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Bullying, Sexual Harassment, and Dating Violence

By and — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 22, 2010

As children develop into adolescents, the topography of bullying develops as well. Students begin interacting more frequently with opposite-sex peers and romantic relationships emerge. Unfortunately, the same problems some students have with their same-sex peers transfer into these new, romantic relationships. Research has shown that there is a link between bullying, dating violence, and sexual harassment.

Prevalence and Trends

Bullying behavior peaks before students reach high school. There is a steady increase in bullying from elementary school through middle school before declining in high school (1& 2). However, sexual harassment and dating violence tend to have opposite trends. Physical sexual harassment is more commonly found among older high school students than among early high school or late middle school students. In two national surveys, 81% of students reported being sexually harassed during their school careers (3 & 4) is also important to note that sexual harassment is a problem not isolated to high schools. Roughly one-third of students reported that their first experience with sexual harassment occurred in elementary school (3 & 4). When examining the prevalence of dating violence, it often depends on how it is defined. The prevalence of dating violence has been found to be as low as 9% when not including verbal abuse (5) and as high as 55% (6) when including verbal abuse. Prevalence rates in the majority of studies range between 20% and 40% (7).

Links Between Bullying, Dating Violence, and Sexual Harassment

How students are involved in bullying influences their involvement in dating violence and sexual harassment. Students who are not involved in bullying are significantly less likely to experience physical dating violence compared to students who are bullies or bully-victims. When examining emotional abuse in dating relationships, bully-victims report the most victimization. However, those who are victims of bullying report the least amount of emotional abuse in dating relationships. When it comes to sexual harassment, bully-victims are more likely than other groups to be involved. Victims of bullies are also sexually harassed more often than students uninvolved in bullying, but at similar rates as bullies (9). Overall, bully-victims are the group most at-risk for developing unhealthy romantic relationships in adolescence and young adulthood.

Bullies Who Date

Students who are involved in bullying often have different experiences than those who are not involved in bullying. In general, adolescents engaging in bullying behaviors are at-risk for developing unhealthy romantic relationships. When compared to their peers, bullies report the following behaviors:

  • Experiencing more physical and social aggression with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Physical aggression ranges in severity from slapping a partner to choking, punching, or beating up a partner. Social aggression includes acts such as spreading rumors or excluding a partner from group activities.
  • Describing their relationship with their partner as less emotionally supportive and having less equality than non-bullies.
  • Placing more of an importance on their romantic relationships than their peers.
  • Dating at an earlier age. In one study, the average age for bullies to begin dating was at the end of their 10th year, while their non-bully peers began dating around the middle of their 11th year.
  • Engaging in more advanced forms of dating (i.e., more one-on-one dating than group activities) than their peers. Bullies spend more time outside of school with a partner and, overall, develop romantic relationships earlier than their peers (9).
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