We've all heard a lot about bullying. But did you know that in high school (and middle school), some bullies use sexual messages or actions to make a person feel intimidated, small, or uncomfortable? This sexualized type of bullying is called sexual harassment or sexual bullying.
Here's what you need to know and what you can do if you or someone you care about is being sexually harassed or bullied.
What Are Sexual Bullying and Harassment?
Just like other kinds of bullying, sexual bullying involves comments, gestures, actions, or attention that is intended to hurt, offend, or intimidate another person. With sexual bullying, the focus is on things like a person's appearance, body parts, or sexual orientation. Sexual bullying includes spreading gossip or rumors of a sexual nature.
Sexual bullying or harassment may be verbal (like making rude comments to or about someone), but it doesn't have to be spoken. Bullies may use technology to harass someone sexually (like sending inappropriate text messages or videos). Sometimes harassment and bullying can even get physical.
Sexual bullying doesn't just happen to girls. Boys can harass girls, but girls also can harass guys, guys may harass other guys, and girls may harass other girls. Sexual harassment isn't limited to people of the same age, either. Adults sometimes sexually harass young people (and, occasionally, teens may harass adults, though that's pretty rare). Most of the time, when sexual harassment happens to teens, it's being done by people in the same age group.
Sexual harassment and sexual bullying are very similar — they both involve unwelcome or unwanted sexual comments, attention, or physical contact. So why call one thing by two different names?
Sometimes schools and other places use one term or the other for legal reasons. For instance, a school document may use the term "bullying" to describe what's against school policy, while a law might use the term "harassment" to define what's against the law. Some behaviors might be against school policy and also against the law.
For the person who is being targeted, though, it doesn't make much difference if something is called bullying or harassment. This kind of behavior is upsetting no matter what it's called. Like anyone who's being bullied, people who are sexually bullied or harassed can feel a great deal of emotional stress if the situation continues without relief.
What Behaviors Count?
Some images, jokes, language, and contact are called "inappropriate" for a reason. If a behavior or interaction makes you uncomfortable or upset, talk to a trusted adult. It may fall into the sexual harassment or bullying category.
Sexual harassment or bullying can include:
• making sexual jokes, comments, or gestures to or about someone
• spreading sexual rumors (in person, by text, or online)
• writing sexual messages about people on bathroom stalls or in other public places
• showing someone inappropriate sexual videos or pictures
• posting sexual comments, pictures, or videos on social networks like Facebook, or sending explicit text messages
• making sexual comments or offers while pretending to be someone else online
• touching, grabbing, or pinching someone in a deliberately sexual way
• pulling at someone's clothing and brushing up against them in a purposefully sexual way
This is one reason why "sexting" isn't a great idea, even if you're in a loving relationship. In some cases these messages can be considered harassment or bullying, and can bring very serious consequences. Also, messages or images you intend to be private can get into the wrong hands and be used to embarrass, intimidate, or humiliate.
Forcing another person into doing things he or she doesn't want to do, such as kissing, oral sex, or intercourse, goes beyond sexual harassment or bullying. Forcing someone to do sexual things is sexual assault or rape, and it's a crime.
Flirting or Harassment?
Sometimes people who make sexual jokes, comments, or innuendos laugh off their behavior as flirting, and you might be tempted to do the same. So what's the difference between flirting and sexual harassment?
Here are three examples of flirting versus harassment:
1. You and your crush have been flirting and you both start making jokes about people who sext. Your crush asks if you'd ever do that. You say, "No way!" With normal flirting, that's the end of it. But if your crush starts pressuring you to send sexual pictures, then it's getting into harassment territory.
2. A guy in class says your new jeans look great. That's a compliment. But if he says your new jeans make your butt look great, that's crossing the line.
3. Someone you're not attracted to asks you to go to a dance.It seems harsh to say you're not interested, so you make up an excuse. The person asks a couple more times, but eventually gets the hint. This is a normal social interaction. But if the person hits on you in a creepy way — like making references to sex or your body, sending stalkerly messages, or touching you inappropriately — that's harassment.
Some things may be awkward, but they don't count as harassment. A guy who blurts out a sex-related swearword because he spills his lunch tray isn't harassing or bullying anyone. But if someone is deliberately doing or saying sexual things that make you uncomfortable, it's probably sexual harassment.
Not sure? Ask yourself, "Is this something I wanted to happen or I want to continue happening? How does it make me feel?" If it doesn't feel right, talk to a parent, teacher, guidance counselor, or someone else you trust.
How to Handle Sexual Harassment
If you think you're being harassed, don't blame yourself. Harassers can be very manipulative. They are often good at blaming the victim — and even at making victims blame themselves. But no one has the right to sexually harass or bully anyone else, no matter what. There is no such thing as "asking for it."
There's no single "right" way to respond to sexual harassment. Each situation is unique. It often can be helpful to start by telling the person doing the harassing to stop. Let him or her know that this behavior is not OK with you. Sometimes that will be enough, but not always. The harasser may not stop. He or she might even laugh off your request, tease you, or bother you more.
That's why it's important to share what's happening with an adult you trust. Is there a parent, relative, coach, or teacher you can talk to? More and more schools have a designated person who's there to talk about bullying issues, so find out if there's someone at your school.
