Stopping bullying: why gender matters

How are sexual harassment & homophobia linked to bullying?

Posted Feb 13, 2011

I get so fed up with conservative groups who are against educational programs that specifically address issues of gender and sexuality in schools. There were recent controversies in Vallejo, CA and Alameda, CA over this issue. They argue that generic anti-bullying programs are sufficient to stop the negative behaviours that happen between students in schools. Generic anti-bullying programs don't work - we need to specifically name and address the more common and painful forms of bullying that happen between students to have any impact. I'm going to write a brief case-study based on a recent series of workshops I gave in a high school to prove my point.

When I begin a workshop with a group of students I start by asking them if they have seen various forms of bullying in their school. This helps familiarize them with the different forms and validates publicly that this is an issue that needs to be addressed in their school community. I first define bullying as "any behaviour, repeatedly and over time that intentionally harms another individual (Olweus, 1993)." I then give examples and ask if they have seen:

*     physical bullying (tripping, shoving, knocking books, etc.)

*     verbal bullying (name calling, spreading rumours, telling mean jokes)

*     non-verbal bullying (exclusion, drawing pictures, gestures, mean glares)

*     cyber-bullying (texts, emails, facebook posts, etc.)

I then ask if any of these kinds of bullying have been sexual in nature, then I offer a definition of sexual harassment: "any unwanted behaviour that has a negative impact on the target or environment that has a sexual or gender component" (Land, 2003). Finally, I ask them to vote for which form of bullying they see the most at school. The majority of students vote for "verbal" -- it is clearly the most common form that they see throughout the day. The next step in the workshop is a little tricky, but I usually have great success with it.

I tell the students to write down 3-5 words that they hear most often used as insults at their school. I make sure they know that they won't get in trouble for writing down "swear words" and then collect the papers. I pick 5-10 random slips of paper and write the words on the board and add checkmarks for each additional time a word appears. It is important to explain that these words should not be said aloud, and that I am only writing them on the board so we can all better understand why these words hurt and how we can reduce their use in the school. Usually a very clear pattern emerges. In these workshops, I got similar results as I have in other schools. The 5 most common terms are listed in order below:

  1. whore
  2. bitch & slut (tied)
  3. fag
  4. gay

The next closest insults (cunt and fat) were over 15 votes behind these five terms.

The students are then asked to look at the board and comment on any trends or observations. I have always had smart analysis from groups at this point in the session. The students generally notice that the insults towards girls are more common, and that the insults towards boys are usually anti-gay in nature.

There are a few additional portions of the workshop, but I won't go into them now. I decided to share a brief overview of my approach to working with students on bullying prevention because I feel that it offers a clear example of why we need to explicitly talk about issues related to gender and sexuality in any effort to reduce bullying in schools. Without an open dialogue about these issues and how these names hurt, students will keep repeating what they hear in their peer groups and in popular youth media.

 The session ends with some specific strategies they can use to become active "witnesses" instead of passive "bystanders" when bullying or harassment happens. They practice catch phrases such as:

*     "That's my friend, cut it out."

*     "If that was a joke, I'd be laughing. A person's not a punchline."

*     "Why are you using the word 'gay' as an insult? There's nothing wrong with being gay."

*     "You shouldn't spread rumors. If you weren't there, you don't know if its true or not, so its not your story to tell."

*     "I don't like it when you call me names. That is bullying. If you don't stop, I'm going to report it."

What are some other catch phrases or intervention strategies that you have found to be successful? Is this type of training something that you think would be valuable for your teens or school community?