What is concerning and harmful sexual behaviour
Concerning and harmful sexual behaviour is a term used to describe sexual behaviours that are inappropriate, problematic and potentially abusive to the person engaging in the behaviour and others. It can include:
- inappropriately or aggressively using sexually explicit words and phrases
- coercion or other forms of manipulation
- forceful sexual activity
- compulsive masturbation
- fixation with online pornography
- posting indecent images online or ‘sexting’
- sexual contact with animals.
The treatment sector in New Zealand uses the following terms:
- concerning sexual behaviour (when referring to tamariki aged 10 years and under)
- harmful sexual behaviour (when referring to tamariki and rangatahi aged over 10 years).
Understanding the difference between normal sexual behaviour and concerning or harmful sexual behaviour requires us to understand sexual behaviour from a developmental perspective and the specific context for that individual. We consider their family/whānau background, social experiences, peer group, culture, age and developmental stage, and for rangatahi any sexual experiences, as well as factors such as curiosity, puberty, experimentation, acting out and showing off.
From a Māori perspective, all forms of harm are a violation of mana and tapu. The definition of concerning and harmful sexual behaviour for Māori considers wider whakapapa relationships. Rather than just focus on the individualistic physical act of sexual harm, we need to be aware of the cultural and spiritual impacts on both the individual and the collective wellbeing of their entire whakapapa line and whānau. Sexual harm negatively affects the mana of both the individual and their whānau and can cause significant harm to whānau relationships past, present and future.
For Pacific people, all forms of harm can be understood as a violation of the sacredness of relationships, and a violation of the sacred protocols that maintain a state of physical, emotional and spiritual balance. The sacredness of relationships (for example, between brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces) is maintained through adherence to expected codes of behaviour and concerning or harmful sexual behaviour is a significant breach of these and the sacred relationships and doesn’t just impact the individuals but also the family and community.
Accessing pornography is not necessarily assessed as concerning or harmful sexual behaviour.
However, for a small number of tamariki and rangatahi, pornography use may be an indicator of other issues, such as their own experiences of sexual abuse. If the person who abused them used pornography as part of the abuse or they developed an interest in it after being harmed, then this may be a sign of their own victimisation. For others, pornography may lead to low self-esteem or social anxiety or difficulties with creating healthy relationships.
In addition, pornography is not a good form of sex education. Messages around consent are problematic, and crucially, it doesn’t show the open communication and consideration necessary to have mutually safe and consenting sex. Tamariki and rangatahi need safe adults and healthy peer group relationships in their lives to be able to talk to them and counterbalance the messages they might be getting from pornography.
Specific considerations when assessing concerning or harmful behaviour
In younger age groups (pre-adolescence), both females and males may display concerning sexual behaviour. However, in adolescence the majority of those displaying harmful sexual behaviour are male.
Understanding the underlying causes or triggers for the behaviours and offering support to te tamaiti or rangatahi and their family/whānau needs to form part of the assessment and planning.
We need to explore the following dynamics when considering whether the concerning or harmful behaviour is abusive to others or harmful to tamariki, rangatahi or others:
- Was there equality in the relationship? Consider physical, cognitive, emotional and age differences, past sexual abuse, exposure or sexual experience along with power and authority.
- Was the behaviour engaged in with consent? Compliance may not mean consent – consent implies full knowledge, understanding and choice. Consider any cognitive, emotional and age differences that may impact on a person's ability to give informed consent. If alcohol or drugs were a factor, that may have impaired consent.
- Was force or coercion present? Consider any pressures placed that denied choice, potential vulnerabilities like differences in size or age, whether bribery or trickery was used, whether threats were made such as loss of friendships, whether violence or the threat of violence was used and whether nurturance and caring was offered within an exploitative relationship (grooming).
- Is the behaviour harming te tamaiti or rangatahi (even if they are not harming others)? Consider all sexual conduct including pornography and compulsive masturbation. For some tamariki and rangatahi, it may indicate a need to develop their social skills and ability to form healthy relationships.
The assessment needs to look beyond the incident and consider what else is happening for te tamaiti or rangatahi and their family/whānau – for example:
- a history of multiple abuse and victimisation, particularly incidences of family harm
- a history of sexual abuse or inappropriate sexualised behaviours by older siblings or family/whānau members, which could increase the risk of younger tamariki having been sexually abused or exposed to inappropriate sexualised behaviours and they may be enacting what they have experienced
- learning disabilities and other cognitive and communication problems
- complex emotional and behavioural needs including low self-esteem and mental health.
Addressing the concerning or harmful sexual behaviour and holding tamariki and rangatahi responsible for their behaviour needs to be balanced alongside their own vulnerability and developmental needs.
