The Sensoa Flag System uses 6 criteria that allow you to assess sexual behaviour more objectively. The criteria also help you promote discussion around the behaviour and respond to it appropriately. Based on your assessment, you then assign a flag to the behaviour or situation.
The six criteria are:
- Mutual consent
- Voluntary engagement
- Level of development or functioning
What are the 6 criteria of the Sensoa Flag System?
1. Mutual consent
Sexual behaviour is okay if all involved clearly agree and feel comfortable.
Agreeing can be explicit (e.g. verbal consent) or implicit (e.g. flirting back). It is important that everyone understands what is being proposed as well as the consequences. Consent can therefore only be given in a voluntary situation.
"I feel okay and I can say it if there's something that I don't want."
"I ask the other persons if they feel OK."
"If my partner doesn't want something, I have to respect that."
Some areas for consideration:
- Not saying 'no' or not resisting does not mean that you consent.
- Consent is often given non-verbally.
- Consent can be withdrawn at any time, even without reason.
- You ask for consent before displaying sexual behaviour and not afterwards.
- It is impossible to give consent if the behaviour takes you by surprise.
- Sometimes someone consents to 'avoid worse'. It may feel to that person as if refusing might just lead to rape or violence.
- It is difficult to assess the criterion of 'consent' for persons with limited language skills and understanding of language. In that case, you should have an even more careful conversation with the spersons involved, so that you avoid suggestive questions and socially desirable answers. Make it clear that you will not get angry and that you will try to discuss the incident as openly as possible.
Supplement the discussions with observations, preferably at the moment itself, but also once it is over. Are there indications that the person feels uncomfortable, is there any indication of trauma?
Always keep as open a perspective as possible: it is also possible that the person consented. Try to find out what may have gone wrong, or if there were any unclear or absent signals involved. This indicates underlying learning needs that you can address.
2. Voluntary engagement
Sexual behaviour is okay if there is no pressure or coercion.
Voluntary engagement means no one is forced, persuaded or pressurised.
Involuntary sexual behaviour includes:
- subtle coercion and pressure: persuading someone to have sex or manipulations of which a person is not aware until later;
- rewards and promises, e.g. money or promotion;
"I only do it because I want it myself. Not for a reward, to please anyone or to avoid them getting angry."
"I may not insist on a kiss from my playmate if they don't want to."
Some areas for consideration:
Subtle forms of pressure and coercion are not always noticeable. That's why it's always best to question those involved: they are often best placed to assess the situation.
Someone may also consent to avoid a negative or angry reaction. This often happens when someone has had a similar bad experience in the past.
Sexual behaviour is okay if all involved are equal.
We speak of equality when all involved are of equal worth. There is no great difference in number (between those involved), authority, power, (work) experience, intelligence, age, physical, cognitive or emotional development. When there is an imbalance of power, it can be abused.
"I don't abuse my power or authority."
"There's no abuse of my dependency."
Some areas for consideration:
If there is doubt about equality, it is best to also question consent and voluntary engagement.
If an adult is involved in the situation, they are responsible. There is always an inequality between an adult and a child or young person. It is important that the adult does not abuse that structural inequality. Even with the young person's consent and voluntary engagement, sexual behaviour with an adult is never okay because it can be damaging to the young person.
For some children and adolescents, there is a difference between their chronological age and their developmental level. For example, some children and young people with autism are at a much younger emotional developmental level.
People with disabilities or who are dependent on someone else in power are often less heard, less believed and less taken seriously. So it is important for people in positions of power to be vigilant for possible privilege and discrimination against persons in lower positions.
4. Appropriate to the level of development and functioning
Children and young people:
Sexual behaviour is okay if it fits a certain age or developmental stage.
What behaviour to expect at what age. The Developmental Chart helps you assess this criterion by viewing and evaluating children's and young people's behaviour from their developmental level.
"I only do things that I am not too old or too young for."
"My behaviour fits my age or developmental stage."
Bear in mind:
Children develop gradually and not everyone develops at the same pace. There are different aspects to development, such as: emotional, cognitive and physical development. Do you notice differences between those aspects? Then there may be a disharmonious development profile.
Sexual behaviour is okay if it fits the level of functioning.
With adults, we assume that they know the prevailing social rules ánd are able to abide by them. These are manners within a society that everyone knows and applies. If that is the case, the level of functioning is OK. If the person does not observe the social rules, we judge the level of functioning as not okay.
