What is sexual bullying

Advice on dealing with sexualised bullying

Sexual bullying is a serious issue that needs to be tackled. Although there is no official definition, sexual bullying is a behaviour, physical or non-physical, where sexuality or gender is used as a weapon against another. Sexual bullying is any behaviour which degrades someone, singles someone out by the use of sexual language, gestures or violence, and victimising someone for their appearance. Sexual bullying is also pressure to act promiscuously and to act in a way that makes others uncomfortable. 

sexualised bullying

These behaviours happen inside and outside school, in social groups and online. It is as serious as any form of hate crime and should be treated as such by parents, teachers and society in general.

"Sarcastically calling me a sexy bitch and then touching my "bum" and looking up my skirt to the point I feel uncomfortable walking in front of them or near these boys."*

Forms of sexualised bullying

Sexual bullying includes a wide range of behaviour and can often cause distress and devastation to a person. Some examples of sexualised bullying include:

  • Abusive, sexualised name calling and insults. Spreading rumours of a sexual nature online or in person. This includes using homophobic language and insults towards others.
  • Unwelcome looks and comments about someone's appearance or looks, either face to face or behind their backs.
  • Inappropriate and uninvited touching without consent, also pressurising someone to do something they do not want to do, using emotional blackmail such as ‘you would do this if you loved me’ or comparing previous encounters to make someone feel obliged to do something sexual.
  • Pressurising someone to do sexting and using emotional blackmail, for example threatening to end a relationship if they don’t send an image. Sending the image to others without consent is a form of sexual bullying too.
  • Inappropriate sexual innuendo that is persistent and unwelcome.
  • Sexism in all its forms and gender stereotyping roles of male and females.
  • Graffiti with sexual content or display/circulation of inappropriate material of a sexual nature, such as pornography. Also badges or clothing depicting inappropriate sexual innuendo or language.
  • In its most extreme form, sexual assault or rape

"Telling everyone in the dining hall, class, individuals, and family at community events/school events that I am gay, even going up to my parents telling them I am, and saying crude things, homophobic things."*

A survey by the UK National Union of Teachers (NUT) suggests that sexual bullying is most often carried out by boys against girls, although girls are increasingly harassing girls and boys in a sexual manner. Their findings show:

  • 45% of teenage girls have had their bottom or breasts groped against their will
  • 38% of young people have received unwanted sexual images
  • 37% hear ‘slag’ used often or all the time
  • 65% of gay or bisexual young people experience homophobic bullying in school
  • 48% of teachers have witnessed sexist language from one peer to another
  • 66% of LGBT young people suffer from bullying at school and 58% of them never report and half of them skip school as a result

In extreme cases prejudice-motivated bullying and harassment can also be considered a hate crime. You can read the Home Office definition of a hate crime here, which includes a crime motivated by sexual orientation. 

Sexism and gender stereotyping

Sexism is a behaviour, language or prejudice, which expresses institutionalised, systematic and comprehensive discrimination. It is based on a stereotypical view of masculine and feminine roles. Sexism limits the options of women and girls and can lead to discrimination or less favourable treatment. It is learned behaviour, however, and can therefore be 'unlearned'.

Unfortunately there are many instances where sexism and this form of stereotyping comes into play. Rated and slated is when boys are encouraged to be sexually active and have multiple partners and if they achieve this, they get ‘rated’ by their peers. However, if a girl makes the same choice as the boy, she gets ‘slated’ for the same thing and bullied.

We all have a responsibility to teach children and young people to break the barriers of being stereotyped for their gender. We often see from a young age, children are conditioned into play with gender based toys, whether it is cars for boys and dolls for girls. However, any child should be able to play with any toy as part of their healthy development and not be judged for this. This comes into play in the world of employment too and a young person should be encouraged to make career choices based on their interests and skills and not their gender.

The effects of sexualised bullying

There is evidence that sexual bullying is increasing and it is linked to domestic violence and other gender-based violence such as rape and sexual assault.

A survey in 2006 by the teenage girls’ magazine 'Sugar' revealed that 45% of teenage girls surveyed had been groped against their wishes. 56% of unwanted sexual experiences occurred for the first time when girls were under 14 years old. 51% of unwanted sexual experiences occurred more than once and left girls feeling dirty, ashamed, guilty, worried, insecure, angry, powerless and frightened. What these statistics appear to show is that the increasing sexualisation of society can be confusing to young people who are unsure about what is acceptable in sexual activity or how far is ‘too far’. 

Sexual bullying can undermine someone's dignity and safety as well as affect their emotional wellbeing and lead to depression, isolation, eating disorders and self-harming. It is very common for sexual bullying to go viral both offline and online with no let up for the person on the receiving end. Boys are just as much victims of sexual bullying as girls. Boys too feel powerless to stop it, pressurised to do something they do not want to and called names if they choose not to be promiscuous or are not perceived to fit their peer’s ideals of masculinity. The scars of these effects can last a lifetime if not supported and encouraged to address these feelings.

How to help someone

It is important that children and young people are educated on the issues of sexual bullying from a young age. This education should come from the home just and school. Talk to them about making positive choices and rising above what their peers expect of them and being responsible.

If someone is being bullied sexually, they will need help to get it stopped. Encourage them to seek help from someone they trust, such as a parent, family member or a teacher. They can keep a diary of all incidents as evidence and take screenshots if the bullying is online.

This form of bullying is very serious and the person on the receiving end may need emotional support and counselling to deal with this too. You can call us on our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. Young people can speak to Childline on 0800 1111 or call The Mix (formerly Get Connected) on 0808 808 4994.

Family Lives runs TeenBoundaries workshops for schools and youth groups to prevent sexual bullying, peer on peer sexual exploitation and promotes positive gender relationships by challenging attitudes and promoting tolerance, understanding and cohesion between young people.


This article was developed in partnership with the Ben Cohen Stand Up Foundation

* Comments from respondents via our National Bullying Survey 

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