Sexual bullying is a serious issue that needs to be tackled. Although there is no official definition, sexual bullying is a behaviour, physical or non-physical, where sexuality or gender is used as a weapon against another. Sexual bullying is any behaviour which degrades someone, singles someone out by the use of sexual language, gestures or violence, and victimising someone for their appearance. Sexual bullying is also pressure to act promiscuously and to act in a way that makes others uncomfortable.
Just like other kinds of bullying, sexual harassment can involve comments, gestures, actions, or attention that is intended to hurt, offend, or intimidate another person. With sexual harassment, the focus is on things like a person’s appearance, body parts, sexual orientation, or sexual activity.
Sexual harassment may be verbal (like making comments about someone), but it doesn’t have to be spoken. Bullies may use technology to harass someone sexually (like sending inappropriate text messages, pictures, or videos). Sometimes sexual harassment can even get physical when someone tries to kiss or touch someone that does not want to be touched.
Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen to girls. Boys can harass girls, but girls also can harass guys, guys may harass other guys, and girls may harass other girls. Sexual harassment isn’t limited to people of the same age, either. Adults sometimes sexually harass young people (and, occasionally, teens may harass adults, though that’s pretty rare). But most of the time, when sexual harassment happens to teens, it’s being done by people in the same age group.
Sexual harassment and bullying are very similar — they both involve unwelcome or unwanted sexual comments, attention, or physical contact. So why call one thing by two different names?
Sometimes schools and other places use one term or the other for legal reasons. For instance, a school document may use the term “bullying” to describe what’s against school policy, while a law might use the term “harassment” to define what’s against the law. Some behaviors might be against school policy and also against the law.
For the person who is being targeted, though, it doesn’t make much difference if something is called bullying or harassment. This kind of behavior is upsetting no matter what it’s called. Like anyone who’s being bullied, people who are sexually harassed can feel threatened and scared and experience a great deal of emotional stress.
The NSPCC has defined sexual bullying as “any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality or gender is used as a weapon by boys or girls towards other boys or girls – although it is more commonly directed at girls. It can be carried out to a person’s face, behind their back or through the use of technology.” Beatbullying has a similar definition. It can be the use of sexual words to put someone down, like calling someone a slut, a slag, or gay, or spreading rumours about someone’s alleged sex life. In its most extreme form, it can be inappropriate touching, sexual assault or even rape. Definitions and descriptions of bullying and of sexual bullying can be problematic, however. Offensive terms are often deployed in a friendly way, so the context of such exchanges is very important, and adults sometimes misinterpret them. Conversely, while much sexual bullying is overt, a great deal is not, and appears to be ordinary bullying. An example of this is the teasing by tough boys of a ‘geeky’ boy for his academic ability. What is actually happening is that the boy is being mocked for his lack of machismo, or his lack of engagement in heterosexist banter with girls or boys. Superficially, the bullying has no sexual content, but is underpinned by the aggressors staking a claim to dominance for their ‘type of boy’. (See Mac An Ghaill, 1994 and Duncan, 1999)
Any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality or gender is used as a weapon by boys or girls towards other boys or girls – although it is more commonly directed at girls. It can be carried out to a person’s face, behind their back or through the use of technology.
- Teasing or putting someone down because of:
- their sex life (e.g. because they haven’t had sex or if they’ve had sex with a number of people)
- their sexuality (e.g. making fun of someone because they are or are perceived to be homosexual)
- their body (e.g. the size of their breasts, bottom or muscles)
- Using words that refer to someone’s sexuality in a derogatory way (like calling something ‘gay’ to mean that it is not very good)
- Using sexual words to put someone down (like calling someone ‘slut’ or ‘bitch’)
- Making threats or jokes about serious and frightening subjects like rape
- Spreading rumours about someone’s sexuality and sex life – including graffiti, texts and online
- Touching parts of someone’s body that they don’t want to be touched
- Putting pressure on someone to act in a sexual way
As part of its research into sexual bullying in schools, the BBC Panorama programme commissioned a questionnaire aimed at young people aged 11–19 years in schools and youth clubs across five regions of England. The survey revealed that of the 273 young people who responded to the questionnaire, 28 had been forced to do something sexual and 31 had seen it happen to someone else. Of the 273 respondents, 40 had experienced unwanted touching. UK Government figures show that in school year 2007/8 there were 3,450 fixed period exclusions and 120 permanent exclusions from schools in England due to sexual misconduct. That equates to 19 exclusions per school day for incidents including groping and using sexually insulting language. From April 2008 to March 2009, ChildLine counselled a total of 156,729 children. Of these, 26,134 children spoke about bullying as a main concern and 300 of these talked specifically about sexual bullying. 25% of children who have attended Kidscape free ZAP anti-bullying sessions have reported some form of sexual bullying.
Who does what to whom
A survey by the UK National Union of Teachers suggests that sexual bullying is most often carried out by boys against girls, although girls are increasingly harassing girls and boys in a sexual manner. Research shows that sexual bullying starts at primary school level and usually takes the form of verbal insults by boys directed at girls and women through demeaning sexually abusive and aggressive language. A NUT study shows that these verbal insults are generally centred on girls’ sexual status including terms such as ‘bitch’, ‘slag’, ‘tart’ and ‘slut’. Other researchers cite similar evidence. These incidents are typically dismissed as playful behaviour or justified through humour, however. The research also shows that boys are also subjected to a range of sexual bullying by other boys and by girls although this is said to be less obvious. The most prevalent issue is sexual verbal abuse and being called obscene names. The names that cause most offence to boys are homophobic terms and those that are associated with the ‘absence’ of high status masculinity.