There may also be underlying reasons why the person's functioning level is questioned. Such as: depression, a manic episode, burnout, substance abuse, such as alcohol and drugs, trauma or a disability.
"I am a competent adult, I am accountable and have sufficient self-regulation and am able to assess whether this behaviour is okay for me or others."
"I can vouch for the consequences of my actions."
Some areas for consideration:
Not every adult goes through the same emotional and sexual journey in life. There are obvious similarities, but there can also be major differences.
Do you doubt whether the sexual behaviour fits the moment in their life's journey? Then it is important to support the person in order to better assess:
- What that person can handle;
- What is okay for the person's level of functioning level and carrying capacity;
- What specific support is needed to overcome obstacles.
Sometimes your own fears and prejudices take over and you see problems rather than possibilities or opportunities. This is why it's important not to speak on behalf of someone else and ask the question: is someone capable, at this moment in time and in this context, of exhibiting this specific behaviour without a problem?
Whenever people are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, this puts pressure on the criteria of the Flag System.
Alcohol and drugs may give an offender more nerve. People who are under the influence are quicker to assess signals as consent and are less aware of their own behaviour. This is not a mitigating circumstance: the transgressive behaviour remains just as serious.
If a victim is under the influence, it may be more difficult to notice their boundaries and indicate them. Under heavy intoxication, it is not possible to voluntarily give consent: at that moment, the level of functioning is also under pressure.
Were drugs or alcohol used? If so, check if the persons involved were still able to think clearly or whether they were still able to control their behaviour, when you consider the severity of the behaviour. If one or more criteria are not clear or not okay, the behaviour is transgressive.
Also take account of alcohol or drug use in your response. Include it in the learning needs of the offender: do you understand the impact of alcohol or drug use? What can help you to keep use under control? How do you as a person deal with other people who have used drugs? How do you assess whether others are still able to give consent?
It is not the intention of the system that green flags are impossible to achieve. Functioning level concerns functioning during the incident: does the person know the social rules and has this person observed those rules? If so, the functioning level is okay, even where persons have additional learning needs.
5. Context appropriate
Sexual behaviour is okay if the behaviour is appropriate to the situation and circumstances.
Healthy sexual behaviour always occurs in a context that is generally socially acceptable, with privacy for all involved.
For example, in a public place where others are present, the rules of public decency apply. Those rules apply to baring genitals and breasts; and the display of explicit sexual behaviour such as gestures, words, movements and drawings. In intimate circles or in privacy, where you do not disturb anyone, the context for that behaviour may be OK.
"Does the behaviour fit this situation, is there enough privacy?"
"No one can be offended by my behaviour."
Some areas for consideration:
In a culturally diverse society, people have different norms. As a result, views on sexual behaviour can vary widely.
What is context-appropriate is also place- and time-dependent. For instance, you can walk around at home naked, but what if the postal worker rings the doorbell or if you did so on the street?
Draw up a code of conduct as an organisation. That way it is clear to everyone what behaviour is appropriate within the work context.
There are differences of opinion about what is appropriate behaviour for certain contexts. In a sauna, there are specific rules around touching and staring, but does everyone know these rules? Some professionals find any space outside a bedroom unacceptable for displaying sexual behaviour, while others are of the opinion that a bicycle shed or the bushes can also be exciting places for young people and adults to have sex.
Online, for example on social media, the distinction between private and public is not always clear. It is often difficult to control. Sharing racy private images and information without consent often feels very transgressive, as it has a very wide reach in an online context.
Sexual behaviour is okay if those involved do not harm themselves and others physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Sexually transgressive behaviour can involve harm. That harm can be physical (e.g. wounds, injuries), psychological (e.g. shame, fear) or social (e.g. isolation).
You can also harm yourself if you yourself overstep someone's boundaries. You risk a complaint, reputational damage, guilt or it can damage your relationship.
There can be a negative impact even if you had no intention to harm. When you display sexually transgressive behaviour and intentionally harm a person, the impact will be more severe.
There are a number of factors that exacerbate the negative impact:
- Intensity/intimacy: is the behaviour verbal or non-verbal? Is it about intimate touching? The more intimate the behaviour, the more serious the impact.
- Frequency: if the unwanted behaviour occurs multiple times, the impact is more serious.
