Underage sexual activity

Around a quarter of young men and young women in Scotland report having had intercourse before their 16th birthday.  It is well established that many young people are engaging in a range of under-age sexual activity and that this can be part of typical adolescent exploratory behaviour. 


The law continues to make clear that society does not encourage sexual intercourse in young people under 16, as it can be a cause of concern for their welfare. It does not follow however that every case has child protection concerns and it is important to ensure that a proportionate response is made and that only appropriate cases are brought to the attention of social work and the police.


Where there are no child protection concerns, the young person may still have worries or be in need of support in relation to their sexual development and relationships so it is important that we know how to talk to them and signpost them where appropriate.




If you feel that there are concerns around a young person's sexual behaviour, the indicators set out below can help you decide on the appropriate response and whether or not information needs to be shared. What follows is a non-exhaustive list of some of the typical factors that may indicate a child protection concern and help you determine risk and need. It is not intended to be used as a checklist but forms the basis of a risk assessment: depending on the specific situation, not all of the areas identified will require exploration.


The child and young person

  • Is the child under the age of 13 or did the sexual activity take place when the young person was under 13?

  • Did the young person understand the sexual behaviour they were involved in?

  • Did the young person agree to the sexual behaviour at the time?

  • Did the young person's own behaviour – e.g. use of alcohol or other substances – place them in a position where their ability to make an informed choice about the sexual activity was compromised?

  • Was the young person able to give informed consent? (e.g. mental health issues, learning disability or any other condition that would heighten the young person’s vulnerability)


The relationship

  • Was there a concerning power or any other relevant imbalance present in the relationship? (e.g. differences in size, age, material wealth and/or psychological, social, intellectual and physical development – in addition, gender, race and levels of sexual knowledge can be used to exert power.) It should not automatically be assumed that power imbalances do not exist for two young people similar in age or of the same sex.

  • Were manipulation, bribery, threats, aggression and/or coercion, involved? (e.g. was the young person isolated from their peer group or was the young person given alcohol or other substances as a disinhibitor etc.)


The other person

  • Did the other person use 'grooming' methods to gain the trust and friendship of the young person? (e.g. by indulging or coercing the young person with gifts, treats, money etc; by befriending the young person's family; by developing a relationship with the young person via the internet.)

  • Did the other person attempt to secure secrecy beyond what would be considered usual in teenage sexual activity?

  • Was the other person known by the practitioner to be or have been involved in concerning behaviour towards other children and young people?

  • Was the other person in a position of trust?


Other factors

  • Was the young person, male or female, frequenting places used for prostitution? Is there evidence of the young person being involved in prostitution or the making of pornography?

  • Was the young man frequenting places where men have sex with men in circumstances where additional dangers, e.g. physical assault, might arise? 

  • Are there other concerning factors in the young person's life which may increase their vulnerability? (e.g. homelessness.)

  • Did the young person deny, minimise or accept the concerns held by practitioners?


A Child Protection referral must be made where it becomes apparent that a person under the age of 13 is engaged in sexual activity