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.

Cyberbullying and sexuality

In converstations and presentations, I have often remarked on how in coverage of cyberbullying, the sexual component is often ignored — yet it is an integral part of this phenomenon. Another example of how cyberbullying and sexuality often go hand in hand is the story featured in the San Jose Mercury News this week about a “practical joke” in which classmates placed an ad in a 15-year-old’s name soliciting sex with men, listing his home phone number. They also hacked into his MySpace profile, changing his orientation to “gay.” The boy and his family received a ton of phone calls and the boy himself ended up dropping out of school over the incident.

The article in the Mercury chooses to focus on cyberbullying in general, why it happens (the anonymity effect), and how this type of bullying leaves a “paper trail” making it easy to catch those who do it. But the sex conversation is lost, even though the other example given concerned a “slut list” of 23 girls created on MySpace by San Jose middle school students.

At the Sex Tech Conference this week, I hope to convey the message that talk about cyberbullying and online safety cannot be done without explicitly talking about sex and sexuality. They are so intertwined — why is sex not entering the conversation? Well, we know why — because sex talk is avoided whenever possible. But if we are to create effective interventions around healthy internet use, this disconnect needs to end.