Find out what sexual bullying is, why it’s in all of our interests to stop it, and we can deal with it if it happens to us.
I’ve already explained how bullying happens and what it is. Sexual bullying is the same, but it also has some additional elements which come from the shitty sex education we all get. It also tells us a lot about the should stories we receive in society about sex, sexuality, and gender. So let’s get into it.
What is sexual bullying
Just like other bullying, sexual bullying is when someone, or a bunch of people, or a whole system (eg school, or work), stops us from being ‘us’. Where we are belittled, mocked, dis-empowered, threatened, harassed, or treated violently.
Where it’s related to sex (either sex we have had or sex we haven’t had), our relationships, bodies, sexuality, or gender, then it’s sexual bullying. Sexual bullying enforces the rules about ‘what is normal’ in ways that makes us all miserable.
It happens in schools, workplaces, unis, colleges, government, social media, or any organisation. It should be their job to stop this from happening, but often they don’t. Either because they can’t see it, don’t want to see it, or actually don’t mind it happening. They should.
Sexual bullying and oppression
Anyone can get bullied in this way, but it’s important to point out the link between sexual bullying and oppression. Oppression is the unfair treatment people received based on their oppressed identity. If we think about the question ‘who is allowed to have sex?’ we could think about some of the different terms used to describe:
- men who have sex,
- women who have sex,
- people with disabilities who have sex,
- black / people of colour who have sex,
- LBGT people who have sex,
- Poor people who have sex
You can probably see that according to the culture we live in, some people are more allowed to have sex than others. (Fellow straight, white, cis, men, keep reading, I’ll talk about us in a sec). Some people get status for having sex, and some get stigma. So this is an example of where oppressions are used to deny people their sexual agency. But also sexual slurs are also used to further oppress people from a marginalised identity.
This means that sometimes, sexual bullying is specifically also (or is part of) racism, sexism, (dis)ablism, classism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia. It’s important to understand that this is a huge part of it. However, it isn’t the only part.
Using the rules about ‘normal’
Sexual bullying also uses and reinforces some of the rules that we get in society about gender, sex, sexuality and relationships. You probably know the ones. “Men should be interested in sex, women shouldn’t be.” Or “sex should only happen in relationships.” There are also rules about which bodies are seen as ‘sexy’ and so capable of having sex. Or that people with particular bodies should be sexual. And the story about what ‘normal’ sex is and what normal people ‘should’ do.
This is why sex education is also partly to blame for sexual bullying. It keeps retelling these ‘should stories’ about what is normal. So sex ed is part of the problem. As you can see here in Bad Sex Ed Bingo. Great. I love my job.
We are unique and so is sexual bullying
Fans of the website will already have explored the idea of uniqueness when they did this activity as part of the Teach Yourself Sex Ed course, or this one in my article about Solidarity. You should try these because it will make you cool and sexy.
Uniqueness is basically an idea that identities, bodies, experiences, values, ideas, and relationships produce a unique you and other. It also produces unique relationships, scenarios and patterns. Which means that someone who doesn’t experience oppression can also experience sexual bullying. It also means that people who experience oppression can perpetrate sexual bullying, even if they are experiencing it for themselves at the same time. Sexual bullying is also unique and can also affect all of us.
This is an important point because it’s in all of our interests to do something about it.
Seeing what we’re doing as sexual bullying
I think it’s important to recognise that it can happen to all of us and that all of us can do it, even on a small scale. Sometimes people might think ‘oh I’m just defending my friend’ or ‘I’m just saying what everyone else is saying’ or ‘it wasn’t me I just like the drama’. However all of these things are participating in sexual bullying. Even if we think that we are in some way justified, it never is and we should stop.
The sexual bullying can be amplified if more people are involved. For example, the situation where rumours are spread around a school, or images or screenshots being shared without consent. Being passively involved in these things is still being involved, and it makes the situation much worse and increases the harm. It also means that we are part of a culture where bullying is made okay.
