Sexuality is one of the last havens for prejudice in society, and so it’s no surprise that much of the bullying our youth experience revolves around sexual issues. The topic of sexual bullying deserves some special attention, in part because it’s generally the most common subject for bullying, and also because it’s the one avenue of bullying that adults are the most responsible for creating. It can also be especially severe in nature. It tends to be relentless, and often escalates towards more severe attacks than other types of bullying. Most of all, sexual bullying is especially destructive. Quite literally, it can have life or death consequences for the youngsters who experience it. Whenever a gay youth kills themselves or a child who isn’t gay ends their life after years of taunting about their sexuality, we all share responsibility for that death, because we’ve all helped create the environment that allows this prejudice to flourish.
This chapter will explore the scope of sexual bullying in Western society, and also outline how we as adults are responsible for the proliferation of this disturbing form of child abuse. We hope that readers will have the courage to approach this information with an open mind – challenging your assumptions and considering the evidence for the sake of making the world a less-hostile place for our kids. After all, if we don’t start working towards fixing this problem, it might just be your child who is the next in line to die because of the sexual torment we encourage as a society. And children don’t have to be members of a stigmatized group themselves to die from sexual prejudice. Heterosexual youth get caught up in sexual bullying just as often as those whose sexual orientation actually is different.
The scope of sexual bullying in Western culture
As discussed in chapter 2 regarding the reasons kids are bullied, bullying frequently revolves around sexual issues. Of the top 3 most common subjects of bullying, two directly revolve around sexuality, and the third mostly does:
- Sexuality or sexual identity (real or implied)
- Gender traits or behaviors (taunting a child for being too effeminate or not conforming to expected gender roles)
- Teasing a child about their looks or appearance (which usually involves taunting related to issues of sexual attractiveness: donkey lips, tiny tits, bubble butt, etc.)
In other words, most of the bullying that occurs in our schools revolves around sexual matters or utilizes attacks that are directed at injuring a child through sexual shame. Youth may use sexual identity issues as a reason to bully (so and so is gay; so and so seems like they might be), or they may use sexuality as the weapon, attacking students they don’t like through teasing or abuse of a sexual nature.
Types of Sexual Bullying
Sexual bullying can manifest itself in several different forms:
Bullying over sexual orientation (real or imagined)
Bullying a victim over their sexual orientation – whether that orientation is real or something dreamed up by a child’s peers – is one of the most common types of sexual bullying. Every openly gay or lesbian youth will experience ongoing harassment from their peers, and millions of other kids who are heterosexual but labeled as gay will also face bullying and teasing about their sexual preferences. One teen girl describes a common scenario, highlighting the taunting her classmate endures: “Everyone assumes that George is gay, just because he isn’t some macho male. He sings and dances in the school plays, and he is kind and gentle. But for years he has been teased and taunted by other kids at school because they think he’s gay. He’s not, but it hurts him to have to deal with it.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. 91)
Bullying over sexual appearance
Taunting a child about their sexual appearance is probably the most common type of sexual bullying. It comes in an endless variety, but generally involves the same basic script: picking out an aspect of a child’s physical appearance and then making fun of how that trait relates to their sexual appearance or attractiveness:
- “If someone were to have sex with Emily, he’d have to put a bag over her head just to keep his boner.”
- “There’s nothing wrong with Kate’s body…so long as you’re a guy who’s attracted to 10-year-old boys. I bet Kate’s got all sorts of weird Uncles chasing after her…”
- “With that complexion, kissing Pete would be like making out with a vile of herpes.”
- “Why do you even wear a bra, Jessi, it’s not like there’s anything there to cover.”
- “Look at those chicken legs. With legs like that, Mariah, I wouldn’t suggest wearing skirts.”
- “It’s hard for Elisa to find a boyfriend. There just aren’t that many guys out there who are into bestiality.”
