We've all heard a lot about bullying. But did you know that in high school (and middle school), some bullies use sexual messages or actions to make a person feel intimidated, small, or uncomfortable? This sexualized type of bullying is called sexual harassment or sexual bullying.
Here's what you need to know and what you can do if you or someone you care about is being sexually harassed or bullied.
What Are Sexual Bullying and Harassment?
Just like other kinds of bullying, sexual bullying involves comments, gestures, actions, or attention that is intended to hurt, offend, or intimidate another person. With sexual bullying, the focus is on things like a person's appearance, body parts, or sexual orientation. Sexual bullying includes spreading gossip or rumors of a sexual nature.
Sexual bullying or harassment may be verbal (like making rude comments to or about someone), but it doesn't have to be spoken. Bullies may use technology to harass someone sexually (like sending inappropriate text messages or videos). Sometimes harassment and bullying can even get physical.
Sexual bullying doesn't just happen to girls. Boys can harass girls, but girls also can harass guys, guys may harass other guys, and girls may harass other girls. Sexual harassment isn't limited to people of the same age, either. Adults sometimes sexually harass young people (and, occasionally, teens may harass adults, though that's pretty rare). Most of the time, when sexual harassment happens to teens, it's being done by people in the same age group.
Sexual harassment and sexual bullying are very similar — they both involve unwelcome or unwanted sexual comments, attention, or physical contact. So why call one thing by two different names?
Sometimes schools and other places use one term or the other for legal reasons. For instance, a school document may use the term "bullying" to describe what's against school policy, while a law might use the term "harassment" to define what's against the law. Some behaviors might be against school policy and also against the law.
For the person who is being targeted, though, it doesn't make much difference if something is called bullying or harassment. This kind of behavior is upsetting no matter what it's called. Like anyone who's being bullied, people who are sexually bullied or harassed can feel a great deal of emotional stress if the situation continues without relief.
What Behaviors Count?
Some images, jokes, language, and contact are called "inappropriate" for a reason. If a behavior or interaction makes you uncomfortable or upset, talk to a trusted adult. It may fall into the sexual harassment or bullying category.
Sexual harassment or bullying can include:
- making sexual jokes, comments, or gestures to or about someone
- spreading sexual rumors (in person, by text, or online)
- writing sexual messages about people on bathroom stalls or in other public places
- showing someone inappropriate sexual videos or pictures
- posting sexual comments, pictures, or videos on social networks like Facebook, or sending explicit text messages
- making sexual comments or offers while pretending to be someone else online
- touching, grabbing, or pinching someone in a deliberately sexual way
- pulling at someone's clothing and brushing up against them in a purposefully sexual way
This is one reason why "sexting" isn't a great idea, even if you're in a loving relationship. In some cases these messages can be considered harassment or bullying, and can bring very serious consequences. Also, messages or images you intend to be private can get into the wrong hands and be used to embarrass, intimidate, or humiliate.
Forcing another person into doing things he or she doesn't want to do, such as kissing, oral sex, or intercourse, goes beyond sexual harassment or bullying. Forcing someone to do sexual things is sexual assault or rape, and it's a crime.
Flirting or Harassment?
Sometimes people who make sexual jokes, comments, or innuendos laugh off their behavior as flirting, and you might be tempted to do the same. So what's the difference between flirting and sexual harassment?
Here are three examples of flirting versus harassment:
- You and your crush have been flirting and you both start making jokes about people who sext. Your crush asks if you'd ever do that. You say, "No way!" With normal flirting, that's the end of it. But if your crush starts pressuring you to send sexual pictures, then it's getting into harassment territory.
- A guy in class says your new jeans look great. That's a compliment. But if he says your new jeans make your butt look great, that's crossing the line.
- Someone you're not attracted to asks you to go to a dance. It seems harsh to say you're not interested, so you make up an excuse. The person asks a couple more times, but eventually gets the hint. This is a normal social interaction. But if the person hits on you in a creepy way — like making references to sex or your body, sending stalkerly messages, or touching you inappropriately — that's harassment.
Some things may be awkward, but they don't count as harassment. A guy who blurts out a sex-related swearword because he spills his lunch tray isn't harassing or bullying anyone. But if someone is deliberately doing or saying sexual things that make you uncomfortable, it's probably sexual harassment.
Not sure? Ask yourself, "Is this something I wanted to happen or I want to continue happening? How does it make me feel?" If it doesn't feel right, talk to a parent, teacher, guidance counselor, or someone else you trust.
How to Handle Sexual Harassment
If you think you're being harassed, don't blame yourself. Harassers can be very manipulative. They are often good at blaming the victim — and even at making victims blame themselves. But no one has the right to sexually harass or bully anyone else, no matter what. There is no such thing as "asking for it."
There's no single "right" way to respond to sexual harassment. Each situation is unique. It often can be helpful to start by telling the person doing the harassing to stop. Let him or her know that this behavior is not OK with you. Sometimes that will be enough, but not always. The harasser may not stop. He or she might even laugh off your request, tease you, or bother you more.
That's why it's important to share what's happening with an adult you trust. Is there a parent, relative, coach, or teacher you can talk to? More and more schools have a designated person who's there to talk about bullying issues, so find out if there's someone at your school.
Most schools have a sexual harassment policy or a bullying policy to protect you. Ask a guidance counselor or principal about your school's policy. If you find the adult you talk to doesn't take your complaints seriously at first, you may have to repeat yourself or find someone else who will listen.
There's no doubt it can feel embarrassing to talk about sexual harassment at first. But that uncomfortable feeling quickly wears off after a minute or so of conversation. In most cases, telling someone sooner leads to faster results and fewer problems down the line, so it's worth it.
It can help to keep a record of the events that have happened. Write down dates and short descriptions in a journal. Save any offensive pictures, videos, texts, or IMs as evidence. That way you'll have them if your school or family has to take legal action. To avoid going through feeling upset all over again, save this evidence someplace where you don't have to see it every day.
If You See Something, Say Something
Bystanders play an important role in stopping bullying — even sexual bullying. If you see someone who is being harassed, take action. If it feels safe and natural to speak up, say, "Come on, let's get out of here" to the person you see getting bullied or bothered. There's no need to speak to the harasser. He or she isn't worth the energy, and sometimes it's better not to engage the person.
If you don't feel you can say something at the time you see the incident, report the event to a teacher or principal. This isn't snitching. It's standing up for what's right. No one deserves to be harassed. You could also talk to the victim afterward and offer support. Say that you think what happened is not OK and offer some ideas for dealing with harassment.
If You Suspect Something
You won't always see sexual harassment or bullying happening. A friend who is going through it might not talk about it.
Sometimes people show signs that something's wrong even if they don't talk about it. Maybe a normally upbeat friend seems sad, worried, or distracted. Perhaps a friend has lost interest in hanging out or doing stuff. Maybe someone you know avoids school or has falling grades. Changes like these are signs that something's going on. It may not be sexual harassment or bullying (things like mood swings or changes in eating habits can be signs of many different things). But it is a chance for you to gently ask if everything's OK.
Reviewed by: Michael Morrow, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2011