It’s no accident or coincidence that sexual bullying is rampant throughout American society, nor that sexuality is by far the most common topic of bullying. It’s a direct result of the environment we incubate our kids in. Every kid growing up in America learns just who the social pariahs and “bad guys” are: anyone whose sexuality differs from the rigid structure that society pretends is normal. And every bully who wants to hurt someone knows just where to attack.
Bullying feeds off of shame, intolerance, insecurity, and a focus on conformity which seeks to attack differences and punish even the slightest alteration from the norm. Our current childrearing habits promote all of these messages when it comes to sexuality. Here are just a few examples of how this translates into sexual bullying at school:
Culture causes sexual bullying by creating insecurity
As any psychologist will tell you, personal insecurity is directly linked to bullying behavior and hostility in general. So by purposefully creating this area of profound insecurity in a child’s identity, we create the motivation for the bully to sexually harass others and the festering wound for the victim to be injured through. And since we have an entire population of kids whom are just as insecure over sexuality as the next youth, many will choose to deal with this insecurity through a classic defense mechanism: they make others feel bad so that they can feel better.
Bullies will proceed to attack all those same areas of body image that parents left profoundly insecure. Youth will attack each other over issues of sexual attractiveness (or rather, their perceived lack thereof), and even kids who are not at all unattractive can experience it. Breasts too small; legs too skinny; skin tone not right; hips too wide; hips too skinny; butt too small; butt too big; penis not large enough; who could ever find you attractive with features like that . . . the list goes on and on. Since no child has received much (if any) positive reinforcement about their sexual attributes from anyone else, this area of insecurity becomes a frequent subject of bullying.
Insecurity isn’t limited to attractiveness, but extends to all aspects of a youth’s sexual identity: preferences, practices, thoughts, beliefs, etc. This opens up an awful lot of avenues to attack.
Moreover, because sexuality is a part of every child’s identity (and a particularly important and influential one at that, especially during adolescence), sexual insecurity results in a less-secure child overall. In other words, this insecurity doesn’t conveniently stay put in areas of sexuality without affecting other areas of the psyche. It leaks, lowering a child’s self-esteem overall. It’s impossible to train a child to believe that a particular aspect of themselves is horrendously evil and shameful without this affecting their psyche as a whole. Insecure children are more likely to be aggressive and hostile towards others, so this fuels bullying behavior.
Society fuels sexual bullying through shame
Psychologists have long known there is a direct link between shame and aggression, and bullying at its core is about latching onto whatever issues available to try and shame and humiliate another youth. Since parents spend the first portion of their children’s lives systematically making them ashamed and embarrassed about certain aspects of their body and especially sexual feelings in general, this casts shame over an important aspect of who they are, promoting several destructive messages:
- You should be embarrassed about the sexual areas of your body
- You should be ashamed over sexual expression
- You should be ashamed about your evil sexual thoughts
- To have any “abnormal” thoughts or experiences is a shameful thing and makes a you a pervert or outcast
- When others become aware of your sexual thoughts or activity, they will almost surely humiliate you
- It’s vulnerable to be a sexual being
Bullies take advantage of this, often carrying on the exact same patterns of abuse. Peers will make a child feel ashamed over their sexual attributes, just as parents did to them when they were younger. Insults that revolve around sexual areas of the body are carry-over of this early shaming that taught kids to hate these aspects of themselves and interpret them as dirty or repulsive. Bullies often use body shame as a weapon of humiliation – depantsing a child, using nude or intimate photos of a child to humiliate them, or turning changing sessions in the gym into a taunting session. These devastating insults are made possible primarily because we relentlessly shame a child about their body in the early years, creating the vulnerability that bullies will later exploit.
Society promotes the idea of intolerance towards sexual expression
When children are young, they are free with their affection and open about their bodies. This affection is often ambiguous and sometimes transcends into sexual realms. Which is why from a child’s earliest years, parents start to restrict a child’s affection and react in a hostile manner towards any type of touching that might remotely resemble sexual expression. Masturbation and body exploration is scolded, and God help the child who unleashes the wrath of adults should they be caught engaging in sexual play. Little girls are kept from playing alone with boys. Kissing or other types of affection between the sexes is labeled a no-no. Parents carefully monitor the type of affection children share or receive from adults, making them feel guilty about any contact which even remotely resembles sexual expression. In a number of other ways too numerous to fully explore here, we teach children to believe that sexuality is a horrendously despicable thing with life-ruining consequences, especially when it occurs outside the realm of socially-approved forms of expression.
This does more than set a child up for devastation when life fails to conform to this rigid expectation, as it will 99% of the time such inflexible expectations about life are established. It also fuels sexual intolerance. When children were young, parents shamed and punished them over these expressions while sending the message that sexuality is evil and must only occur within a rigid framework. So as they grow older, these rigid and inflexible views become solidified into their thinking, and kids do onto others what was done onto them, becoming especially intolerant themselves. They feel it is their right and duty to punish any youth whose mannerisms appear to violate this rigid idea about what is acceptable. RIGID AND INFLEXIBLE BELIEFS ARE WHAT CREATE INTOLLERANCE OF ALL TYPES.