We know that disabled children and those with SEN can be particularly vulnerable to all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, and that they are disproportionately vulnerable to experiencing bullying – with devastating consequences. A report for the NSPCC also showed that children and young people with learning disabilities were overrepresented when researching children and young people that display harmful sexual behaviour.
Schools often struggle to communicate messages about appropriate sexual behaviour to children and young people – and may feel even more out of their depth when it comes to children with special educational needs or particular impairments. There may be a misconception that these children and young people are not interested in sex, or that it would be somehow inappropriate to discuss sexual matters with them – however this only serves to leave children vulnerable to bullying and abuse. Each year, significant numbers of children face exclusion from school for ‘sexual misconduct’.
Each one of these exclusions represents a failure to address harmful sexual behaviour between children and young people, and will have caused immeasurable hurt and embarrassment to the children and families involved. No parent or carer wants to find out their child has been on the receiving end of sexual misconduct, or has been accused of sexual misconduct. Schools have a duty therefore to talk about these issues, set appropriate boundaries, and to communicate appropriate behaviour in a way that meets the needs of all children and young people.
What is harmful sexual behaviour?
Let’s be clear- not all sexualised behaviour between children and young people is bullying or abuse. The Stop it now! Charity has a very useful booklet that describes healthy sexual development. They emphasise that disabled children and young people and those with SEN may develop at different rates according to their impairment; that care must be taken to educate appropriately according to their sexual development and to make sure they can communicate any worries they may have. The ABA definition of bullying includes an imbalance of power – and some children may be more vulnerable to coercion and control – a key characteristic of sexual bullying.
Stop It Now! describe harmful sexual behaviour as ranging ‘from experimentation that unintentionally goes too far, through to serious sexual assault’. They write that ‘often victims are uncomfortable or confused about what is happening and may feel that they are willingly involved, but not understand that the behaviour is harmful’. This can be exasperated for children who may find it hard to understand and communicate their feelings. This means it is vital that school staff take time to understand the context in which behaviour has taken place, the development needs of the children involved, and the nature of the relationship between those involved.
Some people, including the UK charity Beatbullying, have claimed that children are being bullied into providing ‘sexual favours’ in exchange for protection as gang culture enters inner city schools. Other anti-bullying groups and teachers’ unions, including the National Union of Teachers, challenged the charity to provide evidence of this, as they had no evidence that this sort of behaviour was happening in schools.
Examples of Sexual Bullying
Sexual images, jokes, language, and comments are called inappropriate for a reason. As a result, if it is sexual in nature and it makes the target uncomfortable, upset, embarrassed or afraid, then it is sexual bullying or harassment. Sexual bullying can include the following actions and comments:
- Making sexual jokes or comments about someone
- Making sexual gestures to someone
- Making comments about someone’s sexual preference or sexual activity
- Calling someone sexually explicit and derogatory names
- Touching, grabbing or pinching someone in a deliberately sexual way
- Grabbing someone’s clothing or brushing up against them in a purposefully sexual way
- Spreading sexual rumors or gossip in person, by text or online
- Posting sexual comments, pictures or videos on social media sites like Instagram or SnapChat
- Sending sexually explicit text messages and inappropriate pictures via text message, also known as sexting
- Pressuring someone to participate in sexting to show commitment or love
- Forwarding sexually explicit text messages and inappropriate pictures via text or e-mail
- Writing sexual comments about someone in blogs, on bathroom stalls or in other public places
- Sharing inappropriate sexual videos or pictures
- Impersonating other people online and making sexual comments or offers on their behalf
- Engaging in slut-shaming or public shaming that is sexual in nature
Why Kids Bully Others Sexually
There are a number of reasons why kids participate in sexual bullying. But, the top reasons involve improving social status within the school, envy and jealousy, a need for attention and a fear of their own developing sexuality. Here is an overview of the motivating factors for sexual bullying.
To Feel Powerful
Sometimes kids will sexually bully others when they feel weak or powerless. And sometimes kids sexually bully others because they, too, have been sexually bullied or harassed. To regain some control in their own lives, they target those who are weaker than them. This allows them to demonstrate control in their lives and feel powerful. Other times, kids have a bias toward a particular gender or lifestyle and will sexually bully others based on those beliefs.
To Appear Sexually Mature
Once kids reach adolescence, they place a lot of importance on how they look and what their peers think of them. The goal is to appear mature and accepted. As a result, they often give in to peer pressure and demands from cliques. Many times, boys, in particular, will sexually bully girls to gain acceptance from their peers or to give the appearance that they are sexually experienced. Girls, on the other hand, may focus on bullying other girls by calling them sexually explicit names in an effort to diminish a girl’s social status.
To Generate Excitement
Some sexual bullies thrive on telling a juicy story, spreading rumors or sharing negative details about another person. Mean girls, in particular, will sexually bully other girls by spreading rumors and gossip, sharing secrets or telling stories. They enjoy the attention they get from knowing something others don’t know. They also thrive on the misery of others.
To Reduce Insecurity
In many instances, sexual bullying is a cover-up for feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. For instance, a bully may feel insecure about his own developing body or sexuality and will attack others before they have a chance to attack him.
To Remove the Competition
Many times, girls will sexually bully another girl simply because they are jealous of her. Perhaps they feel she is prettier, smarter or more popular with boys. Whatever the reason, girls target another girl to make her seem less desirable to others. This type of relational aggression includes things like sharing sexual secrets or spreading lies and rumors about the target’s sexual activity.
To Mimic Others
Sometimes kids will participate in sexual bullying because of what they see others doing. They may be influenced by everything from the adults in their lives to reality television, to movies and music. Whether it is a reality television program, an older sibling, a friend, a parent or even a group of neighbors, kids often model their behavior after what is in front of them.