Gender based bullying and Sexual Violence

An issue that we at respectme  have talked about many times in recent years arose again this year.  Various events and media, coverage saw the term ‘Sexual Bullying’  being used to describe a lot of very concerning behaviour.  I first responded to this particular ‘umbrella term’ several years ago (2009) following an article in The TESS – this is the letter

Your article “Sex pest boys are not only targeting girls, but teachers too” (March 27) opens by referring to the practice of “sexual bullying”.

This term is being used increasingly across the country and it is important to give the view of respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service on this. We believe people need to be careful when using this term. Sexually aggressive behaviour should be seen as just that. While there may be elements of this conduct that could be seen as bullying based on gender, what you described is sexually aggressive and inappropriate.

Using the term “sexual bullying” may well dilute sexually-aggressive behaviour or harassment to the status of “just another type of bullying” and, sadly, we know not everyone takes bullying seriously.

The converse side is that it elevates bullying to the same status as sexual harassment and sexual assault, which is not always the case.

We know the solutions to these behaviours can be very different. We must ensure that our children and young people understand that sexually aggressive behaviour and bullying are completely unacceptable, and that the consequences of taking part in either can be serious – without confusing the two.

This was discussed by the then Scottish Anti-Bullying Steering Group and it was agreed that this was the approach we would take in Scotland. Colleagues in LGBT Youth Scotland also felt to include Homophobia under the term ‘sexual bullying’ was reductive; being gay or lesbian is not about ‘sex’. Guidance from other parts of the UK includes homophobia on almost every occasion they define ‘sexual bullying’.

I have also read in another piece of guidance that a boy putting his hands up a girl’s skirt and touching her can also be sexual bullying, I am of the opinion this is in fact a sexual assault.

Some other organisations have given us even more concerning definitions that state, and I quote, ‘Sexual bullying in its most extreme form can be sexual assault or rape’.(

I strongly believe that this is an unhelpful and potentially dangerous road to go down. Bullying and rape is not the same thing. If we are looking for schools to discuss rape and sexual assault and sexual abuse under the umbrella of anti-bullying we run the risk of diluting this very serious behaviour.

Rapists are not bullying their victims, they rape them and they abuse them. Predatory males do not bully children they manipulate and abuse them – framing this abuse as bullying is, as I stated, reductive.

The Daily Telegraph also informed us this year that ‘15 children a day are excluded from school for sexual bullying’ – now while the behaviours described are concerning and rightly need to be addressed, 15 pupils a day were excluded for a range of behaviours including, lewd behaviour, sexual abuse, assault, bullying, daubing sexual graffiti, and sexual harassment. This also includes ‘sexting’, behaviour which is largely consensual but can and does spiral out of control. I suppose a headline informing parents that 15 children a day are excluded for a range of inappropriate sexualised behaviour isn’t quite as snappy.

Gender-based bullying and gender-based violence is a real problem for our children and young people. Children are bullied because they do not conform to gender norms, because they don’t dress the way others feel that’s how boys or girls should dress. Or that they are or are perceived to be gay or lesbian, this is still about gender, identity and norms. Or sadly, they believe that as males, they can treat the women in their life as objects and with a lack of respect.

Many of these behaviours can lead to violence and abuse – it can be a pattern that escalates, it can lead to manipulation and control, something many girls especially experience.

I have shared this thinking with colleagues from a range of services, from The Violence Reduction Unit, The Police, LGBT Youth Scotland, Zero Tolerance, NSPCC and Local Authorities and we plan to take this forward in the coming months and find a coherent and consistent way of talking about gender based-bullying and its links to violence and abuse.

None of us feel ‘sexual bullying’ is an accurate or helpful term but want to ensure we highlight the work being done and the work that needs to be done on gender roles, gender based violence, domestic violence and on sexually aggressive behaviour. If we lump all of this behaviour together we may find it harder to find solutions and things can become blurred as a result. This is not to minimise the link but the language we choose is very important. We need to be clear what behaviour we are talking about and not try to find catch all terms that may be convenient or media friendly.  

There is, I believe, a link between gender based bullying and sexual violence and that we should look to intervene effectively with gender based bullying as it may reduce the risk of violence. When I was delivering training in Austria last month, the delegates included several therapists and social work staff who work with the victims of sexual abuse. They found the term ‘sexual bullying’ very confusing – it would not occur to them to equate or talk about gender based bullying and sexual abuse or assault in the same way.

The day we start to think about rape or sexual assault as a type of bullying is a day when we will have really lost our focus. These are violent crimes and should be viewed as such – bullying is about relationships, relationships that are not respectful and anti-bullying work can help reduce the impact of this and help repair relationships and build respect. Can anti-bullying work underpin approaches and support work on sexual violence? I believe it can. Is sexual assault and sexual violence bullying? Absolutely not, it is much more serious than that.


Brian Donnelly

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