Most schools have a sexual harassment policy or a bullying policy to protect you. Ask a guidance counselor or principal about your school's policy. If you find the adult you talk to doesn't take your complaints seriously at first, you may have to repeat yourself or find someone else who will listen.
There's no doubt it can feel embarrassing to talk about sexual harassment at first. But that uncomfortable feeling quickly wears off after a minute or so of conversation. In most cases, telling someone sooner leads to faster results and fewer problems down the line, so it's worth it.
It can help to keep a record of the events that have happened. Write down dates and short descriptions in a journal. Save any offensive pictures, videos, texts, or IMs as evidence. That way you'll have them if your school or family has to take legal action. To avoid going through feeling upset all over again, save this evidence someplace where you don't have to see it every day.
If You See Something, Say Something
Bystanders play an important role in stopping bullying — even sexual bullying. If you see someone who is being harassed, take action. If it feels safe and natural to speak up, say, "Come on, let's get out of here" to the person you see getting bullied or bothered. There's no need to speak to the harasser. He or she isn't worth the energy, and sometimes it's better not to engage the person.
If you don't feel you can say something at the time you see the incident, report the event to a teacher or principal. This isn't snitching. It's standing up for what's right. No one deserves to be harassed. You could also talk to the victim afterward and offer support. Say that you think what happened is not OK and offer some ideas for dealing with harassment.
If You Suspect Something
You won't always see sexual harassment or bullying happening. A friend who is going through it might not talk about it.
Sometimes people show signs that something's wrong even if they don't talk about it. Maybe a normally upbeat friend seems sad, worried, or distracted. Perhaps a friend has lost interest in hanging out or doing stuff. Maybe someone you know avoids school or has falling grades. Changes like these are signs that something's going on. It may not be sexual harassment or bullying (things like mood swings or changes in eating habits can be signs of many different things). But it is a chance for you to gently ask if everything's OK.
Reviewed by: Michael Morrow, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2011
Warning Signs of Bullying
Parents who are concerned about the possibility of bullying naturally want to be able to identify warning signs if either their child is engaging in bullying of others or has become the victim of a bully. This article reviews warning signs of bullying.
Warning Signs that May Reveal that a Child Is Bullying Others
Depending on your child's personality and your own views on morality, you may be more concerned that your child could become a bully than that he or she would be abullying victim. There are several types of behavior that might arouse this concern:
• A child who is rude and demanding with adults, seeking his or her own way in everything, even when dealing with authority figures like parents and teachers, may arouse concern about how he or she will behave with those less powerful and not in authority.
• A child who is prone to unbridled physical fights with siblings may arouse the concern that he or she will use physical force to try to control others outside the family as well.
• A child who is unable to deal with frustration or control his or her impulses may arouse concern about his or her ability to let others who are less capable have opportunities to learn, play, etc.
• A child who seems to have new acquisitions that exceed his or her allowance may raise concerns that he or she has been "exacting tribute" by forcing other children to give him or her anything that takes his or her fancy.
• A child who is charismatic and capable, but chooses to hang around with "tough" friends and move as a group may cause concern that the "mob mentality" may be clouding his or her judgment in dealing with others.
• A child who is spending inordinate amounts of time online may raise concern that he or she is engaged in cyberbullying.
Note that any of these signs could be an indication of a totally different issue. A child who is rude and demanding may simply need firmer discipline. A child who gets into physical fights may need another outlet, such as a sport. A child who can't control impulses may have AD/HD. A child who has new possessions that you don't recognize may be stealing. A child who hangs with tough kids may have been the victim of bullying and chosen this way of protecting him- or herself. And a child who is spending a lot of time online may be watching the entire set of episodes of "Lost" or trying to master chess. For these reasons, it is best not to jump to conclusions about the causes of these warning signs, but to investigate further.
Warning Signs that May Reveal that a Child Is Being Bullied
A child on the other end of the bullying may also show behaviors that can either signal that he or she is a victim of bullying or other things entirely, so they must be further investigated. Here are some behaviors that should draw your attention:
• The child is missing valuable possessions and can't account for their whereabouts.
• There is a dramatic change in the child's social life, with a sudden loss of friends.
• The child goes through noticeable changes in sleep or eating, with interrupted sleep and lessened eating.
• The child's grades take a turn for the worse with no reasonable explanation.
• The child seems depressed, sad, angry, or frustrated, or exhibits a loss of self-esteem.
• The child begins to show avoidance behaviors. This could be about riding the bus, going to school, or using the computer or phone, depending on how the bullying is taking place.
• The child suddenly begins showing evidence of being in fights, or takes to wearing long sleeps and pants uncharacteristically or when it doesn't make sense for the weather.
Alternative explanations include the following. A child whose possessions seem to be disappearing could be gambling them. A loss of friends can occur naturally as children develop and move in different directions. Changes in eating or sleeping could result from a physical illness or injury. Grades getting worse could come about due to the need for vision correction or hearing assistance or AD/HD. Depression, sadness, anger, and frustration can all be normal and natural reactions to the vicissitudes of life. A loss of self-esteem may come about if a child does something he or she feels guilty about. Avoiding people or school can come about because of a crush or a failed romantic relationship. And fights could be evidence of gang involvement. Any of these behaviors are serious enough to deserve your attention and to be checked out.