The path to sexual violence

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

Two decades ago, I embarked on my first piece of independent research that focused on the issue of homophobic bullying. I asked 190 lesbian, gay and bisexual adults to describe how they were bullied by their peers at school.

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

Almost a decade later, I received funding to undertake a series of visits to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Working with colleagues from the CDC's Division of Violence Prevention, Tulane University and the University of Illinois, we again explored the relationship between bullying and sexual violence, particularly among men. Our review of the empirical evidence available at the time showed the bullying perpetration and sexual violence perpetration shared many of the same individual, relational, community and societal risk factors. While sexual violence was also linked to young men's 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 on from that review of literature and based upon longitudinal data gathered from 1,391 boys and girls (aged between 10 and 15) first surveyed when they were in middle school, Dorothy Espelage (University of Illinois) found evidence of what she describes as a bully-sexual violence pathway. Here, in early middle school, traditional bullying transforms 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.

Her research does not focus only on the behaviour of boys, but on 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 students 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 student's clothing, while approximately 1 per cent of boys admitted touching another student's genitals.

The surprise was not simply that sexual harassment was to be found in middle school-aged children but that there was very little difference between boys and girls. The pattern is mirrored in British schools. Sian Williams, in her study of sexual bullying in one local authority, reported that the girls she interviewed regularly experienced sexual harassment from boys. But she found that boys also experienced sexual harassment from girls.

Both Espelage and Williams argue that it is important that we recognise that bullying is often sexual and take the necessary steps to ensure that schools can deal with everything from students feeling uncomfortable when they are "eyed-up" or "rated" by peers to occurrences of sexual violence or assault which demand the involvement of police and social services.

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

- Dorothy Espelage and Sian Williams have written extensively on their projects in a recent book entitled Bullying: Experiences and Discourses of Sexuality and Gender, edited by Ian Rivers and Neil Duncan (University of Wolverhampton).

- Information on sexual bullying can be obtained from the Brook Centre's sexual bullying project. Go to: bit.ly17uWlLt

- 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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