Assessing sexual behaviour in children and young people

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Empty chairs and desks in school

By Dr Sophie King-Hill
Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham

Sexual behaviours in children and young people (CYP) aged 13-18 is an unexplored research area within the UK context, and no assessment tools for these behaviours currently exist that are underpinned by UK-focussed research. The national conversation taking place around sexual harassment in UK schools shows that this is an issue that urgently requires evidence and careful research, with initiatives such as Everyone’s Invited highlighting the rape culture that is evident.

My planned study will gather data from a range of sources, including young people themselves, in order to create evidence-based definitions of normal, problematic and harmful sexual behaviours in CYP in the contemporary UK context. The data will be used to develop a tool to assess sexual behaviours in CYP. Keeping pace with trends in sexual practices is necessary to safeguard young people’s health and to support them with their sexual wellbeing. There is a lack of empirically-informed assessment tools that explore specific sexual behaviours in CYP and current tools are based upon professional opinion rather than empirical UK-based evidence. This call for evidence is echoed by the Scottish Government and Brook, a leading sexual health and wellbeing charity for young people, and connects to the recent compulsory sex and relationships education SRE curriculum introduced by DfE.

As a result of my study, healthcare and rehabilitation professionals, educators, policymakers, parents and carers will be able to draw on evidence in order to understand problematic, harmful and normal childhood sexual behaviour that takes account of rapidly changing digital as well as real life influences. It is intended that this project will lead to the development of an assessment tool based on a UK context that can be used by all CYP practitioners as a first response to understanding sexual behaviours.

The limited data on the sexual behaviours of CYP in the UK highlights the issues in this area when trying to assess behaviours when no normative baseline exists. Sexual behaviours in young people are fluid and change based upon the current social context into which they are embedded. Staying abreast of these contexts is a key factor in the approach to education and intervention. Sexual behaviours that fall within the normal boundaries were the least researched in the UK and this was echoed in research by King-Hill (2021). The last policy review in terms of interventions was in 1992, which emphasised the CYP as a perpetrator and focussed upon the criminal justice system and child safety rather than taking a multi-systemic approach to the risk assessment and actions taken.

Learning from serious case reviews published since 2010 highlighted harmful sexual behaviour as a significant issue. They demonstrated that wider contextual issues of consensual sexual behaviour and the reasons for sexual behaviours in CYP requires further exploration. Yet very few studies in this area have taken place in the UK, with those that have being focussed upon harmful sexual behaviour only rather than normal sexual behaviour.

International research into sexual behaviours demonstrates that sexual behaviour differs between contexts. This suggests that a context specific response is required and highlights the need for UK-based research into sexual behaviours in CYP. Global epidemiological studies of sexual behaviours have found substantial differences in sexual behaviour across different countries, and regions within them, and highlighted that policies, societal structures, perceived norms, culture and demographic differences influenced sexual behaviours, and what is deemed normal and problematic. Assumptions about normal sexual development are derived from both theoretical knowledge and the socio-cultural context into which they are situated. Research studies have explored sexual behaviour in CYP but many of these are from the USA and do not relate to a UK context. These studies are dated, with the existing evidence base suggesting considerable change over time. Sexual behaviour assessment tools currently in use have been validated for use within their locational context. This indicates the need for UK data in order to develop context specific guidance.             

With the collaboration of the Brook Charity and The Lucy Faithfull Foundation – the only UK-wide charity dedicated solely to preventing child sexual abuse – this project will analyse what constitutes sexual behaviour in CYP in the UK context and then go on to evaluate what constitutes normal, problematic and harmful sexual behaviours. This data will then be used to inform the development of a sexual behaviours assessment tool for professionals to use with CYP aged 13-18 years old.                                                                                    

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