10/13/2015 09:35 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2016

Anti-Bullying: Failing to Tackle Gender and Sexual Inequalities


For October, Anti-bullying Month, we are engaging several key sociologists who research gender and sexuality in education in conversations on LGBTQ bullying. This is the first of these posts.

Jessica Ringrose, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology of Gender and Education, at University College London Institute of Education. She is currently researching feminism in schools and young people's networked gender and sexual cultures. Her most recent book is Children, Sexuality, and Sexualization.

Victoria Rawlings, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University. She conducts research on young people's social, emotional, and discursive lives, with a focus on gender and sexuality. She is currently investigating the self-harm and suicidal feelings of LGBTQ youth in England.

J & V: The first thing we need to think about when we talk about bullying or "anti-bullying" is exactly what the word "bullying" means. When the word bullying first emerged, it meant something very distinct. There was thought to be a "bully" and a "victim," and the bully exposed the victim (defined as "helpless" or "weaker"), repeatedly and over time, to injury.

Our research suggests, however, that what are understood to be bullying behaviors are typically rooted in longstanding social inequalities. The power relations that create rigid gender binaries (girl vs. boy) and heterosexuality as normative, which are widely upheld in institutional contexts like family, school, work and online forums, create the conditions for so called bullying.

E: That's an important point. Social norms and power relations are almost universally left out of discussions of bullying, and so addressing them is not a part of most anti-bullying strategies. It's been our position (QuERI's) that bullying is actually a regulating social process that targets "difference" and reaffirms what is considered "normal" or "acceptable" in a given school. So understanding those social norms is critical to understanding which kids are getting targeted for bullying.

V: Yes -- norms work in the school environment to indicate who is "fitting in" and who is not -- in other words, who is "different." How this difference becomes understood as undesirable or unintelligible, and how it becomes the prerogative of students to police and regulate this difference is far more complicated. It is important, though, to reject the notion that bullies are inherently bad and think about the systems (social, cultural, institutional) that encourage and reward those kinds of actions.

J: I was wondering, what do we mean by LGBTQ bullying? The bundle of terms -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer -- highlight a lot of identities seemingly in opposition to normative heterosexuality. However, restricting interventions to those terms also limits our ability to confront the systems that result in their bullying. Should bullying initiatives that respond to an LGBTQ agenda also take into account issues of heterosexism that effect so called 'straight' and cisgender people too?

E: When we (QuERI) write about these issues, we include gender non-conforming behaviors broadly. The system of gender regulation impacts all students -- those who conform, those who don't, and all the shades in between. We know from research that the further youth fall from idealized forms of masculinity and femininity, the more vulnerable they are to bullying as well as more severe forms of violence. LGBTQ students are among the most targeted. So we agree that we need to think about the effects of heteronormativity broadly, including the sexism inherent in it, when we think about bullying.

J & V: We have been thinking, similarly, about what being shamed as "gay" or 'faggot' in schools has in common with being called a "slut." Gender and sexual norms regulate (that is shame and seek to "correct") deviations from a heterosexual gender binary. They communicate that non-heterosexual or transgender are somehow less appropriate than straight or cisgender, but also dictate norms of acceptable behaviour within the gender binary of ideal masculinity and femininity (for example, girls should not be 'too' sexually active, and boys should not be passive or emotional).

Research indicates that the key to change is to tackle the wide gamut of gender and sexuality based stereotypes together to address a cluster of issues including sexism, homophobia and transphobia (Pascoe, 2011).

We think that LGBTQ issues need to be treated as a package to address issues of sexism and sexual harassment for so called "straight" kids too. For example many forms of slut shaming are not typically recognized as bullying because the sexual shaming of girls' dress is sanctioned in many official school dress and uniform code policies and practices (Ringrose & Rawlings, 2015).

E: Yes! This is so important to changing the ways bullying is discussed. Slut and fag are seen as the worst things to be called in many schools and both are about gender transgression. That's important to note -- that in some schools, the worst thing you can do is transgress gender norms. That's really powerful if you stop to think about it. For decades, work on bullying has focused on that bully/victim binary and completely failed to note the ways bullying behaviors function in the school environment. In recent years, we have been calling for a paradigm shift, positioning the aggression targeting LGBTQ and gender non-conforming students within a broader system of gender regulation experienced by all people all the time. It is also interesting that bullying and sexual harassment, including slut shaming, are seen in schools as different problems. They should absolutely be tackled together. That they have not been tackled together and that bullying redress has largely focused on the individual "bully" is a key reason (we think) that schools have not really seen anti-bullying efforts succeed long term.

J: So if anti-bullying frameworks are failing to address behavior that promotes gender bias and sexual violence, and simply banning the words "gay" or "slut" doesn't work because that doesn't get to the root of the problem, what should schools, parents, and young people do? We have been part of a research network in the UK running feminist lunch and after-school clubs that provide young people with safe spaces in which to discuss gender and sexuality and critically engage with ideas about 'appropriate' femininity and masculinity. But we have met some backlash against feminism in schools from teachers and students who find the word threatening.

V: I think that's a key question and there is no quick or easy fix. Firstly, schools need to begin asking and answering difficult questions about gender, power, and systems of privilege. Students and teachers need to be provided with opportunities to recognize and explore the effects of these systems and the outcomes of their behaviors, including opportunities to learn about diverse lives and identities, or to interrogate their own and others' positions of privilege- particularly around gender and sexuality. In short, rather than attempting to pathologize or celebrate particular individuals (which is exactly what traditional, popular anti-bullying initiatives have done), there need to be moments that facilitate recognition and change of systemic cultures, policies and practices (Davies & McInnes, 2012).

E: Agreed. There are no one-size fits-all pre-packaged anti-bullying programs to get us to culture change. One place we need to start is with teacher education. In the U.S., no states require a diversity course for future teachers. They need those experiences you mentioned Victoria -- to learn about diverse lives and identities and interrogate their own biases. And gender and sexuality need to be an integral part of that coursework.

We need to make clear connections between gender inequality, sexism, and the harassment experienced by LGBTQ and gender non-conforming kids -- including girls who express sexual agency. Student activism can be a useful tool for bringing awareness to schools, and Jessica your work with young people is inspiring. No easy answers, but moving away from the bully/victim binary is a start!

Thanks to you both for participating in this conversation!