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Discussing any type of bullying behaviour can be challenging, but the subject of sexual and sexist bullying can be particularly sensitive. All reports and concerns of bullying behaviour and sexual or sexist behaviour should be taken seriously and responded to appropriately in accordance with your anti-bullying policy and safeguarding procedures.
Academics in the UK and overseas continue to debate the most appropriate definition of sexual and sexist bullying as it includes a wide spectrum of behaviours, but for the purposes of our guidance, we include any bullying behaviour that is sexual or sexist in nature.
To ensure we are able to prevent bullying, act quickly when it takes place and avoid misidentifying or missing bullying, it is vital that schools and other settings have a shared definition of bullying. This should be understood by the whole school or setting including parents, young people and all staff. The Anti-Bullying Alliance and its members have an agreed shared definition of bullying based on research from across the world over the last 30 years.
To establish whether the bullying behaviour is sexual or sexist in nature it’s important to understand the different types of harmful sexual behaviours along with what we mean by sexism. See page 6 of the attached guide for further information.
Bullying and sexual and sexist behaviours also overlap and it is possible that behaviours can be sexual bullying, sexist bullying and sexual harassment. For example, sexual bullying taking place may also be a sign that there is a heightened risk of harmful sexual behaviour, sexual exploitation and/or sexual violence.
For the purposes of our guidance, we focus on child-on-child sexual and sexist bullying in schools in England but please refer to the Department for Education’s Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance on how to safeguard children from all forms of abuse.
Downplaying certain behaviours, for example dismissing sexual harassment as “just banter”, “just having a laugh”, “part of growing up” or “boys being boys” can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviours, an unsafe environment for children and in worst case scenarios a culture that normalises abuse leading to children accepting it as normal and not coming forward to report it.
Department for Education
Keeping Children Safe in Education (2022)
Whilst girls are significantly more at risk, a significant number of boys are also targets of sexual and sexist bullying. It is vital that schools take a strong approach against all forms of sexism, sexist stereotypes, and homophobia as the foundation on which to build a response to sexual and sexist bullying.
LGBT children and young people are also particularly at risk of harmful sexual behaviour. In 2021 Ofsted found, that staff in schools were often not aware of young peoples’ daily experiences of harmful sexual behaviour and bullying and, in some cases, despite hearing sexist and homophobic language frequently, didn’t challenge it as they felt they wouldn’t be supported by colleagues and their comments would be disregarded.
We know that disabled children and those with SEN can be particularly vulnerable to all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, and that they disproportionately experience bullying – with devastating consequences. An NSPCC report also found that a significant proportion of children displaying 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. 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.
People think disabled people are asexual as it is, so they don't talk to you about any relationships, let alone about being or acknowledging that you are LGBT.
Disabled young person
Responding to ABA consultation
Minoritised 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. It’s really important that from the outset we challenge our own assumptions and have an awareness of our own potential biases to avoid perpetuating them. Left unchallenged, these biases and pre-conceived ideas can be particularly damaging for children and young people. Black and minoritised ethnic groups face significant overrepresentation in exclusions for sexual misconduct (as well as exclusions overall).
Child-on-child abuse including sexual and sexist 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 never override the legal duty to keep children safe from harm.
It is important to understand that not all sexualised behaviour between children and young people is bullying or abuse. Children and young people naturally go through a process of sexual development. However, some may be impacted by harmful sexual behaviour.
There are several tools available to assist staff with understanding healthy sexual development (see the NSPCC’s Hackett Continuum tool to support with responding to children who display sexualised behaviour).
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.
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 and sexist bullying. 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 and sexist bullying, or could contribute to an environment where sexual and sexist bullying is more likely to occur may include the following, which was gathered as part of the Ofsted review.
It found that girls reported the following harmful sexual behaviours happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’ between people their age:
This video is from Fixers and includes testimony from young people about sexual bullying, harrassment and violence in school:
Department for Education
Guidance from Stop It Now!
Guidance from Stop It Now!
NSPCC's Hackett Continuum Tool
Department for Education
Farrer & Co.
The Children's Commissioner's Office
Sex Education Forum
Sex Education Forum (2022)
Research article about young people who have experienced sexual abuse are more at risk of bullying
To tackle peer-based online sexual harassment
A report from The Lucy Faithfull Foundation