- “Peter’s just upset because it’s been 10 years since he’s seen his wiener, and he can’t have sex because his belly sticks out farther than his boner.”
- “They don’t make enough liquor in the world to get someone in bed with you.”
- “Who would have sex with that?”
- “Oh, I’m sorry, Starla doesn’t wear swimsuits or go to the beach. The last time she did, authorities thought she was a beached whale and kept trying to roll her back into the water.”
Whatever form it takes, these insults are usually part of an ongoing pattern, and attack a child’s sexual identity where they are most insecure and in ways that cut deep. We’ve encountered many adults who were still struggling to overcome these messages about themselves decades later.
Bullying over sexual experience
Boys face taunting about being virgins whereas girls are more likely to be called sluts or whores. Once again, whether this taunting is based on actual experiences or imagined from thin air makes no difference. You can also see how sexually neurotic messages pushed by culture are guiding the bullying behaviors of youth (male sexuality is valued and celebrated whereas female sexual experience is devalued, stigmatized, or makes a girl a “slut”). Kids may also spread rumors alleging that certain kids have STD’S, or that one girl had sex with the entire basketball team in the locker room after the game.
Bullying over sexual practices
I heard that Michelle likes to put peanut butter on her p***y and have her dog lick it off. Adam goes home and jacks off every night to pictures of farm animals. Janie once had sex with a homeless guy. I heard that Rebecca prefers to take it in the ass. Offended? Imagine how these insults and accusations feel to a sexually insecure teen. These are just some of the tamer insults that are commonplace among teens and older tweens, who have learned from their culture that sexual experiences – especially those that may be unusual or atypical – are a shameful, evil thing that should be used to humiliate others. Once such an allegation or rumor is created, it often becomes a topic of repeated bullying against the child, with bullies cracking jokes or making allusions to the rumor.
Bullying through sexual humiliation
Embarrassing a child by de-pantsing them in the gym; spreading nude photos of a girl as a means of humiliating her; having a girl pretend to like a boy and flirt with the teen online, encouraging him to talk dirty or have text-sex, then spreading those texts around to embarrass him. These are just some of the tactics used to bully by means of sexual humiliation.
Bullying over gender non-conformity
Boys and girls whose behavior doesn’t fit in perfectly with social sex stereotypes about what boys or girls should be are frequently targeted for harassment. Girls who are tomboy’s or boys who are highly sensitive and would rather do theatre than sports may find themselves constantly harassed by peers for a sexual identity that is “weird” or “off.”
Sexually related teasing or name-calling
“If she’s over twelve, your daughter has almost certainly been called a slut and/or bitch by other girls. And she has almost certainly called other girls a slut and/or bitch (that you have never heard these words our of your daughter’s mouth is immaterial).”
– Rosalind Wiseman (2009, p.112)
Have you ever noticed how many insults and derogatory names have a sexual origin to them? This isn’t a coincidence – it’s a direct result of our cultural attitudes and our elevation of sexuality (see the next sections). We all learn to associate these feelings with negative messages and destructive meaning…therefore sexually-based derogatory names make for the best insults, since they tap into this inner shame and vulnerability. Calling others a d*ck, c**t, fa**ot, pu**y, numb*uts, douche*ag, and on and on; sexual insults form the majority of all insults.
Bullying through sexual harassment
Sexual harassment most often emerges out of bullying that attacks a child’s sexual identity. For example, a kid others assume is gay may receive harassment from same sex peers who pinch his buttocks, grab his crotch or poke him in the rear with objects as a means of taunting him. This is usually accompanied by denigrating statements such as “Yeah, you like taking it up the ass, don’t you.” A girl may have boys fondle her while enduring brags about how they’ll “make her straight” or “cure her” of her desire for girls. Or she may experience similar behaviors from other girls that a gay boy might experience. Such behaviors may also emerge during heterosexual taunting, either as a way to annoy or exert power over another child, or to taunt a girl about being a “slut.”