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

Girl is consoling her girlfriend after break up

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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. And if left unaddressed it can escalate and lead to more serious issues like sexual harassment and 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.


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. As a result, it is very important that parents talk regularly to their kids about sexual bullying and healthy sexual development. When teens are victims of sexual bullying, they need ample opportunities to talk about the situation. Be patient and listen.

Sexual Bullying

Sexual bullying is extremely painful and often embarrassing for a young person. In fact, in a survey conducted on behalf of the group, Stop Street Harassment found that teens experience sexual harassment and sexual bullying early in life, but often do not tell anyone about it.

Of course, the #MeToo movement has changed some of that. However, there is still very little data on the prevalence of sexual bullying among teens. Yet, if statistics on the number of women and men impacted by sexual bullying is any indication, it is significant.


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:

  • Calling someone sexually explicit and derogatory names
  • Forwarding sexually explicit text messages and inappropriate pictures via text or e-mail
  • Engaging in slut-shaming or public shaming 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
  • Posting sexual comments, pictures or videos on social media sites like Instagram or SnapChat
  • Pressuring someone to participate in sexting to show commitment or love
  • Sending sexually explicit text messages and inappropriate pictures via text message, also known as sexting
  • 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. 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.

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 about setting boundaries and not keeping 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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