Girls who display sexually harmful behaviour: special report

There is evidence to suggest the number of referrals involving girls displaying sexually harmful behaviour is increasing. Judy Cooper explores potential interventions

Social workers do not often come across girls who display and engage in sexually harmful behaviour. Numbers are currently estimated at between 2% and 10% of all referrals relating to the issue.

But according to Jon Brown, head of strategy at the NSPCC, there is some evidence showing the number of referrals of girls displaying sexually harmful behaviour is on the increase.

Denise Moultrie at the Taith Service Barnardo’s Wales says they saw a jump in the number of girls referred to them five years ago when it reached 8% of annual referrals. This increased last year to 11% (of approximately 126 children treated) and early indicators for this year show it could even rise as high as 13%.

“These aren’t massive figures but they are creeping up to becoming significant. However, it could just be down to increased professional awareness which is a good thing,” she points out.

What don’t we know?

According to Moultrie, the answer is almost everything. In fact, the Taith Service has just won a grant to investigate further and devise specific assessment frameworks and treatment manuals for girls.

“Most of the current assessment frameworks are based solely on professional understanding of boys, yet we know that gender is a crucial variable in the arena of sexual offending behaviour- women abuse under different circumstances, because of different needs and are influenced by different psychological processes. But there is no research suggesting that girls who sexually harm do so for the same reasons as women do. There are likely to be differences due to developmental issues.

“Consequently no current therapeutic projects are informed by a knowledge base of why some girls sexually abuse and how their attitudes and beliefs are different from those who do not behave in this way.

“For example we were surprised to see the relatively high levels of aggression and violence displayed by girls referred to Taith service. But we just don’t know if the girls being referred to our service are representative of all girls who sexually harm or if we are getting the most traumatised and difficult cases.”

Professor Simon Hackett, of Durham University and a leader in this area of research, comments that most girls displaying harmful sexual behaviours are probably little different to other troubled young girls social workers see.

“But why some have expressed their distress in a sexually abusive way we just don’t know. It’s clear their own sexual victimisation plays a part although the overwhelming majority of girls who are sexually abused do not go on to sexually abuse others.”

What do we know?

Based on current research the current profile of a girl who engages in sexually harmful behaviour looks like this, albeit a partial picture:

  • comes from particularly chaotic and dysfunctional family backgrounds
  • mostly white
  • more likely to have been a victim of sexual abuse (at least 66% of cases although many services put this figure much higher)
  • also likely to have been a victim of physical and emotional abuse
  • has had frequent exposure to domestic violence
  • very problematic relationships with parents/carers
  • tends to abuse fewer victims than boy offenders
  • victims are often younger than 10 years old
  • victims are usually known
  • less likely than boys to have a criminal conviction already
  • less likely to penetrate victims
  • more likely to commit abuse at a younger age compared to boys (ie average referral age of 10-12 years compared with average age of boys of 12-16 years)
  • likely to have difficulties in school
  • high levels of learning difficulties
  • likely to have attachment disorders
  • more likely to internalise feelings than boys
  • likely to suffer decreasing amounts of self-confidence (as opposed to boys whose self-confidence increases with age)

What can we do?

In terms of treatment and intervention Moultrie and Hackett both emphasise that social workers are usually either too quick to refer to specialist services or too slow. Much comes down to a lack of knowledge of what is normal sexual behaviour and what is more worrying behaviour (see our quiz and Brook’s traffic light tool).

For those displaying worrying behaviour, relationships and connections with others are very important to a girl’s sense of identity and can also be the key to treatment. Hackett’s recently completed research, with Professor Helen Masson, into longer term outcomes of children who sexually harm has shown that better outcomes were often associated with having a “social anchor”.

“This is someone who sticks with them through difficult periods. This can be a relative, a foster carer or a worker from the projects they were involved in, but that is by far the most protective factor.”

Another protective factor, according to Hackett, is becoming a parent. Many adults who sexually harmed in their childhood or adolescence said it was parenthood that gave their life some meaning.

“This is interesting in terms of how we treat children who sexually abuse as opposed to adults, especially if you consider that a history of sexual offences will influence child protection procedures for example. Yet the adults we spoke to regarded their past behaviour as part of their history and not an ongoing part of who they were and they all seemed to have stable relationships with their children.”

Case study

The following case study comes from Professor Simon Hackett and Professor Helen Masson’s recently completed research into longer-term outcomes for children who display sexually harmful behaviour.

*Kelly was referred when she was 16 for sexually abusing a child in her foster home. She had already been in care for 5 years following neglect and sexual abuse by an older brother and suspected sexual abuse by her grandfather. She was moved to a residential care home where she was abused by one of the staff. She suffered chronic mental health problems resulting in suicide attempts and anorexic tendencies and rebelliousness. She worked with a service treating sexually harmful behaviour for three years.

Kelly, now 33, is married with two children and pregnant with another. She says she wanted to have children more than she wanted a relationship and sees her role as a mother as the most important in her life. She remembers little about her life before she went into care saying “certain things you black out”. She learned most of her parenting skills from foster carers whom she still maintains infrequent links. Although she still has mental health problems and “flashbacks” she tries to forget it and keep herself busy and focusing on her own children and husband.

*names have been changed

The Taith Service is interested in hearing from professionals currently working with girls who have sexually harmed to discuss possible participation in its research project. Please contact Sharron Wareham


The next in Community Care’s series of Managing Sexually Harmful Behaviour in Young People conferences will take place in London early in 2013. Please contact if you would like the opportunity to help shape the content of the agenda.

Other contacts and further information

Sexual behaviours interactive quiz

Professor Simon Hackett

Brook traffic light tool

NSPCC research briefing

More from Community Care

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