- Fear: if the victim experiences fear, the impact is more severe.
- Reach: how many people are involved and aware of the sexually transgressive behaviour? If many people are involved, the impact may be more serious. For example, because they also take part in the sexually transgressive behaviour.
"Am I not harming myself or others, are there no negative consequences to be expected?"
"The behaviour does not involve major risks or result in physical, emotional or social harm to anyone involved."
Some areas for consideration:
Psychological or social damage can sometimes occur later due to rejection, humiliation, shame, guilt, exclusion, bullying or risk of retaliation.
We sometimes wrongly expect some groups to have no need for sexuality and intimacy, for example, people with disabilities or the elderly. Denying them sexuality can lead to negative consequences.
People sometimes consciously choose to take a risk, out of a particular need. Taking a risk can sometimes be a growth opportunity and does not always have to be negative, therefore. For example, online flirting can have a negative impact according to many, but the risk can just as easily turn out to be positive. So we should not judge every situation negatively beforehand just because there may be a risk involved.
How do you assess the criteria in a situation?
You take these steps when interpreting, assessing and responding to the drawings on the situation cards:
- What can you see?
- Who is doing what? Who are we judging? You can additionally look at and evaluate the other perspectives.
- Go through and substantiate each criterion.
- Score each criterion:
- +: the criterium is okay.
- +/-: the criterion is questionable, slightly exceeded or is okay for some people involved and not for others.
- -: the criterion is not okay.
- ?: there is insufficient information. You don't know.
- N/A: not applicable.
5.Based on the assessment of the criteria, assign a flag to the situation or to the behaviour:
- Behaviour is assigned a green flag when all the criteria are totally okay. We rate the behaviour as normal sexual behaviour.
- A situation is given a yellow, red or black flag if one or more criteria are not OK.
We give a yellow flag to mild sexually transgressive behaviour;
A red flag is assigned to severe sexually transgressive behaviour;
A black flag is given to very serious sexually transgressive behaviour.
The flag is not a sum of all criteria. Consider the seriousness of the behaviour rather than add up the number of criteria that are (not) OK.
How would you respond? Use the response guide to respond as a professional in the short term towards those involved.
Areas for consideration when applying the criteria
- Always assess the person's behaviour and not the person themselves.
- Assess the person's behaviour during this situation and not all other behaviour of the person.
- Always evaluate the behaviour of one person at a time. Start with the initiator or person most responsible for the behaviour; for example, the oldest, most intelligent or most active. You can then apply the criteria to the other people involved to find out how they need to adjust their behaviour or what they need to learn.
- Always go over all the criteria first, even if your gut feeling tells you it is a red or black flag. Only afterwards can you assign a flag.
- There is no fixed order to go through the criteria. The first three criteria (mutual consent, voluntary engagement, equality) do carry more weight in the assessment: assess these criteria from the perspective of all involved. When there is clearly no consent, voluntary engagement and/or equality, we speak of sexual abuse.
- Sometimes you don't have enough information to assess all the criteria. Then ask additional questions of those involved.
- Is the situation complex, or did a lot happen one after the other? Then draw up a timeline. This allows you to analyse all the successive events and assess the behaviour step by step.
- The Sensoa Flag System offers a method for developing from transgressive behaviour to healthy behaviour. The method is (ped)agogic, rather than punishing. For this reason, the legal framework is not taken into account in assessing the criteria. A person's own values and norms frameworks, such as religious values, are not taken into account in assessing the criteria and assigning a flag.
- Would you like to know more about how you can still apply the Flag System in your organisation with the necessary cultural sensitivity? Take a look at our Tips & Tricks guide.
- If, due to the intellectual disability, a person is unable to assess a situation effectively, does not realise where the boundary lies and is unaware (or to a certain extent) of the transgressive behaviour, this constitutes a mitigating circumstance. Then you weigh up the offender's intention, and this plays a role.
You also assess all criteria, equal to persons without any disability. The flag will not immediately change color in the case of repetition, because we are looking at the extent to which something can be learned by the person. People with additional learning needs require others to respond to their behaviour as consistently as possible in order for them to learn effectively.
Guiding questions per criterion as an aid
These guiding questions will help you assess the 6 criteria (1,2 MB)
TIP: print or download this overview when you go through the criteria step by step in sexual behaviour.