The desexualization of bullying – A deeper look at bullying’s sexual undertones

Posted on February 16, 2012

by: Kris Gowen, originally posted on Kris Gowens Blog


Kids Bullying

You Can Stop 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.


It’s your turn, what do you think we should do to change this? How has society removed Sexuality from bullying? Is this a bad thing? Comment and share your thoughts and then share this blog with someone you know.

Bully Victim Bystander

Stand Up Against Bullying



6 thoughts on “The desexualization of bullying – A deeper look at bullying’s sexual undertones

  1. “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?”

    I’m currently in social work and I agree that those are the central questions to not only bullying but, in issues around adolescents in general. Look at sex education laws and policies in schools, how could a culture that is too uncomfortable to acknowledge sexuality as a social and cultural factor which drastically impacts all of us, who is simultaneously obsessed with these same ideas, be able to look realistically at such a complicated issue as bullying? The answer is- they can’t. First we have to deconstruct the way that “reality” around teen sex and sexuality and the adverse effects that adults trying to silence that reality has on teens. Then we look at the level of bullying- when no adult will address the issue you are obsessed with, who do you turn to? Other teens, unofficial authorities, such as media. The irony is, this is not just an issue for teens. These teenagers will turn into adults and harbor the same confusion, discomfort, and silence around issues of sexuality and pass then down to their children. How are teens to develop a positive and affirming view of teen sexuality when no one in society constructs the conversation that way? How can sex be anything but taboo and cutting if it is put into the same frame for teens as sex and drugs, like having a sexuality or any sexual thoughts as a teen is deviant behavior rather than age-appropriate development? Girls are stuck in a dichotomy of slut versus virgin and both positions are not ideal perspectives for them or those they are in relationships with. Men are forced into the small box of hetero-normative masculinity and made to “prove” it just to feel valid as men. When is this discussion going to trickle down from the ivory towers to those it most effects- the youth themselves.
    We, as a society, have failed to address this part of identity development and continue to ignore it leading to an unbalanced, unhealthy, negative conversation about teen sex which excludes healthy relationships, makes female sexual desire forbidden, LGBTQ communities othered or absent, and normalizes a culture which promotes heterosexism, demonizes anything other than the virginal woman, and ignores the very real cultural implications of such poor discussions around sex and sexuality. We have to move beyond this black and white discussion of bully=bad and victim=tortured and begin to have a real dialogue about identity, self-esteem, self-worth, and coping mechanisms for the insecurity and emotional stress that come along with being a NORMAL teenager. Reprimanding a “bully” clearly is not the systemic way to address the underlying causing for children and teens being perpetually cruel to each other in unemphatic and intentional ways. There is a need to acknowledge the power youth have to be self-determined rather than try to force our decisions and views of right and wrong on them, they have to be self-efficacious and empowered about beliefs which are well founded and informed by balanced information and experiences. This is all of our issue.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response Chantelle, You make many very valid and appropriate points about the state of sex/sexuality education in this day and age. If only we had more role models like you!


  2. right on kris! it’s totally true – it makes no sense that the bullying literature and interventions make barely any mention of sexuality or gender. glad you’re pushing the envelope.

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