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What is sexual bullying?

Discussing any type of bullying behaviour can be challenging, but the subject of sexual and gender related bullying can be particularly sensitive If you have any concerns about sexual bullying amongst children that you work with then we would recommend that you seek specialist support.

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What is sexual bullying?

Academics in the UK and overseas have argued about the most appropriate definition of sexual bullying as it includes a wide spectrum of behaviours, but for the purposes of this guide, we include any bullying behaviour with a sexual element. This behaviour can be between children and young people of any gender and/or sexual orientation, and between children and adults.  Research suggests that sexual bullying has a disproportionate impact on girls.  While significant numbers of boys are also targets of sexual bullying, this often has a homophobic element, suggesting this behaviour is driven by gender inequality within society with peer enforcement of perceived gender norms. For this reason it is vital that schools take a strong approach against all forms of sexism and gender inequality as the foundation stone on which to build a response to sexual bullying.

We know that disabled children and those with SEN can be particularly vulnerable to all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, and that they are disproportionately vulnerable to experiencing bullying – with devastating consequences.  A report for the NSPCC also showed that children and young people with learning disabilities were overrepresented when researching children and young people that display harmful sexual behaviour.

Schools often struggle to communicate messages about appropriate sexual behaviour to children and young people – and may feel even more out of their depth when it comes to children with special educational needs or particular impairments.  There may be a misconception that these children and young people are not interested in sex, or that it would be somehow inappropriate to discuss sexual matters with them – however this only serves to leave children vulnerable to bullying and abuse.  Each year, significant numbers of children face exclusion from school for ‘sexual misconduct’.

Each one of these exclusions represents a failure to address harmful sexual behaviour between children and young people, and will have caused immeasurable hurt and embarrassment to the children and families involved. No parent or carer wants to find out their child has been on the receiving end of sexual misconduct, or has been accused of sexual misconduct.  Schools have a duty therefore to talk about these issues, set appropriate boundaries, and to communicate appropriate behaviour in a way that meets the needs of all children and young people.

What is harmful sexual behaviour?

Let’s be clear- not all sexualised behaviour between children and young people is bullying or abuse.  The Stop it now! Charity has a very useful booklet that describes healthy sexual development.  They emphasise that disabled children and young people and those with SEN may develop at different rates according to their impairment; that care must be taken to educate appropriately according to their sexual development and to make sure they can communicate any worries they may have. The ABA definition of bullying includes an imbalance of power – and some children may be more vulnerable to coercion and control – a key characteristic of sexual bullying.

Stop It Now! describe harmful sexual behaviour as ranging ‘from experimentation that unintentionally goes too far, through to serious sexual assault’.  They write that ‘often victims are uncomfortable or confused about what is happening and may feel that they are willingly involved, but not understand that the behaviour is harmful’. This can be exasperated for children who may find it hard to understand and communicate their feelings.   This means it is vital that school staff take time to understand the context in which behaviour has taken place, the development needs of the children involved, and the nature of the relationship between those involved.

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What type of behaviour could constitute sexual bullying?

The type of behaviour within a school environment that could constitute sexual bullying, or could contribute to an environment where sexual bullying is more likely to occur includes:

  • Sexual comments, taunts and threats
  • Inappropriate physical contact that makes the recipient feel uncomfortable or scared (this can include hugging and kissing)
  • Distributing sexual material (including pornography); sending photos or videos of a sexual nature
  • Making phone calls and sending texts or messages of a sexual nature
  • ‘Games’ with a sexual element that may make a child or young person feel uncomfortable or scared (e.g. taking clothes off, kissing or touching games)
  • Pressure to spend time alone or apart from others with another person, or people, that makes the person feel uncomfortable or scared (e.g. behind  school buildings, in the toilets or changing rooms, in the field)
  • Pressure to be in a relationship with another person, or to engage in a sexual act with another person – both inside and outside of school
  • Sexism in all its forms; pressure to conform to  particular gender ‘norms’ (e.g. pressure on boys to have multiple partners, or pressure on boys and girls to be heterosexual)

This video is from Fixers and includes testimony from young people about sexual bullying, harrassment and violence in school:  

28 May 2017