The desexualization of bullying

I was going to try to come up with a fancier more accessible title, but I can’t right now. But I sure better by May! I’ve been invited to speak at an bullying awareness event in Austin Texas this May. While I jumped at this opportunity to share my work (and support my friend who is organizing the event), I quickly realized that I am no bullying expert. But, for better or for worse, not being a total expert on a topic as not stopped me before…

I am an expert on adolescent sexuality and sexual development. I also have a pretty good handle on youth and technology and how that impacts their development (hence, this blog). So, how to use my strengths in the context of this upcoming event? Tie all of these issues together — sexuality, technology, and bullying. I have found my comfort zone!

What’s odd is that while so much of bullying has a sexual undertone or is blatantly about sex or sexuality or at least gender, most bullying curricula, anti-bullying campaigns, etc., do not acknowledge this important association. Bullying is seen as harassment, teasing, isolation, and assault. But under no circumstances should one put the word “sexual” in front of any of those terms and call it bullying.

Why this separation? Why not discuss sexual harassment while discussing bullying? Where is the conversation about sexual respect and self-worth in curricula that addresses the need to be nice to others? Are (anti) bullying experts afraid to talk about sex? Does it complicate things too much? Does it narrow their message?

Whatever the reason, I think it’s important to accept the fact that a lot of bullying has to do with sexuality. An obvious example is about name-calling due to sexual orientation and/or gender expression (and the “Think Before You Speak” campaign does a good job of calling this out). But what about sexting under pressure? Spreading rumors? Calling someone a ho or slut? These are unfortunately very common ways to bullying another, but where’s the conversation about the sexual components?

I hope to be able to speak more eloquently about this topic in the future. For now, I will continue to explore this rift and see if I can’t begin to bridge the gap between my interests and the important work done to decrease bullying among youth.

Virtual Today, Reality Tomorrow

The cover story of my alumni rag, The Stanford Magazine, gives us a sneak peek into how researchers there are investigating the effects of online interactions and subsequent IRL behaviors. Example: people who were assigned more attractive avatars on a mock online dating site were more likely to approach more attractive people in a real-life interaction later on. Conclusion? We looked good during the online encounter and therefore our confidence increased; that confidence continued into our physical world existence and behaviors. Crazy, huh?

Here’s something a little more creepy. Dr. Nick Yee, a researcher at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has noted that the virtual world of Second Life tends to be an exaggerated, stereotypical version of the one we currently live in. And the avatars tend to reflect “an overemphasis on looking stereotypically good.” The implications? Gender stereotypes and expectations of beauty are reinforced, not challenged. Uh-oh. I know I am guilty of this. My avatar in Second Life (a total noob, but she is out there once in a Blue Moon) is sexy and cute, and she could just as easily be the opposite. But it’s hard to do something like that. I don’t think I would enjoy walking around looking less than spectacular. That may say something — a lot — about who I am, but I am by no means alone. I want to look good and Second Life offers me that option.

This work piggybacks on previous research that states that youth tend to engage in online pretending more to create an ideal self — a slightly exaggerated version of who they already are — not to reinvent themselves. So, if they create an ideal self, will they become it? Stay tuned. There’s more work to be done.