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Bullying: Experiences and Discourses of Sexuality and Gender


For the past year, Neil Duncan and I have been editing chapters for our forthcoming collection entitled Bullying: Experiences and Discourses of Sexuality and Gender (to be published by Routledge, 2012) which is part of the  Foundations and Futures of Education series. In this book that authors explore some of the contemporary issues associated with the study of bullying from the perspective of sexuality and gender.

Our book begins with an exploration of bullying by focusing upon the reasons why this form of aggressive behaviour must be addressed. Professor Helen Cowie (University of Surrey, UK) examines ways in which young people are affected by their experiences of bullying, and reports on recent large-scale longitudinal research that indicates the potential damage that being bullied can cause particularly to young people’s sense of self, their sense of others, their capacity for trust, and their ability to establish and enjoy relationships with peers. Attention is paid to those young people who bully others, examining their risk of emotional or mental health difficulties and how this is influenced by the type of bully that they are: aggressive, anxious, reinforcers, or bully-victims. It is argued that although bullies may appear confident and, in some cases, popular with the peer group, they also tend to display a lack of empathy and an unrealistic or narcissistic justification for their anti-social behaviour. Such deficits disrupt the development long-term of pro-social skills and values and reduce the repertoire of responses available to these young people in interacting with their peers.


In the next chapter, I focus on the phenomenon that has become known as ‘cyberbullying’. Here I discuss the complexities of defining this form of interaction and the dissonance that exists between the ‘online presence’ and the ‘offline person’. I argue that many of the facets of cyberbullying and cyberaggression are grounded in issues associated with sex and particularly the exploitation of sexual desire of others online. I suggest that for many young people online lives differ in many ways from offline lives, and where they intersect or collide, so young people are rendered sexually and emotionally vulnerable. I also discuss the role anonymity plays in the online sexualisation of youth and how perpetrators are not always as they seem.


Dr. Dorothy Espelage (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA) goes on to review research on the potential role of traditional masculinity, dominance, and peer influence on the association between bullying, homophobic teasing and sexual harassment.  She provides definitions to contextualise the constructs that she examined across the wide range of studies of adolescent behaviour.  Subsequently she discusses prevalence rates of bullying, homophobic teasing, and sexual harassment directed at straight-identified and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.  She then explores the research on the relationships between bullying, homophobic teasing and also sexual harassment perpetration and demonstrates how these three ‘types’ of behaviour are inter-linked.  Dorothy then goes on to discuss traditional masculinity and dominance at the individual- and peer-group level which she describes in terms of explanatory variables to better understand the association between bullying, homophobic teasing and sexual harassment.  Finally, she discusses the implications of this research for prevention programmes in schools.


The gendered aspect of pre-adolescent bullying is explored by Dr. Dawn Jennifer (University of South Australia) which focuses on young girls’ use of indirect aggression as a means to bullying others. Here, Dawn discusses the nature of such behaviours, specifically the spreading of false rumours, peer exclusion, and the manipulation of peer relationships. The aim of the chapter is to provide a succinct and accessible overview of the phenomenon among pre-adolescent girls. Using key research findings and perspectives from participants themselves, the chapter explores the complex nature of girls’ bullying in terms of their friendships, their emerging sexual identities and the social power structures prevalent within schools. Findings demonstrate that, despite their pre-adolescence, girls’ friendships are subject to a sexualised and gendered discourse of social aggression.  The chapter provides examples of best practice and explores a range of effective interventions that can be used to address girls’ bullying both within the school context and in other youth settings.


Linked to the chapters of both Dorothy and Dawn, Sian Williams (Independent Consultant, UK) describes one local authority’s initiative in investigating sexual bullying within young persons’ peer relationships. Uniquely, Sian’s original research design encompassed primary school, high school and post-compulsory college settings, giving a cross-section of student life in a single London borough. Her study collected data by both Q-methodology and interviews with young people. From this empirical base, she describes key aspects of the sexual bullying young people report having experienced. The findings include some possible changes in behaviour trends, and links between young people’s aggressive sexual behaviour and its relationship with new technology and the mass media. As the study is contextualised within a single local authority, the work develops some pedagogical ideas and recommendations for further strategic intervention at local governmental level. This chapter serves as an example of the quality of work possible within a progressive authority.


