Working where I do, I get the opportunity to witness firsthand how our society is influencing the younger generation. I’m thankful for this, but at the same time it’s incredibly frustrating. There are many things the school system does – faculty weight-loss programs, abstinence only “sex education,” pushing religious principles on the students – with which I absolutely do not agree.

At the moment, there is a big move to stop bullying in the school system. I agree that this is needed, but in reading the resources provided to faculty on the subject, I realized that they are taking a pretty shallow approach with prevention – one which absolves them of any responsibility for creating an environment in which kids see so many things as an excuse for bullying others.

Advice on preventing bullying from Stop Bullying Now:

Focus on the social environment of the school. In order to reduce bullying, it is important to change the social climate of the school and the social norms with regards to bullying. This requires the effort of everyone in the school environment – teachers, administrators, counselors, school nurses, other non-teaching staff (such as bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and/or school librarians), parents, and students.

I absolutely agree with this, but I think we need to take it further. We do not just need to change the perceived acceptability of bullying in schools; we also must change the ideas we are promoting about what is socially acceptable. There are a several things that need to be addressed – racism, classism, religious intolerance – but I want to talk about one aspect in particular: gender roles, especially as they relate to sexuality (and, it’s me – especially as they relate to women, though I know this harms both men and women).

From a study by U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS):

Some researchers speculate that girls value social relationships more than boys do, so girl bullies set out to disrupt social relationships with gossip, isolation, silent treatment, and exclusion.

I’d like to propose an alternate reason for this – girls are taught that stepping outside certain boundaries is a violation of social code. This breach of social code is often what prompts bullying, and since these things rest in the social realm, they are punished there. We are responsible for this, because we have taught them the social code on which they base these actions.

I once witnessed two teachers discussing the students in their classes that were “sluts,” and disparaging them for hanging around the boys in their grade. They were not doing this in front of any students, but I would say there is zero chance these teachers never showed their distaste for what they considered to be “slutty” behavior to the students they teach.

The way the dress code is enforced varies greatly depending on the gender of the person breaking it – if a male wears pants hang too low, he’s considered “silly,” whereas if a girl does the same (not even getting into all the infractions a girl can commit when it comes to dress code as compared to boys) she will be labeled “slutty.”

The social stigma surrounding female sexuality is something I discuss a lot – for good reason! And I’m going to talk about it more, because it is a big contributor to bullying among young girls.

You see, as females, there is a certain line these girls are expected to walk, and if they stumble or misstep they are generally punished for it. As adults we’re expected to do this, as well, but these girls are expected to perform that balancing act at an especially emotionally fraught and uncertain time in their lives. They are expected to dress and act in a manner that designates them as sexually available to males, but not so available that they might be labeled “slutty.” If they go too far on either end of the spectrum – either by dressing and acting in a way that is not meant to be appealing to the male population (“dyke/prude”) or by dressing and acting in a manner considered “too” sexually charged (“whore/slut”) – they will be ostracized by people in that society. They are also supposed to be personable but demure – too quiet or too loud, and they will attract mockery. Even if a girl manages all this, and also adheres to the unspoken rules about “acceptable” sexual activity – only with a boyfriend, only if they’ve been dating for a while, only if she says she loves him – she can still receive the retrograde slut label if they break up.

Anyone who has any exposure to the news media at all has heard stories about girls who sent nude pictures of themselves to boys, only to have the pictures forwarded and shown to classmates. These occurrences generally leave the girl to be ridiculed and tormented by her peers. If my only exposure to the technologically enhanced high school environment was through news stories (or even a role as a teacher or school administrator), I might be led to think that only girls engaged in the practice of sending nude photos to romantic interests. As is, this practice was running rampant when I was in high school, so I happen to know that boys and girls alike entered into it in equal numbers. Girls aren’t tormented by this in increasing numbers because they engage in the practice more frequently, but rather because of the double-standard that exists about the social acceptability of sexuality in males and females.

For males, sexuality (and the active pursuing of sexual activity) is not only considered allowable, it is considered to be an inherent aspect of maleness. For females, purity is the only acceptable path. This leaves kids in an imbalance – they’re dealing with the same hormones, the same uncertainty, the same lack of knowledge, but boys are told that they have the right and responsibility to explore this, where girls are told that it is wrong for them to do so. (And by the way, they need to be taught how to responsibly explore, because they’re going to do it whether you like it or not, and leaving them fumbling in the dark – both literally and figuratively – raises the rate of unwanted pregnancy and STDs.)

And so for girls, spreading around pictures some guy sent them would get them labeled as a slut; for guys, spreading around pictures gets them reaffirmation of their manhood. It’s a lose/lose situation. These girls are stuck in the limbo between “prude/dyke” and “whore/slut,” and they can still be persecuted by their peers even if they do everything “right.”

The way to help alleviate this problem is to teach and promote healthy ideas about gender roles and sexuality, as well as cultivate an environment that does not encourage LGBTQ hatred (you notice “dyke” and “gay” are used as pejorative terms to describe people considered to be not sexually active enough). By teaching the younger generation that sexuality is a fluid, highly personal thing, and there there is no “right” or “wrong” way to go about it (as long as they’re going about it safely), we will lessen the cause for this brand of harassment. There will always be people who can not or will not accept and embrace differences, but increasing understanding and acceptance is a vital part of efforts to decrease bullying and harassment.

In an ideal world, programs could be implemented to do this. In reality, it’s highly unlikely. Too few people see what is wrong with imbalance in the perception of male and female sexuality – it is not only in the adolescent world that females are persecuted for being too much or too little. Most parents would rather deny that their children have any interest in sex (or would rather think that fear-mongering prevents sexual activity) than address the fact that kids are struggling with this and need to be taught to do so in a responsible and informed way. Bigotry against people who identify as LGBTQ is rampant in our world, and too often people see anything not heterosexual and cis-gendered as wrong. And so these kids will continue to struggle while the adults in their lives – who are supposed to be there to teach and assist them – band-aid over the problem instead of addressing the underlying causes, because the underlying causes make them too uncomfortable. Why are people so willing to sacrifice the well being of their fellow humans in order to uphold their notions of morality?

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