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Keeping children safe

Sex and sexually harmful behaviour

Learning about sex and sexual behaviour is a normal part of a child’s development. It will help them as they grow up, and as they start to make decisions about relationships.

Children pass through different stages of development as they grow, and their awareness and curiosity about sexual matters changes with them.

Each child is individual and will develop in their own way. However, there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child’s age and developmental stage. Sometimes these will involve some exploration with other children of similar age. It can be difficult to tell the difference between age appropriate sexual exploration and warning signs of harmful behaviour.

It’s important to have a good idea of what is normal sexual behaviour so you can also spot the warning signs if something might not be quite right or if a child has been sexually abused.

Lucy Faithful Stop it Now Traffic Light Tool can help you to identify and respond appropriately to sexual behaviours, providing a standardised approach to understanding healthy and harmful behaviour.

The NSPCC has a useful guide to keeping children safe, spotting warning signs and what to do if you’re worried.

You can also find out more about general sexual health, including sexually transmitted infections.

Underage sexual activity

The age of consent to any form of sexual activity is 16 for both men and women. The age of consent is the same regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of a person and whether the sexual activity is between people of the same or different gender.

It is an offence for anyone to have any sexual activity with a person under the age of 16. However, government guidelines say there is no intention to prosecute teenagers under the age of 16 where both mutually agree and where they are of a similar age.

Many young people will develop a healthy and developmentally appropriate interest in sexual relationships whilst they are still children and some will do this before they reach the age of consent. However, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 children under the age of 13 are legally deemed incapable of consenting to sexual activity and therefore all incidences of sexual behaviour involving children under 13 should be considered as a potential criminal or child protection matter.

Safeguarding practice guidance for professionals about underage sexual activity, including risks, indicators and actions is available in the Devon Safeguarding Children Partnership Procedures Manual.

What is harmful sexual behaviour?

Harmful sexual behaviour involves one or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts that are inappropriate for their age or stage of development.

These can range from using sexually explicit words and phrases to full penetrative sex with other children or adults.

They may be harmful to themselves or others or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.

Sexually harmful behaviours are likely to include elements of:

  • Coercion
  • Secrecy
  • Power imbalance – possibly involving significant difference in age and developmental factors
  • Degradation and threats
  • Compulsive behaviours
  • Age inappropriate knowledge or experience
  • Use of bribes, gifts and removal of inhibitors, for instance using drugs or alcohol.

As well as age, a child’s physical, intellectual and emotional development are considered when establishing if their sexual behaviour is harmful.

Communicating with children and young people about sexual activities can be an embarrassing experience for any parent or carer, but when they are displaying signs of sexually harmful behaviour it is essential to talk to them about their actions and seek help.

Fraser and Gillick Competences

People you work with should understand concerns you raise and the decisions you make with them.

  • Gillick competence relates to when young people are able to make decisions. You should consider their ability and the complexity of the decision.
  • Fraser guidelines relate specifically to a young person’s ability to understand and consent to contraceptive advice and treatment.

Young people can make decisions if they are “Gillick competent” – that is, “when the child achieves sufficient understanding and intelligence to understand fully what is proposed”. This can be about any decision, not just decisions about medical care.

Getting help


The NSPCC has a useful guide about healthy sexual behaviour in children depending on their age. It also discusses the warning signs and what to do if you're worried.

0808 800 5000


Provides wellbeing and sexual health support for young people - covering topics such as contraception, STIs, relationships, gender and sexuality.


An education resource from CEOP, a UK organisation which protects children both online and offline. Advice about staying safe when you're on a phone, tablet or computer.

If you are worried about the safety or wellbeing of a child or young person in Devon,
please complete the request for support online form.


If you think that the child is at risk of significant harm,
contact our Front Door directly by calling 0345 155 1071.


In an emergency call 999.