3.10 Sexually Active Children and Young People
See the Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool for information on identifying and responding appropriately to sexual behaviours.
Instances of underage sexual activity may raise difficult issues for practitioners and need to be handled with sensitivity. Agencies should ensure that all children and young people are given appropriate protection from sexual abuse. It is the responsibility of all professionals to accurately assess any risk of harm, including significant harm, when a child or young person is engaged in sexual activity. This is likely to require a multi-agency approach.
Interventions should protect vulnerable children and provide information and contraception (where appropriate) for other young people.
To help protect younger children the law says anyone under the age of 13 can never legally give consent. This means that anyone who engages in any sexual activity with a child who is 12 or younger is breaking the law Sexual activity with a child who is under 13 should always result in a child protection referral.
Where there are indications of actual or risk of sexual abuse of a child/young person, be it child sexual exploitation, interfamilial abuse or peer-on-peer abuse, refer to guidance on Child Sexual Exploitation.
Sexual abuse and exploitation of a child or young person involves an imbalance of power. Any assessment should seek to identify possible power imbalances within a relationship. These can result from differences in size, age, material wealth and/or psychological, social and physical development. In addition, gender, sexuality, race and levels of sexual knowledge can be used to exert power.
Where a power imbalance results in coercion, manipulation and/or bribery and seduction, these pressures can be applied to a young person by one or two individuals, or through peer pressure (i.e. group bullying). Professionals assessing the nature of a child or young person’s relationship need to be aware of the possibility that either or both of these situations can exist for the child or young person, and they should conduct a holistic assessment of the young person’s needs.
Disabled children and young people are more likely to be abused than non-disabled children, and they are especially at risk when they are living away from home. They may be particularly vulnerable to coercion due to physical dependency or because a learning disability or a communication difficulty means that it is not easy for them to communicate their wishes to another person. This increases the risk that a sexual relationship may not be consensual.
Children aged under 13
A child who is under 13 years of age is not capable, legally, of consenting to any type of sexual activity. Any offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 involving a child under 13 is very serious and offences committed on a child under 13 years of age, by an adult may result in a significant prison sentence.
A referral must be made to Children's social care (see Referrals Procedure where the sexually active child is under the age of 13 or when a girl under 13 is found to be pregnant.
Children aged between 13 and 15
Sexual activity with a child under the age of 16 is also defined as a criminal offence. Where it is consensual it may carry a less serious criminal penalty than under 13 but still attracts a significant prison sentence. It may nevertheless have serious consequences for the welfare of the child.
Seriou sconsideration should be given in every instance of sexual activity involving a child aged between 13–15 as to whether there should be a discussion with other agencies and whether a referral should be made to Children’s Social Care.
Children aged between 16 and 17
Although in most cases sexual activity in itself is not an offence when the young person is over the age of 16, young people aged 16 and 17 are still vulnerable to harm through an abusive sexual relationship and are still offered the protection of child protection procedures.
Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines
The Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines help people who work with children to balance the need to listen to children’s wishes with the responsibility to keep them safe.
The Fraser guidelines state that a doctor can give contraceptive advice and treatment to a girl under 16 provided he is satisfied on the following matters:
- that the girl (although under the age of 16 years of age) will understand his advice
- that he cannot persuade her to inform her parents or to allow him to inform the parents that she is seeking contraceptive advice
- that she is very likely to continue having sexual intercourse with or without contraceptive treatment
- that unless she receives contraceptive advice or treatment her physical or mental health or both are likely to suffer
- that her best interests require him to give her contraceptive advice, treatment or both without the parental consent” (Gillick v West Norfold, 1985).
- Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool
- Missing, Exploited and Trafficked Information Guide 2018-2020