Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


The individual and group characteristics of young people who sexually harm in groups



This week the Contextual Safeguarding Team published a new briefing which outlines the contextual profiles of young people who display harmful sexual behaviours (HSB) in groups and/or on their own.

The briefing, which can be read here, presents the findings from a study carried out in four London boroughs which used a previously developed contextual HSB meeting framework to assess and plan work with 49 young people who displayed HSB in groups and/or individually. The findings of the study are presented alongside those from an international literature review into group-based HSB, previously carried out by the Contextual Safeguarding Team.

Understanding the contextual profiles of young people who sexually harm

By highlighting the differences and similarities between the needs and experiences of young people who have sexually harmed alone, in groups or in both circumstances, this briefing provides an important contribution towards the development of contextual safeguarding practices.

The study set out to explore whether there were differences between young people who had sexually harmed others in groups and those who had done so alone. And in the sample who were featured in the study there were indeed a number of differences between these two cohorts. Many young people who displayed HSB solely in groups were sociable and well networked. They almost exclusively harmed peers that are the same age as them, rather than younger children or siblings, with repeated incidents, and often did so in front of peers. While they were often in protective families, young people who sexually harmed in groups nearly always had peer relationships where harmful attitudes towards women are shared. Their behaviours were interwoven with the harmful or abusive dynamics at play in their neighbourhoods, schools and peer-groups. This was in contrast with young people who displayed HSB on their own. This cohort of young people were often socially isolated and struggled to form same age-friendships. Many had fractured relationships with their families. When young people displayed HSB on their own  they often harmed siblings and younger children as well as same-aged peers, and most young people within this cohort had a learning difficulty or other cognitive need.

Surprisingly for the research team, a third cohort emerged in the sample – 10 young people who displayed HSB on their own and with other young people. This group of young people seemed to present the most troubling behaviours – using blackmail, physical violence and coercion to sexually harm others and on occasions recruiting peers to be abusive alongside them. All were suspected as experiencing some form of abuse within their families, and many had siblings who had also displayed HSB. In this sense they were also some of the most vulnerable young people featured in the study.

Implications for practice and service development

In addition to enabling a better understanding of the contextual and individual profiles of young people who have displayed HSB, the briefing also provides an important tool for considering the implications for service design, delivery and commissioning.

Through the study, a lack of services and interventions in place to address the peer, school and community factors that are particularly associated to group-based HSB is evidenced. In light of this, and building on conversations held during practitioner de-briefs, the paper identifies the services, interventions and approaches from which practitioners would benefit. These include approaches that address:

  • The impact of exposure to domestic abuse of young people
  • Occasions where the influence of negative peer relationships outweigh those within families in shaping abusive behaviours
  • Harmful social norms within peer groups which underpin or encourage HSB, or maximise positive peer influences
  • School cultures that normalise HSB – particularly through a multi-faceted intervention which seeks to address student and staff attitudes, the physical design of the school space, the wider relationship and sex education curriculum, bullying behaviours and/or exclusion policies
  • The relationship between street-based sexual violence, child sexual exploitation and HSB within communities and neighbourhoods
  • Local design/planning issues which create areas in which young people can display HSB that are undetected or where professionals have little influence

Download the briefing here.

If you have any questions about the study or the briefing please email

Dr Carlene Firmin, MBE

Dr Carlene Firmin, MBE

Senior Research Fellow

Bio: Dr Carlene Firmin MBE is a Principal Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire, where she leads their Contextual Safeguarding and peer-on-peer abuse research programmes. Carlene has spent the past 10 years researching young people’s experiences of community and group-based violence and advocated for comprehensive approaches that keep young people safe in public places, schools and peer groups. Her theory of Contextual Safeguarding has informed policy and research agendas for advancing the protection of adolescents, and she has worked with practitioners across the UK to co-create contextual interventions and develop contextual safeguarding systems within children’s social care. Carlene has also conducted 20 case reviews for safeguarding children’s boards to identify opportunities for intervening with extra-familial forms of significant harm.

Posted: 22 Nov 2017

Author: Delphine Peace

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