Skip to main content

MacKillop and University of Melbourne bring international expert to Australia to tackle critical issue

On June 8, MacKillop Family Services and the University of Melbourne hosted international expert Professor Simon Hackett to share insights on the challenging issue of harmful sexual behaviour.

Simon is the Professor of Child Abuse and Neglect at Durham University in the UK and has over 30 years’ experience in the field of childhood harmful sexual behaviour. The public lecture was titled: ‘Have we gone too far in our responses to harmful sexual behaviour in childhood, or not far enough? Guide ropes for ensuring that the best interests of all children, young people and families are met’.

Simon has previously defined Harmful Sexual Behaviour as behaviour expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that may be developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.

The lecture was introduced by Dr Robyn Miller, CEO of MacKillop Family Services. Dr Miller talked about the importance of knowledge sharing and working together to tackle challenging issues and achieve better outcomes for children and young people. Dr Miller shared information on the Power to Kids developed by MacKillop Family Services and the University of Melbourne to respond to harmful sexual behaviour, dating violence and sexual exploitation of young people in residential care. The MacKillop Institute now offers the model to residential care providers across Australia and has adapted the model to support foster carers tackling this issue. MacKillop is currently adapting the model to support schools who are seeing these issues present in their students.

A key theme shared by both Professor Simon Hackett and Dr Miller is that harmful sexual behaviour is a challenge both domestically and internationally. Professor Simon Hackett set the scene by sharing the recently published statistic by the Australian Child Maltreatment Study that adolescents aged under 18 inflicted the highest proportion of child sexual abuse. He shared that in the UK, it’s a similar picture, with approximately half of all reported sexual ‘crimes’ in the UK now concerning children and young people under the age of 18.

“We are still on a journey towards recognising this as a problem, but we have enough knowledge to be certain that the issue of problematic and harmful sexual behaviour in childhood is a public health emergency, not just something that affects a small number of our children,” said Professor Hackett.

In light of this emergency, Professor Simon Hackett shared case studies that encouraged us all to be cautious, reflecting on how we must be balanced and consider children and young people’s normative sexual behaviours in our responses.

We can easily blame children for harmful sexual behaviour, but we need to look at it as a broader societal issue,

– Professor Simon Hackett

It is important to recognise some behaviours as sexual abuse and violence, name them as such, and respond to them accordingly but in other cases children’s behaviours are developmentally normative or at a much lower level than accepted definitions of “abusive behaviour”.

Professor Hackett challenged us to define a way of understanding and responding to children and young people’s sexual behaviour at differing levels of concern and risk.

“We need to act in a balanced way to what is being presented behaviourally by a child or a group of children, understanding the context in which these behaviours are exhibited, and their underpinning drivers.”

Professor Hackett provided valuable insights on what constitutes normal, inappropriate, problematic, abusive and violent behaviours, and what to consider when responding to these. He argued that responses to children and young people presenting with harmful sexual behaviours should be: proportionate and balanced; contextually focused; developmentally focused; and rights based.

“If we see children’s normative, developmentally expected and healthy sexual behaviours through a sole lens of risk and threat, then we run the risk of not only pathologizing many children, but also of harming their development… We shouldn’t just seek to stop the sexual behaviour problems, but address children’s wider needs as a key measure of a successful outcome,” Professor Simon Hackett said.

Professor Hackett’s ‘guide ropes’ were presented at both an intervention and programme level, as he continued to encourage us to respond at both an individual and societal level and recognise that the rights of the child, normative development, and the need to treat the impact of the behaviour, not simply focus on stopping it.

Rather than targeting the individual, we need to target the context. How can we make spaces safer?

– Professor Simon Hackett

He spoke briefly on the impact of pornography on children, and the significant research that has been done in Australia and abroad on the harm of exposure to pornography on children, noting this as an issue that needs to be critically addressed.

His final message was one of practicality, noting the importance of health promotion, quality care, education, outreach and relationships in preventing and responding to harmful sexual behaviour.

“It’s been such a pleasure hearing from Professor Simon Hackett, and the lessons learnt from his decades of research and work implementing strategies and tools to tackle this challenging issue,” said Dr Robyn Miller.

“MacKillop Family Services supports children and young people who are vulnerable to harmful sexual behaviour and sexual abuse more broadly and, along with my sector colleagues, we are committed to implementing best-practice strategies that prevent harm, and best support young people to heal,” she said.