Our response and intervention
If concerning or harmful sexual behaviour involves another tamaiti or rangatahi then we need to balance addressing the problematic behaviour with supporting and protecting the impacted tamaiti or rangatahi (victim/survivor). Reports of concerning or harmful sexual behaviour should be treated as serious and fully investigated.
Consider the needs of all involved:
- Research indicates concerning and harmful sexual behaviour can be opportunistic. Once this behaviour has been identified, safety plans are required that reduce opportunities for re-occurrence and keep everyone safe. If te tamaiti or rangatahi engaged in the concerning or harmful sexual behaviour are deliberately seeking out ways to continue, then intervention plans need to rely on safe adults to be extra vigilant and on stopping their access to vulnerable tamariki.
- Decide if there is a need to allocate a different social worker to support the victim/survivor of the concerning or harmful sexual behaviour. This is particularly important if the person possibly engaging in harmful behaviour and the victims are siblings or living in the same household. This ensures the voice, needs and wellbeing of everyone is represented. The decision to allocate another social worker is influenced by the outcome of the assessment.
- Tamariki or rangatahi over the age of 10 can be held accountable for their behaviour by using our youth justice process.
- We assess family needs and identify supports. Even if parents or caregivers believe they can establish clear boundaries within the home that reduce the opportunity for concerning or harmful sexual behaviour occurring or continuing, our assessment of safety is more than physical safety. It includes psychological and spiritual safety. Decisions about whether a sibling (or member of the household) who has engaged in concerning or harmful sexual behaviour should remain in contact with their victim/survivor requires careful consideration. How can the protection of the victim/survivor and the opportunity to heal take place? Parents and caregivers will be under enormous stress trying to manage the risk and safety of all their tamariki and will require support. Including wider family/whānau, hapū and iwi in the process provides more opportunities for family/whānau to develop safety plans that keep tamariki and rangatahi within their care while ensuring safety for victims.
- A purely punitive approach to tamariki or rangatahi who display concerning or harmful sexual behaviour can discourage further disclosures. Many victims/survivors just want the behaviour to stop but may also care about or love the person who is hurting them – particularly if they are a member of their family/whānau. The removal of a sibling may increase feelings of self-blame, anxiety or trauma in the victim/survivor. There is no one right response. Work closely with specialist treatment providers and family/whānau to support them to navigate this space and find their own pathway to healing and safety for everyone. Having different social workers allocated may help maintain a focus on the differing needs and supports required.
- Understand how healing is a priority and relates to whānau ora (whole-of-whānau wellbeing). Taking a whānau ora approach to working with Māori centralises whānau involvement and whānau healing.
- Maintaining and strengthening all opportunities to continue with education, sports and other community-based activities is important and requires comprehensive safety plans that are targeted to the specific risk factors of the rangatahi and known by key people involved in their care and supervision.
- The whakamā (shame) that often surrounds concerning or harmful sexual behaviour serves to silence family/whānau, which leaves victims/survivors vulnerable to ongoing abuse. Empower everyone though respectful mana-enhancing engagement to share some of the obstacles to disclosing concerning or harmful behaviours. This supports family/whānau members to heal and move forward towards safety.
- Avoid labelling tamariki and rangatahi as potential sexual offenders. It’s important to have open discussions about sexual health and development while being mindful of the problems rangatahi face in puberty and recognising that, in early adolescence, major changes in brain morphology and connections are occurring which can influence important behavioural aspects of adolescence such as decision-making, pleasure-seeking and risk-taking that can lead to offending.
Assessment and treatment programmes
Acknowledging concerns and engaging in treatment can be challenging for some tamariki and their family/whānau, so approach these discussions in a mana-enhancing, trauma-informed way.
Referrals for community treatment providers are available from the provider’s website. Gain consent from te tamaiti or rangatahi and their family/whānau before sharing any of their information.
NetSafe provides information on keeping tamariki and rangatahi safe online.
Victims of child sexual abuse can get support from organisations across the country.
The following organisations offer:
- assessment and treatment services for rangatahi and adults who have sexually abused others
- assessment and treatment services for tamariki who have exhibited harmful sexual behaviour
- support to family/whānau members of people who have abused others.
Safe Network (Whangarei, Auckland and Hamilton)
WellStop (Wellington, Masterton, Manawatu, Whanganui, Levin, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne)
STOP (Nelson, Christchurch, Invercargill and Dunedin)
Residential treatment programme
Te Poutama Arahi Rangatahi (based in Christchurch) is a residential treatment programme for boys aged 12 to 16. We make a referral only when a community-based treatment programme has completed an assessment and recommended a residential programme.