Sexual bullying 'has always gone on'

9th January 2009 at 00:00
Classrooms have a pressure-cooker atmosphere, says expert, and it is fuelled by celebrity culture

Sexual bullying has been endemic to schools for decades and is exacerbated by the classroom environment, according to a leading expert.

Neil Duncan, of Wolverhampton University, believes the problem will not go away until schools change their fundamental attitude to sex and sex education.

His comments follow the BBC Panorama documentary this week, "Kids Behaving Badly", which claimed to "reveal the problem of sexual bullying in our schools".

Dr Duncan, who has studied sexual bullying for more than 10 years, says it was rife in his youth at a Scottish primary in the 1960s. "It's always gone on," he said. "Schools are conducive to generating that sort of behaviour. They put pupils in large groups in small rooms, and that kind of compression creates a situation where loads of things happen.

"Kids are pretty sex-obsessed pre- and during puberty. Experimenting sexually is an expression of natural urges. If it's made taboo, and teachers won't talk about it, then it comes out other ways, and kids do things that are illicit or maladjusted."

Dr Duncan believes the problem has been exacerbated by an overtly sexualised celebrity culture. "Sexual identity has overtaken other forms of identity in life," he said. "You need to be up-front and feisty, publicising your sexuality."

Jessica Ringrose, of the Institute of Education in London, agrees. "Sexism is endemic in larger society," she said. "Sexual innuendo is an everyday occurrence. So why would we expect schools to be different? Kids need resources for dealing with it on a day-to-day basis."

Maligning a classmate's sexual reputation is the most powerful form of attack, Dr Duncan said. "If kids just said a girl was lazy or mean or two- faced, that wouldn't hurt. She'd laugh. But if she's called a cunt or a bitch or a whore, that would really hurt her. That's why you do it.

"Sexuality is clearly part of a competition about who is the most desirable in school. It's about alpha males and alpha females."

Girls are particularly vulnerable, says Dr Ringrose. "Popular culture tells them they should be sexy in order to be desirable," she said. "But if they're seen to be too sexy, then they are subject to constant verbal harassment. It's a double bind."

Dr Duncan believes the best way to tackle such bullying is through open, honest discussion about sex and relationships. "There's an absolute silence around sexuality," he said. "Not sex - everybody knows how to put bits where they should - but there's nothing about fun, or what it feels like to be two-timed.

"If you want to know what you should be teaching in sex education, you need to cut out agony aunt columns from teenagers' magazines. That's the kind of thing you need to be looking at."

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