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The path to sexual violence

Bullying and homophobia can easily escalate to assault. And early intervention is vital, argues Ian Rivers

Bullying and homophobia can easily escalate to assault. And early intervention is vital, argues Ian Rivers

Almost 20 years ago, I embarked upon my first piece of independent research, which focused on the issue of homophobic bullying. Part of that study involved me asking 190 lesbian, gay and bisexual adults to describe how they were bullied by their peers when they were at school.

The majority recalled being called names, hit or kicked or teased - all of the behaviours we would normally associate with bullying. However, 11 per cent indicated that they had also been sexually assaulted. While this statistic was reported widely in the academic press, it went largely unnoticed in the general media and, to all intents and purposes, was forgotten.

Almost a decade later, I received funding from my employer for a series of visits to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, US. Working with colleagues from the CDC's Division of Violence Prevention, Tulane University and the University of Illinois, I again explored the relationship between bullying and sexual violence, particularly among men. Our review of the evidence available at the time showed that bullying and sexual violence shared many of the same individual, relational, community and societal risk factors.

While sexual violence was also linked in young men to early sexual debut, beliefs or assumptions about masculinity and the promotion of gender stereotypes, we wondered if bullying perpetrated by boys against girls or against boys perceived to be "gay" might be a predictor of problematic behaviour in future intimate relationships.

Following that review of literature and based on longitudinal data gathered from 1,391 boys and girls (aged between 10 and 15) first surveyed when they were in middle school, Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois found evidence of what she describes as a bully-sexual violence pathway.

In early middle school, traditional bullying transformed into more gendered forms of harassment where homophobic teasing and sexual harassment become commonplace. Espelage suggests that homophobic name-calling becomes more frequent as young people grow older and that sexual harassment in the form of forced sexual contact also increases.

Espelage also explored sexual harassment perpetrated by girls. In middle school she found that 34 per cent of boys and 28 per cent of girls said they had made sexual comments about other pupils in the past year (26 per cent and 24 per cent respectively reported homophobic name-calling); 5 per cent of boys and 7 per cent of girls had spread sexual rumours; 4 per cent of boys and 2 per cent of girls had pulled another pupil's clothing; and approximately 1 per cent of boys admitted touching another pupil's genitals.

The surprises arising from this data are not simply that sexual harassment can be found in middle school-aged children but that there is very little difference between boys and girls. And this is a pattern that is mirrored in British schools. For example, independent consultant Sian Williams, in her study of sexual bullying in one local authority, reported that the girls she interviewed (Years 8 and 10) regularly experienced sexual harassment from boys: "They try to make it accidental. Like in the lunch line we're all crammed up ... and they'll lean against you, and you're like, 'What are you doing?' 'I'm just trying to move up' They try to blag it out but we all ... we know what they're doing."

But Williams also found that boys experienced sexual harassment at the hands of girls. One boy in Year 8 reported that the girls in his class often tried to pull his trousers down in front of peers, while boys in Years 10 and 12 talked about being "eyed up" by girls in their school, or being encouraged to make sexual advances: "They try to ... try to just seduce you."

Tackling difficult topics

Espelage and Williams argue that it is important for us to recognise that bullying is often sexual and ensure that we have appropriate mechanisms to respond to incidents ranging from pupils feeling uncomfortable when they are "eyed up" or "rated" by peers to occurrences of sexual violence or assault (which require the involvement of the police and social services).

The fact that a link has been established between bullyinghomophobic teasing and sexual violence illustrates the need for schools to take action to combat all forms of bullying and not to shy away from difficult topics such as homophobic bullying.

Espelage and Williams have written extensively on their projects in a new book, Bullying: experiences and discourses of sexuality and gender, which I co-edited with Neil Duncan of the University of Wolverhampton. Further information on sexual bullying can also be obtained from the Brook Centre's sexual bullying project (

Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University and visiting professor in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Anglia Ruskin University.

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