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Why do children and young people have harmful sexual behaviours?

Why do children and young people have harmful sexual behaviours?

Why do young people do harmful things, sexually?

The reasons can be complicated, and there are usually several different reasons rather than just one.

Puberty is when a young person’s body changes and becomes sexually developed. As young people go through this stage, they may have questions and feel curious about how they’re developing. This may make them want to try out sexual behaviours.

Here are some questions you might have during this stage of your life:

  • Who am I sexually attracted to?
  • Where can I learn about sex?
  • I wonder what sex feels like?
  • How can sex be more exciting?
  • What does masturbation feel like?
  • What behaviours are not okay in sex?
  • How can I get a girlfriend or boyfriend?
  • Who can I talk to about sex?

These kinds of questions and thoughts are very common when you’re learning about your sexuality and trying out sexual behaviours.

Although thoughts can’t harm you or the people around you, they can still sometimes feel like they’re too much to cope with. You might worry about being different from other people. Or you might worry that you’re going to act on your thoughts in the wrong way.

It’s true that we’ve sometimes seen young people who are curious about trying new things go on to act in ways that harm others. This includes forcing people into sexual activity.

But if you’re struggling with questions and thoughts like these, you can get help and support. Try speaking to an advisor on our email service (you don’t have to say who you are). Or ask for support from one of these helpful organisations.

You can explore these questions and thoughts healthily and safely.

And it’s important to remember these things:

  • Everyone is different.
  • Not everyone who was abused will go on to harm other people.
  • Not everyone who harms others has been harmed themselves.
  • Not everyone who has harmed someone sexually will do it again.
  • With the right help and support, it’s possible for a person to stop their harmful behavior.

Making-it-okay statements

In our day-to-day lives, when we want to do something we know we shouldn’t, we often say things that make it sound less bad than it really is.

These are called “making-it-okay” statements. We might say them to other people, or to ourselves.

For example, if we want another energy drink, we might say, “Oh, it’s just one more, what harm can it do.” Or if we want to watch a film that’s too old for us, we might say, “It’s only a film, not real life.”

In those examples, we probably won’t hurt anyone too badly.

But sometimes our making-it-okay statements let us do things that really hurt us, or other people.

It can be useful to start noticing the making-it-okay statements we use. This is even more important when it comes to harmful sexual behaviour.

Can you list some of your own making-it-okay statements and see if you can challenge them?

First, let’s look at an example to see if it helps.


James and Courtney are both 16 years old. They’ve been in a relationship for 6 months.
Courtney hasn’t had sex before and doesn’t feel ready to. James really wants to have sex with Courtney, and starts to make her feel bad about not having sex with him.
One day he makes her feel really guilty and they have sex even though Courtney doesn’t really want to.

James’s making-it-okay statements

  • Everyone’s doing it at our age.
  • We’ve been together for ages, I deserve to be able to have sex.
  • If she really didn’t want to have sex she could have said no. It’s not like I made her do it.
  • If she really cared about me she would want to have sex with me.

The truth

  • It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing – it’s important for both people to give true consent. So we both need to be really sure that it’s what we want.
  • Being in a relationship with Courtney does not give me the right to have sex with her.
  • Good relationships are built on respect for each other.
  • It’s never okay to:
    • pressure
    • force
    • threaten
  • someone into having sex with you. Sometimes saying no can be very difficult, and just because Courtney doesn’t actually say no, this doesn’t mean yes.
Enthusiastic consent

Find out what consent means, and how to make sure everyone involved in a sexual activity is giving their enthusiastic consent.

Read more

Look at your own list of making-it-okay statements. How can you push back against these thoughts and remind yourself of the truth?

Hopefully, if you find yourself having these thoughts in the future, you’ll see them for what they are. And you’ll know what to say to stop your self doing any harm to yourself or someone else.

Are you struggling?

Our advisors can give you support and advice, and you don’t have to say who you are.

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