiscation

Designated Safeguarding Leads should follow the guidance and consider the most proportionate response, in consultation with the 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 young person is safe from further abuse or reprisals, that other young people are protected and that the alleged perpetrator is receiving appropriate support. Action in some circumstance must involve children’s social care and/or the police.

A preventative approach


Schools 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 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 school or college’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. The school should take account of contextual issues around the local community, groups and gangs of young people, and each young person’s family environment in devising an effective strategy to minimise the risk of sexual violence and harassment.

Staff training

It’s crucial staff are aware of behaviour that constitutes sexual violence or harassment and do not minimise or dismiss concerns. Ofsted wrote to all schools in April 2019 to highlight this as a common gap in their inspections. Young people report feeling disillusioned, embarrassed and left at risk of significant harm as a result of failures in their schools. Ensure staff have had training on what to look for and practised how to respond. Scenario work is effective in helping staff consider what to do.

Education of young people

Intervening early to ensure young people understand the boundaries of healthy relationships is key to preventative work.  Schools should have a planned programme of evidence-based content delivered through the whole curriculum. This should be age and stage of development appropriate (especially when considering SEND children 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

Support for young people

Work with young people to reduce the potential to re-offend has marked success, with recidivism rates as low as 5%. Schools should have access to specialist support around harmful sexual behaviour to contribute to their training and potentially to support some young people. There should also be access to counselling or support for young people involved in concerning incidents.


  • Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges

    Government guidance providing advice for governing bodies, proprietors, headteachers, principals, senior leadership teams and designated safeguarding leads.

  • 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.

  • Sexual violence & sexual harassment – a summary

    A summary and link to the May 2018 government guidance on sexual violence and sexual harassment.

  • 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.

  • Our Streets Now

    Website of group started by young people with the aim of bringing an end to Public Sexual Harassment.  Contains teaching resources for KS3 & 4 pupils.

  • NEW

    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.