The bullying and sexual intolerance that emerges in our schools is a direct carryover of this intolerance towards sexual expression in childhood. Adding to the problem is the fact that studies on adolescent sexual experiences (or that of humans in general) are far more varied and colorful than what is admitted to in public. This means that most youth will be easily injured by these attitudes, because the overwhelming majority of kids will have some type of thoughts and/or experience that makes them feel stigmatized, strange, or abnormal.
Our culture encourages labeling others
A side effect of sexual intolerance and the push for conformity is that it encourages young and old alike to use labels to define people. Labeling and sexual intolerance go hand in hand. Labels are born out of attempts to define complex, often ambiguous people or situations through a single identifying label. Since social attitudes of rigid sexual conformity cannot tolerate ambiguity of any kind, any person who somehow strays outside these artificial boundaries is labeled a deviant.
A girl who gets drunk and flirtatious at a party may get labeled the slut, even if she’s never had sex. The straight kid who experimented with another boy (as is quite common) gets found out and labeled the fag. He now becomes that label. A teen who says the wrong thing or somehow expresses himself in awkward ways gets labeled the pervert. He now becomes that label.
Aside from the hurt this causes, the problem with labels is that they are always an inaccurate, highly prejudicial way of looking at the world. They take one perceived trait or aspect of a person and blow it up into something that defines them. When you label someone, the person ceases to be a unique person, and instead becomes all of the negative mental representations associated with that label.
Sexual intolerance leads to this categorical thinking that results in labeling, and this in turn encourages youth who have never even met another child to nonetheless find reason to persecute them – all on account of the label they represent. Needless to say, this does a great deal to exasperate the bullying problem.
Society fuels sexual bullying by modeling such behavior
Most of all, parents and society at large model sexual bullying all the time. Adults not only condone sexual bullying by engaging in it themselves, but they expressly encourage it. Parents will bash “fags” in their home and harshly judge those accused of any sexual abnormality. Churches express open bigotry towards gays and lesbians, calling them evil individuals who will surely burn in hell. Sex-offenders are treated like the spawn of Hitler, even though 99% of them are not the violent rapists or sociopath’s we see on drama shows, but people whose various predilections or ingrained orientations result in socially-unsanctioned forms of behavior. They make great bogeymen for society to direct its prejudice against, but the reality is there are dozens of tougher issues our children face that are far more threatening to their welfare than the possibility of molestation; including such commonplace things as family substance abuse, poverty, divorce, family conflict, childhood obesity or poor parenting. (GCF, 2012) So our persecution seems to be more about sexual prejudice than concern for the welfare of kids. Then there’s the media at large, which takes great pleasure in humiliating others for any perceived sexual deviancy or indiscretion.
Kids pick up on these things, and learn that it’s not only acceptable, but an act of public service towards society, to torment someone based on any real or imagined sexual “abnormality.” Research has demonstrated that bullying tends to follow along pathways of what is considered socially acceptable. (Nansel et al., 2001) This is why in most schools, things like bullying over race are gradually declining, whereas bullying over sexuality and/or sexual appearances is ubiquitously common. This perfectly mirrors the attitudes of society at large, where open bigotry about race has been in decline, but where sexual prejudice and intolerance is just as alive and robust as it’s ever been.
Social attitudes & sexuality: The bigger picture
Sexuality is a basic aspect of life, and something that is at the forefront of an adolescent’s identity as a person. So some sexual bullying would occur regardless of what parents do. Yet there is no doubt that our childrearing habits and cultural messages make sexual bullying much, much worse than it should be. We as adults play a role in creating at least 9 cases in every 10 that occur, because we invent the messages that promote such behavior.
In his highly regarded book The Pursuit of Loneliness, psychologist Philip Slater makes what I think is a profoundly important observation for all of life. He states: “Evil is created by negation – to use the word is to extend its domain. When we reject some human trait, exile it, push it down, wall it up, and scorn it, it becomes malevolent, perverse, and vicious.” (Slater, 1976, pp. 143-144) In other words, simply by labeling something as “evil” and applying our own negative and judgmental thinking towards certain things or certain types of people, we ourselves give power to the “evils” that plague us in the world.
This point holds especially true when it comes to the issue of sexual bullying. Sexual bullying thrives because society continues to make an “evil” out of what is otherwise a natural part of our human existence, and in its natural uncorrupted state, a healthy extension of affection. In doing so, we vastly expand the scope of sexual bullying. We create additional reasons for kids to persecute one another. We give power to messages of shame, evil and perversion that bullies latch on to. We build rigid walls around sexual expression while punishing non-conformity, which extends the domain of sexual intolerance. We push ideas that encourage kids to find fault and differences with each other, rather than ideas that extend and build around our common good. We make children ashamed of their body and of who and what they are, creating faults and insults where none need exist. We expand the realm of insecurity in our kids, which makes them more vulnerable to sexual issues and suspicious of others. We vastly increase the shame children feel, which causes them pain and makes them less confident of themselves, increasing their propensity towards bullying. When all is said and done, we’ve vastly expanded the domain of sexual bullying by creating and spreading the messages that encourage this type of cruelty.