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Problematic Sexual Behaviors

There is no clear line that separates normative from problematic sexual behavior. Sexual behavior in childhood and adolescence occurs on a continuum, from typical, to concerning, to problematic.

Problematic sexual behaviors include a wide range of behaviors.

  • Problematic self-touch or self-stimulation (such that it causes physical harm or damage, is excessive, and/or occurs in public in spite of interventions),
  • Non-intrusive and repetitive sexual behaviors (such as preoccupation with nudity, surreptitiously looking at others when they are naked, frequently showing private parts to others, preoccupation with pornography, especially child or violent media, sexting, offensive sexualized language),
  • Sexual touching without permission or consent, such as poking, rubbing or squeezing,
  • Sexual interactions with others (such as, digital-genital contact, oral-genital contact, sexual behavior that involve penetration) which are developmentally inappropriate or illegal,
  • Distributing youth produced sexual images, such as through texting,
  • Sexual contact with animals, and 
  • Coercive or aggressive sexual contact or penetration.

Guidelines for Identifying Problematic Sexual Behaviors
Professionals should be concerned when children's sexual acts or behaviors have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Occur frequently or more frequently than expected,
  • Take place between children of widely different ages or developmental stages (such as a 12-year-old who acts out with a 4-year-old, or a 15-year-old with a 10-year-old),
  • Occur between children of different capacity, for example, disparate physical size and strength or intellectual abilities or a position of authority,
  • Are associated with strong, upset feelings, such as anger or anxiety/fear,
  • Cause harm or potential harm (physical or emotional) to any child,
  • Do not respond to typical parenting strategies (such as, instruction and supervision), and
  • Involve coercion, force, or aggression, or threats thereof, of any kind

Problematic sexual behaviors are in contrast to normative sex play. Yet, some statistically normative sexual behaviors are considered problematic or even illegal due to familial, religious, cultural, or societal variations in attitudes regarding acceptable sexual behaviors in youth. Sometimes, sexual behaviors that do not involve others and occur in private, such as masturbation, may be considered problematic by some individuals or groups. Generally, sexual behaviors that do not involve others are not considered problematic, unless they are injurious, preoccupying, or interfere with other aspects of healthy development.


What do professionals need to know about sex laws?

Professionals Are Expected To Know the laws and state statutes pertaining to sexual offenses and problematic sexual behavior. As professionals, it's important to not only know the laws, but also advocate for improved laws that address sexual behaviors in youth. Professionals play an important role in informing parents and caregivers about the differences between normal, problematic, harmful, and illegal sexual behaviors in youth. Professionals should be able to distinguish legal from illegal sexual behavior, know what types of behavior constitute which illegal behavior, and understand the laws pertaining to these behaviors.

Technology Is Advancing at a more rapid pace than laws are implemented and/or regulations are created. For example, many states do not have laws that adequately address youth produced sexual images resulting in charges that are very punitive and harsh given the action taken by the youth. Many states are aware that current laws do not address this issue but have not created laws to address this concern. Given the technology available to youth, it is very important to discuss these issues with parents including giving them resources to implement parent controls and information about the types of electronic equipment that access the internet. See Internet and Technology Safety

Laws Differ Across Jurisdictions as to how old a youth must be before they may legally consent to sexual behaviors, for example, in most states the age of consent is 16, with some states youth as young as 14 may consent with another older youth. For more information click here.

Professionals Can Help teens understand the laws and punishment when it comes to sexual behavior. Teens normally understand that some sexual behaviors can lead to trouble, but often they don't realize how much trouble. For example, teenagers may be aware that showing pornography to a 10-year-old would get them in trouble with parents or teachers, but may not know that this behavior would result in delinquent charges, registration as a sexual offender, or even imprisonment.

Professionals, Parents, And Caregivers Are Responsible for knowing and conveying to children and adolescents information about age of consent laws. Education can facilitate preventing problematic or illegal sexual behavior before it starts. Interventions for the youth, child victims, and their family can help the child victims heal and the youth with problematic and/or illegal sexual behaviors (including aggressive sexual behaviors) get on track for healthy and pro-social development. (For more information see Clinical Decision-Making, Interventions (Coming Soon), and Public Policy)