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Youth To Youth Sexual Abuse

Harmful Sexual Behaviors in Peer Relationships

Over several years, research and studies have shown a drastic increase in peer-to-peer sexual abuse or youth-to-youth sexual abuse cases in which a ‘problematic’ or harmful sexual behavior has occurred. Problematic sexual behavior in peer relationships can be defined as “child-initiated behaviors that involve sexual body parts, like the genitals, anus, or breasts, and are inappropriate or potentially harmful to themselves or others.” [1] “Child” or “youth” refers to someone under the age of 18. And in the case of the quote above, “harmful” can mean physically, developmentally, or emotionally.

However, there’s no clear line between what is considered ‘problematic’ versus ‘normative’ sexual behaviors, which often leads to problematic ambiguity within youth-serving organizations as employees navigate their response to these behaviors. Therefore, youth-serving organizations must develop specific standards of prevention and response surrounding the potential for peer-to-peer sexual harm and abuse.


The Hackett Continuum of Harmful Behavior

Peer-to-peer sexual harm and abuse remains the least understood and expected risk among youth-serving organizations. [2] To provide clarity, Professor Simon Hackett developed the Hackett Continuum of Harmful Sexual Behavior (HSB). This model outlines the range of sexual behaviors exhibited by children, from normal to highly deviant and violent. On the normal end of the spectrum, behaviors are developmentally appropriate, consensual, socially acceptable, and reciprocal. In addition, decisions about these behaviors are shared rather than imposed on one party.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are violent behaviors. These behaviors are non-consensual, highly intrusive, physically violent, arousing to the perpetrator, and sadistic.

Problematic sexual behaviors lie in the middle of the spectrum and can range from inappropriate to abusive. These behaviors are developmentally and socially unexpected, with questionable consent. There may be a power imbalance but no “overt elements of victimization.” Hackett explains that while “abusive behavior is by definition also problematic, problematic behavior may not necessarily be abusive. As both ‘abusive’ and ‘problematic’ sexual behavior are developmentally inappropriate and may cause developmental damage, a useful umbrella term, which we will also use here, is ‘harmful sexual behaviors’”.[3]

While the Hackett Continuum of Harmful Sexual Behavior (HSB), provides much-needed guidance, especially to professionals working in safeguarding, subjective interpretations still can be made regarding how or if a youth’s sexual behavior fits into the above definitions.



Sexual behaviors related to peer abuse

In many cases, children occupy dual identities as both perpetrators of abuse and victim of harm. [4]  That is to say, children whom adults or other children have sexually abused tend to act out sexually, or replicate the sexual behavior, even if they are very young. The prevalence of child sexual abuse leads us to conclude that problematic sexual behaviors, which often arise to the level of abuse, between peers are a widespread and unfortunate reality in youth-serving organizations.


  • More than 33% of sexual offenses against children are committed by other children. [5]
  • The most common age range for peer sexual abuse is 12 to 14.
  • Youth-to-youth sexual abuse cases have a lower reporting rate than abuse that includes an adult perpetrator. For example, only 20% of Praesidium Helpline callers presenting situations of peer sexual abuse had reported to authorities.
  • When HSBs exist in peer relationships, they are more typically opportunistic or spontaneous. Children will react to – rather than seek – the opportunity to explore inappropriate behaviors. This is unlike adults who offend against youth in that adults are typically more calculated and manipulative.

Recidivism amongst youth who display HSBs

Harmful sexual behaviors are often learned from interactions between the child and an older person, either an adult or an older child. The child replicates these learned behaviors with other children. [6]. Once the child replicates this HSB, the likelihood of another sexual offense is unlikely[7] though not impossible.

A related statistic shows the rate of recidivism (re-offense) among juvenile sex offenders is only 5% to 14% versus 8-58% for other delinquent behavior. [8]. In fact, multiple studies have demonstrated extremely low rates for sexual reoffending for juveniles convicted of sex offenses. [9]

The likelihood of recidivism, or sexual re-offense, decreases even further once in adulthood—the majority of children and young people displaying HSBs do not become sexual offenders as adults. [10]



What can organizations do to prevent and respond to youth-to-youth sexual abuse?


Preventing Youth-to-Youth Abuse

Organizations that serve children, like schools, camps, churches, and youth sports programs, are at higher risk for harmful sexual behaviors between peers, which include peer-to-peer abuse and problematic sexual behaviors. Therefore, these organizations must proactively prevent HSB by coordinating training, monitoring, supervision, and response.

Train staff members on how HSB occur and how to recognize the unique risk factors – such as any scenario where clothes are removed or supervision is inhibited. [11]

For example:

  • Restrooms
  • Locker rooms
  • Hiding spots in play structures
  • Swimming
  • Transition between activities
  • Group play
  • Online activity


These are typical examples of when and where adult supervision may be lesser and thus create an opportunity for youth to engage in an HSB.

Monitoring and supervising these higher-risk areas and activities are critical in preventing HSB. Youth-serving organizations should identify each high-risk area or activity and develop a supervision plan. Supervision plans may incorporate procedures such as evaluating staff-to-youth ratios, utilizing zone monitoring, communicating “off limit” areas to youth, and implementing consistent, structured activities.


Responding to peer-to-peer abuse

Youth-serving organizations’ response to harmful sexual behavior is another critical aspect of ensuring the continued safety of youth. The Hackett Continuum is a helpful guideline for professionals. However, there is still ambiguity in defining normal developmental and inappropriate behaviors. [12]. Organizations should respond to every sexual peer interaction to eliminate staff subjectivity. This includes an internal response and an external report. As a part of the internal response, organizations should keep detailed records of all potentially problematic behaviors and regularly analyze reports to identify patterns and improve preventative measures. [13]. Additionally, organizations should report any and all sexual peer interactions externally to investigating bodies like Child Protective Services and law enforcement. This comprehensive response procedure allows:

  • The children involved access to appropriate resources
  • Assurance of safety for other children in programming
  • Redirection of the harmful behavior
  • Identification of the source of the sexual conduct or original abuse
  • Clear communication to staff of standardized response procedure

Professional determination of HSB as ‘abusive’ or ‘problematic’ and the subsequent investigation. [14]




[2] PEER-TO-PEER CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE RISK: Protecting Children from Other Children by Gregory Love & Kimberlee Norris November 3, 2020



[5] Finkelhor, Ormrod, & Chaffin, 2009

[6] PEER-TO-PEER CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE RISK: Protecting Children from Other Children by Gregory Love & Kimberlee Norris November 3, 2020

[7] OJJDP, December 2001; 30-31

[8] https:/

[9] A 2000 study by the Texas Youth Commission of 72 young offenders who were released from state correctional facilities for sexual offenses (their incarceration suggests that judges considered these youth as posing a greater risk) found a re-arrest rate of 4.2% for a sexual offense. (Zimring, Appendix C)

A 1996 study found similarly low sex offense recidivism rates in Baltimore (3.3-4.2%), San Francisco (5.5%) and Lucas County, Ohio (3.2%). (Zimring, Appendix C)

[10] Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse

[11] PEER-TO-PEER CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE RISK: Protecting Children from Other Children by Gregory Love & Kimberlee Norris November 3, 2020

[12] https:/


[14] PEER-TO-PEER CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE RISK: Protecting Children from Other Children by Gregory Love & Kimberlee Norris November 3, 2020

A 1996 study found similarly low sex offense recidivism rates in Baltimore (3.3-4.2%), San Francisco (5.5%) and Lucas County, Ohio (3.2%). (Zimring, Appendix C)