Sexual harassment and sexual bullying are very similar but may differ for legal reasons. While laws may refer to actions as “sexual harassment,” many school documents call it “bullying.” During the 2016-2017 school year, there were more than 10,000 sexual harassment offenses, as defined by California education code that resulted in suspension, expulsion or disciplinary diversion within school districts across the state. While most behaviors can be considered both sexual bullying and sexual harassment—it can be confusing—leading teens to wonder “what is sexual bullying?”
In this article, we will discuss the actions that constitute sexual bullying; its prevalence and associated effects; how it can lead to sexual violence; and what to do if you or someone you know experiences sexual bullying.
What Is Sexual Bullying?
Sexual bullying is a form of verbal, written, or physical harassment based on a person’s sexuality or gender. If left unaddressed, sexual bullying can lead to physical sexual violence. Inappropriate jokes, comments, images, language, or contact that make a person feel uncomfortable or upset may constitute sexual bullying.
In the spring of 2016, a group of Boston high school students held a walkout protest of misogyny and sexual harassment at school. Girls were reportedly being called names and harassed as they walked the halls. Similarly, Colorado high school students walked out in protest of the school’s inaction over reports that boys were openly joking about sexual assault and threatening to commit acts of rape via social media.
Additional examples of sexual bullying may include:
- sexual jokes, remarks, or gestures
- unwelcome comments about a person’s looks
- spreading sexual rumors
- sharing inappropriate videos or pictures or requesting them
- discussing a person’s sexuality or engaging in sexual name-calling
- a partner making comments to coerce one into having sex
- unwarranted physical contact
Identifying Sexual Bullying
Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish sexual bullying from flirtation but according to KidsHealth.org:
- It’s bullying if your crush continually pressures you to send sexual pictures or engage in sexual activity, despite your refusal.
- It’s bullying if someone in class refers to your body parts, saying your new jeans “make your butt look great,” rather than complimenting by saying, “your new jeans look great.”
- It’s bullying if a person you’ve rejected responds by referencing sex or your body, sexting, stalking, trying to brush up against you, or spreading rumors about you.
Generally, if something makes you feel uncomfortable and you don’t want the behavior to continue, you should speak with a trusted adult about it.
Why Might Kids Be Sexually Bullying Others?
There are many reasons why children may engage in sexual bullying. Reasons can include:
- to mask low esteem
- to receive attention
- to exert power over others
- to appear “sexually mature”
- envy or jealousy (same-sex bullying)
- to generate excitement out of boredom
- to improve social status within the school
- fear or confusion about their own sexuality
- to mimic behavior they see on TV, in movies, or in real life
Unfortunately, many perpetrators of sexual bullying are also victims themselves. They may be sexually abused, bullied, physically abused, or neglected at home. They may lash out against others at school to regain some control in their own lives and target those they perceive as weaker than themselves.
The Effects of Sexual Bullying
Sexual bullying can be harmful with lasting consequences, no matter the age of the victim. Although, social scientists have found that younger victims tend to become repeated victims of assault with more devastating consequences. Children who are sexually bullied are more likely to be physically bullied, cyber-bullied, teased, insulted, shamed, intimidated, shunned, and ostracized by their peers. Any type of bullying can trigger mental health effects like anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. Sexual bullying, in particular, correlates directly with feelings of shame, inadequacy, low self-esteem, confusion, fear, and even suicide.
More pervasive cases of sexual harassment can register as a trauma. Victims may find the trauma overwhelming to process, denying that it occurred and instead somatizing the experience in physical manifestations like insomnia, muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, or difficulty with blood sugar regulation. The part of the brain that processes emotions like stress is situated right next to the brain stem, which deals with core involuntary functions like heart rate and breathing. In the long term, patients may suffer from heart issues, autoimmune disease, digestive upsets, metabolic dysfunction, and chronic illnesses.
Laws Regarding (Sexual) Bullying in Schools
By law, all schools are required to provide students with an environment that is free from sexual discrimination and harassment. According to Seth’s Law, your school must have a formal anti-bullying policy and confidential reporting process. Whether you’ve been victimized yourself or you’re witnessing it happen, ask to meet with a trusted teacher, guidance counselor, or school disciplinarian to discuss your experience.
Furthermore, people working with children have a mandatory duty to protect the youth in their care. California’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) mandates that all school staff members with knowledge or suspicion of child abuse report it to the local police or the child welfare agency and take appropriate corrective action. Failure to do so could result in fines of $1,000 and six months in jail. If a student is severely injured, administrators could spend a year in jail and pay up to $5,000 for failing to report what they knew or suspected was happening on their watch.
You should never be punished for speaking up about sexual bullying at school. You should have access to a safe learning environment and should not be forced to leave school because you are a survivor of sexual assault. If you feel these rights are being violated, you may contact the ACLU for advocacy.
Contact Experienced Bay Area Sexual Assault Attorneys
If you have been the victim of sexual bullying that led to physical sexual assault, you may be entitled to sue for financial compensation to cover medical bills, lost productivity, and an estimated amount of pain and suffering in civil court. The attorneys at Lewis & Llewellyn have successfully represented sexual assault victims who were targeted at school. In some cases, schools that fail to act and allow students to be harmed can be held liable under CANRA and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.
Our experienced attorneys aim to:
- ensure you receive the medical attention you need
- work with outside experts like therapists and doctors
- uphold your privacy during legal proceedings
- handle depositions, witness interviews, and complex investigations
For severe cases of sexual assault, we will connect you with the state district attorney’s should you decide to pursue criminal charges against the perpetrator as well.
DISCLAIMER: The information in this blog is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this blog or on this website should be construed as legal advice from Lewis & Llewellyn LLP. Neither your receipt of information from this website, nor your use of this website to contact Lewis & Llewellyn LLP creates an attorney-client relationship between you and the firm or any of its lawyers. No reader of this website should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this website without seeking the appropriate legal advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s jurisdiction.