What Is Sexual Bullying and Why Do Kids Engage in It?

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Sexual bullying is a growing issue that impacts people of all ages, but is especially prevalent among teens and young adults. Left unaddressed, it can escalate and lead to more serious issues like sexual harassment and even sexual assault.

In general, sexual bullying is a form of bullying that occurs when an individual or a group of individuals harass others through comments and actions that are sexual in nature. What’s more, sexual bullying can occur online or in person.

Overview

A tween or teen on the receiving end of sexual bullying is likely to be bullied, gossiped about, teased, insulted, cyberbullied, ignored, ostracized, shamed, and intimidated. Unlike physical bullying, sexual bullying can be difficult to spot because it does not usually leave a visible mark. 

Sexual bullying often happens when no adults are around, so parents and educators should regularly talk to kids about what constitutes appropriate treatment of others. When teens are victims of sexual bullying, they need ample opportunities to talk about the situation.

Be patient and listen. Sexual bullying is extremely painful and often embarrassing for a young person.

Prevalence

A survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment found that when teens experience sexual harassment and sexual bullying early in life, they often do not tell anyone about it. Yet, the prevalence of these types of experiences is significant. In fact, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime.

Meanwhile, a national survey conducted by Harvard found that 87% of respondents 18 to 25 years old had been a victim of sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime. Of those who were surveyed, 55% had experienced catcalling, 52% had a stranger say something sexual to them, and 41% had been touched without permission by a stranger.

Of course, the #MeToo movement has encouraged people to be more forthcoming about what they have experienced, but there is still a tendency, especially among young people, to keep quiet about what they are going through due to shame and embarrassment. Parents and educators need to not only be aware of the issue but also discuss the importance of respectful treatment.

Examples

Sexual images, jokes, language, and comments are called inappropriate for a reason. As a result, if something 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:

  • Calling someone sexually explicit and derogatory names
  • Forwarding sexually explicit text messages and inappropriate pictures via text or e-mail
  • Engaging in slut-shaming, public shaming, or cyberbullying that is sexual in nature
  • Grabbing someone’s clothing or brushing up against them in a purposefully sexual way
  • Impersonating other people online and making sexual comments or offers on their behalf
  • Making comments about someone’s sexual preference or sexual activity
  • Making sexual gestures to someone
  • Making sexual jokes or comments about someone
  • Participating in catcalling or harassment of someone
  • Posting sexual comments, pictures, or videos on social media sites like Instagram or SnapChat
  • Sending sexually explicit text messages and pictures via text message, also known as sexting, and/or pressuring someone to participate in sexting to show commitment or love
  • Sharing inappropriate sexual videos or pictures
  • Spreading sexual rumors or gossip in person, by text, or online
  • Touching, grabbing, or pinching someone in a deliberately sexual way
  • Writing sexual comments about someone in blogs, on bathroom stalls, or in other public places

Why Kids Bully Others Sexually

There are a number of reasons why kids participate in sexual bullying. 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.

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.

These actions allow 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.

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, teens will sexually bully others to gain acceptance from their peers or to give the appearance that they are sexually experienced.

Or, they may focus on bullying others by calling them sexually explicit names in an effort to diminish their social status.

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 others 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.

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 their own developing body or sexuality and will attack others before they have a chance to attack them.

Remove the Competition

Many times, teens will sexually bully another person simply because of jealousy. Perhaps they feel the person is more attractive, smarter, or more popular. Whatever the reason, kids target others to make them seem less desirable.

This type of relational aggression includes things like sharing sexual secrets or spreading lies and rumors about the target’s sexual activity.

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, 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.

How to Prevent Sexual Bullying

Although sexual bullying is not frequently talked about by young people, it is stunningly prevalent in school classrooms and hallways, in the media and music they consume, and on college campuses. It's not just an adult issue that happens in workplaces or on the streets. Young people are wrestling with these issues on a regular basis.

Because sexual bullying can escalate to sexual harassment and even sexual assault, it's paramount that parents and educators make efforts to create a climate where sexual bullying is recognized as disrespectful and inappropriate. Here are some ways in which sexual bullying can be prevented.

Define the Problem

According to the Make Caring Common Project, nearly 80% of the survey respondents reported that they had never had a conversation with parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others. For this reason, parents and educators need to start by asking kids how they would define sexual harassment, sexual bullying, and misogyny.

From there, you can help fill out the rest of their definition. Be sure they know what is appropriate and what isn't without talking down to them. Most kids are more in tune than they might let on, so be sure you are respectful in your treatment of the topic.

Avoid lecturing, and instead try to engage them in a conversation about the issue about what constitutes healthy friendships and healthy dating relationships.

Have Regular Discussions

One of the best ways to prevent inappropriate behavior and create a climate where sexual bullying is not tolerated among teens is to keep the issue at the forefront of their minds. Regular discussions can remind kids that teasing and bullying others with sexual comments and gestures is not only inappropriate and disrespectful but also frowned upon.

Keep the conversations casual and allow teens to do most of the talking. At school, teachers can use classroom lessons to open dialogue about the issue. For instance, a history class discussion about the women's movement and the right to vote could serve as a springboard about discussions about how people treat one another.

At home, parents can use television shows or songs to talk about how the characters or the performers are behaving toward or talking about one another. Just be sure to allow your teen plenty of space to share their views and talk about what they are seeing at school. These comments can serve as gateways to deeper conversations.

Make Reporting Safe

One of the biggest issues with sexual bullying and harassment is the fact that teens often keep it to themselves. When this happens, the problem just continues to grow. Kids count on others not saying anything or doing anything about their behavior.

But, if parents and educators make it easier for people to report sexual bullying not only when they experience it but also when they see it, the issue will begin to dissipate.

Allow kids a number of safe ways to report what is happening to them. For instance, allow kids to report things anonymously if they prefer, including reporting teachers who are crossing the line. And, if they do have the courage to talk to you directly, listen and be empathetic. Most importantly, make sure that you believe them and take it seriously.

Also give them some say in how the situation is handled. Some kids just want you to know what they are experiencing but don't want to draw attention to the situation. As long as the behavior they experienced is not against the law, allow them some say in how the situation is handled. Doing so empowers kids to speak up when something is not right without fear of retaliation or drawing attention to themselves.

Build Self-Worth and Self-Esteem

Teens who are dependent on romantic relationships and peer approval may be particularly vulnerable to sexual bullying and harassment because they rely on others for their sense of self-worth and value. For this reason, it's particularly important that parents and educators provide healthy ways for teens to build their self-esteem.

Whether that means volunteering, playing sports, or joining a school club, kids need other outlets that help shape their identity rather than just relying on what their peers say or how many likes they get on Instagram for their selfies. Positive feedback and regular encouragement also can help kids begin to see what their strengths are.

A Word from Verywell

Talking to your kids about sexual bullying is important. Not only do kids need to be equipped with basic safety ideas like knowing when to speak up, but they also need to know that sexual bullying can lead to sexual assault.

Be sure you also are teaching your kids what consent means, how to set boundaries, and not to keep secrets. By having regular conversations with your kids, you are taking the first step in not only keeping them safe but helping to de-stigmatize the issue of sexual bullying. 

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stop Street Harassment. National studies.

  2. Make Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education. The talk: How adults can promote young people’s healthy relationships and prevent misogyny and sexual harassment.

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