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Science & Research

Sex, bullying linked in girls, study suggests

Sexually active high school girls more likely to be bullied than boys in same category

Contributing Writer
Monday, September 22, 2014

The sexual double standard — the concept that women are more highly criticized for sexual activity than men are — may play a role in bullying victimization among high school girls, according to a new study led by a team of  University researchers.

“Sexually active girls have 2.27 times the odds of being bullied compared to boys who are also sexually active,” said Hailee Dunn, the former manager of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine and lead author of the study. The study was co-authored by three other Brown researchers and was released in this month’s issue of the journal Women’s Health Issues.

Girls who have engaged in sexual intercourse are almost twice as likely to be bullied, Dunn said. “If you look at boys, it’s not as significant.”

Girls who became sexually active at younger ages were found to be more prone to bullying than those who were not sexually active until they were older.

This same correlation does not exist with boys, “so that may be indicative of some sort of sexual double standard,” Dunn said.

In regard to use of condoms and other forms of contraception, there are no significant gender differences, according to the study.

From this finding, the researchers “interpreted that maybe our health education programs are working,” Dunn said. “There is this sort of stigma if you’re not using a form of protection that applies to both boys and girls.” Both boys and girls who had not used condoms reported higher rates of bullying than those who had.

The study analyzed the results of 13,065 high school boys and girls who took the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2011, Dunn said.

In the YRBS, students were asked two questions about bullying, and those who answered yes to at least one of the questions were classified as having been bullied.

Dunn, who comes from a background in psychology, sociology and women’s studies, was looking to “synthesize (her) different experiences” and apply a feminist theoretical framework to her previous work.

Dunn said she was inspired to do the study when she heard about the 2012 Steubenville rape case, in which a high school girl was sexually assaulted in the Ohio town and the resulting controversy garnered national attention. She said she was shocked by the way the media covered the case, “as if there was more sympathy towards the two football players” than the girl who was raped.

“I had read an article about the backlash that this girl had gotten through social media networks, not just from boys but from girls, too. It showed how we continue to enforce this rape culture,” Dunn said.

“I’m interested in how we’re implicitly motivated by norms surrounding masculinity and femininity. I took that concept and applied it to looking at the association between sexual engagement and bullying,” she added. “In that instant, to me it seemed that the cultural norms around rape culture facilitated this violence.”

Because the study is correlational, Dunn said that researchers can conclude only that these two variables are related, not which one might lead to the other. For example, “it’s possible that girls who are bullied then go out and engage in promiscuous behavior,” Dunn said.

One of Dunn’s main critiques of the study was that it only looks at survey results from one year. In a second, related paper, which is being submitted to journals for review, Dunn said, she looked at combined Rhode Island sample YRBS data from 2009, 2011 and 2013.

“We’re looking to see if the sexual double standard applies to heterosexual youth and sexual minorities in the same way,” Dunn said. “We weren’t able to do that in this study because in the national level they don’t ask about sexual orientation, so we weren’t able to control for that.”

Mary Crawford, professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, led a study in 2003 that looked at the sexual double standard in college-aged students and found less convincing evidence of its existence.

“The sexual double standard is still with us but difficult to pin down in research because it is not ‘cool’ to acknowledge it. Students want to present themselves as sexually sophisticated, and may deny views that seem dated,” Crawford said. “This is why the double standard shows up in subtle measures … more than direct ones.”

But Dunn said Crawford’s contradictory findings may have resulted because “when you engage in sexual intercourse in college, it’s probably a less deviant behavior than if you were to engage in it in high school, because it’s a first time for kids.”

“Maybe there’s not much of an emphasis on the sexual double standard as we get older, but it seems like it could definitely be more prominent when kids are younger,” Dunn said. “Especially from eighth grade to ninth grade, it’s where we start to develop our identities. I think that’s where we experience more hyper-masculinity or hyper-femininity because we’re trying to figure out who we are. We need to draw attention to the implicit things that motivate us.”

Dunn pointed out that many high school curricula lack gender studies and human rights programs.

Bullying intervention is a challenging topic to address, but Dunn said “we need to tackle the underlying causes so that kids don’t treat each other that way.”


A previous version of this article misstated Hailee Dunn’s title. She is the former, not current, manager of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine. The Herald regrets the error.

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  1. In other news, sky is blue, water is wet

  2. Brown University protects rapists, because it fears that truth will damage the reputation of (selfish) individual administrators and reduce alum endowment contribution. Brown university aids and abets perpetrators of violent sex crimes.

  3. Young American says:

    I couldn’t find the breakdown of who bullies whom. Are you suggesting that boys bully girls who are sexually active? because that would make NO sense at all.

    • MD/PhD Candidate says:

      I don’t see anywhere in the article that even begins to suggest who is bullying whom – that’s why there is no breakdown. just that association between sexual activity and being bullied is 2.27x stronger for girls than it is for boys. In this article (the BDH should really include a link to the actual article), it says “The study analyzed the results of 13,065 high school boys and girls who took the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2011, Dunn said.

      In the YRBS, students were asked two questions about bullying, and those who answered yes to at least one of the questions were classified as having been bullied.”

      There is no mention of asking the bullied student whether they were bullied by guys or girls.

      Boys definitely bully girls who are sexually active (never heard a guy refer to a girl as a slut or a whore?) additionally, the study doesn’t look at which came first – the bullying or the sex. Maybe the boys bullied the girls when they were younger and now they’re sexually active.

      Either way, your question is valid, but it’s not part of this particular study.

      • Young American says:

        While I would never condone anyone calling anyone else a slut, that’s not bullying. Any definition you find will specifically state that bullying has to be sustained with an intent to control behavior. A reference, no matter how rude, does not fit that definition.
        The most compelling motivation for bullying sexually active females is “competitor derogation” and it would come from other females.
        You’re right though, it wasn’t part of this study… which is very troubling. If there is going to be any policy or education or outreach to curtail or eliminate this behavior you HAVE to know who is doing the bullying and why.

        • MD/PhD Candidate says:

          How about the APA definition? No where does it say intent to control behavior. Repeatedly calling a girl a slut to denigrate her would be defined as bullying.

          It’s not troubling that this study didn’t look to address whom is doing the bullying. Studies can’t be expected to do everything. They showed the correlation existed (which I’m not familiar enough with this topic to know if this is news or not – let’s assume it is news since it got recently published in the 3rd highest impact factor journal in women’s studies – so now it’s worth looking into that question. This was a quick, cheap study using the CDC’s YRBS because it had surveyed a large number of kids. The study authors didn’t design the questionnaire. The YRBS was not created specifically to look at this question so it doesn’t have everything one might need. The kind of study you’re looking for would be much more expensive and time consuming.

          You’re already assuming that the sexual activity is causing the bullying. That might not be the case. It could be that the girls were bullied by both genders equally or even predominately boys leading to low self esteem, and thus become more likely to engage in sexual activity because they receive validation from the pursuit of the boys. Given the data from the YRBS, the temporal relationship between bullying and sexual activity can’t be established.

          This article is not mentioning any education outreach or policy changes yet. You’re getting ahead of your self and thus getting annoyed by a perceived lack of due diligence. (At least that’s the tone I’m getting from you)

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