About sexual development and behaviour at 15-17 years
Sexual development starts from birth. It includes physical changes like puberty, the attitudes and beliefs children develop about sex and sexuality, and their sexual behaviour.
Sexual behaviour varies depending on teenagers’ development, social relationships, cultural background, and personal and family experiences. But it’s common for teenagers to become more curious about sex and sexuality as they develop. Some teenagers might experiment sexually alone or with others.
For teenagers aged 15-17 years, sexual curiosity and experimentation might include:
- masturbating in private for sexual pleasure
- exploring sexual interests through erotic materials like pornography
- having intimate relationships, showing sexual affection, and having consensual sex with same-age peers.
Your child might behave in these ways because it feels good. They might also do it because they:
- enjoy sexual affection and mutual sexual experiences
- are working out social and sexual relationships
- are experiencing puberty
- are exploring their identity.
If you talk openly about sex and sexuality with your child, it sends the message that your child can come to you for honest and reliable information. These conversations can help your child make positive, safe and informed choices, now and in the future.
Responding to sexual behaviour in teenagers aged 15-17 years
If your child is in an intimate relationship, this can be an opportunity to support your child’s healthy sexual development. The key is listening, talking and answering questions openly, honestly and non-judgmentally.
It’s also good to talk with your child about appropriate behaviour in sexual relationships. For example, you could talk about how ‘yes’ to one sexual activity doesn’t mean an automatic ‘yes’ to another and your child needs to keep checking when they’re being intimate with someone.
If you’re concerned about your child and a sexual behaviour or relationship, start by explaining your concerns and expectations for safe behaviour. For example, your teenage child might be sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages and photos. Even if this activity is consensual, you could talk about the personal risks of sexting and the legal risks of sexting.
Harmful sexual behaviour in teenagers aged 15-17 years
Sometimes sexual behaviour in teenagers aged 15-17 years isn’t what’s expected for their developmental stage or isn’t socially or culturally appropriate.
And sometimes sexual behaviour in teenagers at this age is dangerous or harmful to themselves or others. Harmful sexual behaviour can range from concerning to serious and extreme.
Harmful sexual behaviour in children aged 15-17 years might include masturbating:
- compulsively and so much that it interferes with other activities
- in ways that injure their genitals
- in public.
It might also include:
- having unprotected vaginal or anal sex or engaging in sexual behaviour while drunk
- having sex or engaging in other sexual acts to be popular or in exchange for things like money or alcohol
- engaging in dangerous or life-threatening sexual behaviour, like strangling
- engaging younger or more vulnerable children in sexual activity
- bribing, manipulating, blackmailing or coercing others to engage in sexual behaviour like oral sex or penetration with objects
- using sexually explicit language to intimidate others
- watching pornography so much that it interferes with other activities or watching violent, sexual aggressive or illegal pornography
- taking and sharing photos or videos of sexual acts involving themselves or others without consent.
Teenagers aged 15-17 years might behave in sexually harmful ways for many reasons. For example, it might happen because they:
- have been exposed to pornography or adult sexual activity and are re-enacting what they’ve seen
- are experiencing child sexual abuse or other forms of child abuse
- find it hard to manage their emotions.
Teenagers who have learning difficulties and disorders or difficulties with impulse control, social skills or rules can also be more vulnerable to engaging in harmful sexual behaviour.
At this age, if your child is engaging in harmful sexual behaviour with a younger child, it could be considered a criminal offence.
Getting help for harmful sexual behaviour
If you’ve noticed your child engaging in harmful sexual behaviour or you’re worried that they are, it’s a good idea to seek support and professional help.
A GP is a good place to start. The GP can refer you to an experienced health professional who can help you understand what’s happening and how you can help your child.
Harmful sexual behaviour in children can be distressing. You can get support by contacting helplines and specialist services.