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What is sexual bullying?

Discussing any type of bullying behaviour can be challenging, but the subject of sexual bullying can be particularly sensitive If you have any concerns about sexual bullying amongst children that you work with then we would recommend that you seek specialist support.

We have guidance for schools about sexual bullying and a free online course about sexual bullying

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What is sexual bullying?

Academics in the UK and overseas continue to debate the most appropriate definition of sexual bullying as it includes a wide spectrum of behaviours, but for the purposes of this guide, we include any bullying behaviour with a sexual element. This behaviour can be between children and young people of any age, gender, and/or sexual orientation, and between children and adults. Research suggests that sexual bullying has a disproportionate impact on girls. While significant numbers of boys are also targets of sexual bullying, this often has a homophobic element, suggesting this behaviour is driven by driven by sexism and homophobia within society with peer enforcement of perceived gender norms. For this reason, it is vital that schools take a strong approach against all forms of sexism, sexist stereotypes and homophobia as the foundation stone on which to build a response to sexual bullying.

We know that disabled children and those with SEN can be particularly vulnerable to all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, and that they are disproportionately vulnerable to experiencing bullying – with devastating consequences. A report for the NSPCC shares that a significant proportion of children with harmful sexual behaviour also have a learning disability.

Schools have a key role to play in educating and supporting children with appropriate sexual behaviour – and must make sure this includes children with SEND. There may be a misconception that disabled children are not interested in sex, or that it would be somehow inappropriate to discuss sexual matters with them – however, this only serves to leave children vulnerable to bullying and abuse. In addition to this, each year significant numbers of children face exclusion from school for 'sexual misconduct’.

Each one of these exclusions represents children and families who have been through significant hurt and embarrassment. No parent or carer wants to find out their child has been on the receiving end of sexual misconduct or has been accused of sexual misconduct. Schools have a duty to keep all children safe from sexual harm and it’s vital to talk about these issues, set appropriate boundaries, and to communicate appropriate behaviour in a way that meets the needs of all children and young people. 

Checking for bias

Minority ethnic groups face significant overrepresentation in exclusions for sexual misconduct (as well as exclusions overall). It is vital that schools are aware of systemic racism and check for bias in disciplinary procedures.

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Cultural sensitivity 

Peer on peer abuse including sexual bullying can happen in any environment. The safety of children should always be paramount: this means educating all children, in all environments about acceptable behaviour and being clear on school policy and procedure. This includes single sex schools and faith schools. There may be religious or cultural sensitivities associated with sexual behaviour, but this should not override the legal duty to keep children safe from harm. Taking a clear stance makes it easier to communicate any concerns with parents and carers and creates an environment where they can also share concerns with you knowing they will be handled sensitively and with care. 

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What behaviours does this include? 

Remember the ABA definition of bullying 

It is important to understand that not all sexualised behaviour between children and young people is bullying or abuse. There are several tools available to assist staff with understanding healthy sexual development (see NSPCC Harmful Sexual Behaviour framework and Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic light tool). The Stop it now! Charity also has a useful booklet on preventing abuse between children that describes healthy sexual development. They emphasise that disabled children and young people and those with SEN may develop at different rates and care must be taken to educate appropriately according to their sexual development and to make sure they can communicate any worries they may have.

The ABA definition of bullying includes an imbalance of power – and some children may be more vulnerable to coercion and control – a key characteristic of sexual bullying. Stop It Now! describe harmful sexual behaviour as ranging ‘from experimentation that unintentionally goes too far, through to serious sexual assault’. They write that ‘often victims are uncomfortable or confused about what is happening and may feel that they are willingly involved, but not understand that the behaviour is harmful’. This can be exacerbated for children who may find it hard to understand and communicate their feelings. This means it is vital that school staff take time to understand the context in which behaviour has taken place, the development needs of the children involved, and the nature of the relationship between those involved.

The type of behaviour within a school environment that could constitute sexual bullying, or could contribute to an environment where sexual bullying is more likely to occur includes:

  • Sexual comments, taunts, and threats; ‘banter’ of a sexual or sexist nature; sexualised and sexist language
  • Non-consensual physical contact (this can include hugging and kissing); interfering with clothing
  • Upskirting
  • Distributing sexual material (including pornography); sending photos or videos of a sexual nature
  • Making phone calls or sending texts, messages, or films of a sexual nature; inciting others to share sexual imagery
  • ‘Games’ with a sexual element (e.g. taking clothes off, kissing, or touching games)
  • Pressure to spend time alone or apart from others with another person, or people (e.g. behind school buildings in the toilets or changing rooms, in the field)
  • Pressure to be in a relationship with another person, or to engage in a sexual act with another person – both inside and outside of school
  • Spreading rumours about another person’s alleged sexual activity
  • Sexism in all its forms; pressure to conform to particular gender ‘norms’ (e.g. pressure on boys to have multiple partners, or pressure on boys and girls to be heterosexual)

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This video is from Fixers and includes testimony from young people about sexual bullying, harrassment and violence in school:  

28 May 2017