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.

Sexual Bullying

Once again, I can turn to the UK for progressive thinking on issues that matter to me — for example, they have been way ahead of the US in terms of developing curricula on cyberbullying and the grooming techniques of online predators. Now, they are starting to acknowledge that bullying using sexual content deserves specific mention. The BBC published an article on “sexual bullying,” which they simply define as “anything from sexualised name-calling to spreading rumours about someone’s sexual behaviour, to criminal offences such as assault and rape.” A UK-based online news site noted that 3500 students were expelled from school for sexual misconduct and that teachers were among the victims. Although this coverage on sexual bullying does not reference the internet specifically, I think it is an important step to separately consider bullying of a sexual nature from other types of harassment.

The BBC article focuses on a very basic survey of 273 11-19 year-olds (this is a PDF of the results in their entirety). While the sample size is too small and age range too large to really make anything of it, its presence makes me optimistic that more attention will be paid to it in the future. And maybe sexual bullying online will also begin to get notice. I have complained about the lack of connection between cyberbullying and sexuality before. Perhaps this connection will be made more often at least across the pond, if not here.