How it affects everyone
Even if we aren’t the person being directly affected we can still be harmed by sexual bullying, even if we weren’t the intended audience. This is why I get annoyed when people take the piss out of Rishi Sunak for being short, or Donald Trump for having a small penis. I despise both of these people, but the sexual bullying in this is going to harm a lot of vulnerable and powerless men who watch a Tick Tock* or read a tweet, more than they affect these two rich and powerful men. If we hear it, even if it’s not aimed at us, it can affect us.
Reinforces the rules
Sexual bullying also reinforces the harmful rules about sex, sexuality, and gender. These rules are bad for all of us. A man might really want to be tall, and have a big penis if he wants to, but the rule that he isn’t a real man if he isn’t or has a small penis is shit. A woman might not want to have sex outside of a committed relationship, but the rule that if she does then she should be ashamed is shit.
So these consequences of sexual bullying might be unintended, but they have a cost to all of us. They restrict our freedoms to ‘do us’ in ways that feel okay. It also means that we might enforce the rules of ‘what is normal’ before someone else does that to us. So we are hyper vigilant and in constant competition with our peers – which makes for a pretty miserable life.
*which you should never do, Tik Tok sucks
How can we deal with sexual bullying
It can feel like we can’t really do anything about it, because it’s all to do with culture and society and how the systems we live in (school, work, organisations) perpetuates that. But, we can. Every small action that we do can have a knock on effect.
When you see sexual bullying, say it
A helpful thing to do for everyone (not just the person being directly affected by it) is to just say ‘hey I think this is sexual bullying, it’s not cool.’ Sometimes we might only need to do that. If your mates are taking part in what you think is sexual bullying (of whoever) you could say ‘I’m not going to say that, it’s not cool.’ We could also bring in how we might feel about it personally. ‘I wouldn’t like it if people were talking shit about me.’ Or ‘I don’t want to live in a culture where this kind of thing is okay.’ Any small thing you do or say can lead to a dramatic change, particularly if you can make everyone see why it’s not good for them either.
Here’s how to support a mate if they need it
Make the system accountable
If it’s happening at work, school, or uni, they can be held accountable. Bullying thrives in toxic systems, as I wrote about here. So if they aren’t doing anything to tackle bullying happening on their watch then they are responsible and should be held to account too. Call them out! Just like the Everyone’s Invited campaign did. Just like we did with Hollywood and the casting couch culture after Harvey Weinstein (lol, we didn’t do that).
Bring in the opposite
What is the opposite of bullying? As well as just being kind, it’s also about trying to give people more opportunity to do ‘them’. So instead of enforcing the rules of sex, gender, sexuality and relationships, can you instead ask questions that open them up? Think of the rule that is in play making someone miserable, what can we do to smash the rule? What would be a sign of us trying to break these rules? What would people notice?
If you’re being affected by it
I guess it might be helpful for you to understand what is going on. You might feel like the one person that this is happening to, but in some ways it’s happening everywhere to everyone. Just as with bullying, people do it because they fear it will happen to them. This means that it’s actually in most people’s interests to stamp out sexual bullying (even if it doesn’t feel like it). So try to remember that.
How are you getting through it?
As you go through it, just pause and ask yourself, ‘how am I getting through this?’ ‘What does it say about me that I’m dealing with this so far?’ Also think of a moment when you were pleased to notice something in how you were dealing with it. What were you doing in that moment? What does that say about you? This article should help you to feel a bit better about how you are doing.
The stories about you are not you
Also the stories about you are not you. If you find yourself telling yourself stories about ‘you’, just ask yourself ‘what else?’ Stories aren’t true, they’re just stories. It’s better just to focus on what you do. Try this activity to remind yourself about who you are. And try this activity about how what you do is much more important than what you feel and think.
Notice when you are able to ‘be you’ – what’s better?
The other thing is to focus on parts of your life where there is consent, where you are treated well, and where there are lots of options. Can you spend some time in the parts of your life where you feel most free and ask yourself, what have I done to make this happen. What can I learn from how I’ve done this? How should other people be treating me differently to make this happen.
Hope you find that helpful!
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.