The focus then turns to issues of sexuality more explicitly and three chapters are offered that provide a context in which to better understand the roles of sexual orientation and, more widely, issues of sexual presence at school. Dr. Paul Poteat and his colleagues (Boston College, USA) explore the issue of homophobic bullying and provide a conceptualisation of this phenomenon and how this is similar to, but also distinct from, general non-biased-motivated bullying behaviour. This chapter offers a review of research that has documented the prevalence of homophobic bullying over the past decade, as well as basic demographic information on individuals who more typically engage in this behaviour and who are targets of this behaviour. It elaborates on the individual factors that contribute to and predict engagement in homophobic bullying, for example dominance, gender-norm ideology, and sexual prejudice. In addition, Paul discusses homophobic bullying from a broader ecological framework by examining how peers and the peer group social climate contribute to and influence this behaviour. He examines how certain school characteristics account for differences in this behaviour and discusses mental health, academic, and behavioural outcomes related to homophobic bullying and victimisation. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the implications for prevention and intervention that arise from our understanding of homophobic bullying, and he points to options for future research in this area.


Taking a different standpoint, Dr. Mark McCormack (Brunel University, UK) challenges the predominant discourse of homophobia language and explores not only the literature associated with homophobic discourse but also the development of alternative interpretations of the language used by young people today. Mark suggests that homophobia conveyed through language was perhaps most prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s and that words such as ‘gay’ and ‘fag’ no longer have the meaning or significance they once had in the lives of young people. Through his research and through a critical review of fag discourse he arrives at a new model of ‘homosexually-themed language’ where context and intent require interrogation as much as the words spoken. “That’s so gay!” may not have the same meaning it once had when uttered by young people in classes today.


Dr. Neil Duncan (University of Wolverhampton, UK) then explores the intersection of sexuality, disability and bullying. There is an existing body of research that confirms that disabled students and those with special needs are disproportionately the victims of bullying at school. In this chapter, Neil seeks to interrogate the links between schooling, disability and sexuality to examine how differences between students play out in forms of peer aggression. This theory-rich chapter draws upon a tradition of critical socio-cultural writing, and is intended to challenge conceptions of disability as it develops ideas on adolescent competition for an esteemed sexual reputation.


In the last part of the book, three authors describe both their personal experiences and research that combats bullying on the grounds of sexuality and gender. Professor Eric Anderson (University of Winchester, UK) opens with an intensely personal viewpoint on homophobic bullying cultures in sport and education. This area of life, a central feature for many young men, has become renowned for its hypermasculine ethos and aggressive competitiveness. Male athletes, especially in team sports, are often regarded as the epitome of heteronormativity. Eric’s experiences as a coach and later as a researcher are explored across a range of situations, and he provides us with an insight into the worlds of competitive team sports, coaching and education. This chapter contributes a distinctive voice on homophobia, its practices, its impact and its capacity for change, as Eric argues that recent developments show a reduction in homophobia in this area, and a genuine potential for the inclusion of sexual minorities.


Next, Dr. Margaret Schneider (University of Toronto, Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, Canada) and her colleagues  provide a very much needed review of the value of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in schools, primarily basing their observations on research conducted in Canada. Here, qualitative data is introduced from interviews with teachers and from students that shows the benefits and limitations on GSAs. A clear impact is made not only in terms of awareness but also on young people’s connectedness to school and their comfort with “being me”. However, this research also shows that while overt homophobia may be challenged, ingrained heterosexism remains, and is perhaps only buried a little deeper than it was before. While there is evidence that GSAs can work to make schools safer for young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning, Marg and her colleagues remind us that GSAs have yet to be systematically investigated and we do not as yet know if they have met their full potential.


Following on, Dr. Debbie Ollis (Deakin University, Australia) aims to assist those working with young people to translate research and understandings of the issues addressing gender, sexuality and bullying presented in this book into practice. Drawing on current research relating to effective sexuality education, teacher practice, building respectful relationships, and challenging gender-based violence, the chapter offers suggestions for the planning and delivery of successful interventions for young people in schools. Debbie focuses on a number of potentially challenging, complex and interrelated gender and sexuality issues commonly encountered by educators as they attempt to provide safe and supportive learning environments for all young people. Additionally Debbie focuses on the role of professional learning/continuous professional development in supporting gender and sexual diversity in schools. Her data suggests that without a commitment to inclusion and the provision of professional learning, tackling bullying on the grounds of sexuality and gender will remain an uphill battle.


Finally, Neil  and I consider what we have learned from this collection of essays and consider what the next steps are in our development of resources that will promote the safety of young people in school and online.

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