Sexual double standards are alive and thriving, and now starting even younger than we would care to think. On November 11, Ashlynn Connor, a young girl from Illinois, committed suicide. According to her mother Ashlynn was bullied for the previous two years. One of the preferred taunts by bullies was to call Ashlynn, age 10, a slut.
According to an article on LiveScience “slutbashing” has become a popular form of bullying for teens and tweens. Maureen McHugh a psychologist who spoke to LiveScience, defined slutbashing as labeling others as promiscuous or dirty. In the article, McHugh discusses how sexuality can be a sensitive and vulnerable subject for this age group as they are coming to terms with their sexuality. Labeling one another with terms such as “slut” and “whore” show the infiltration of sexual double standards into a younger audience. This double standard is the same which glorifies guys who have sex and shames girls who do. It is a tight rope without strict definitions; a girl must be sexual, but not too sexual. Faltering from this fine line often leads to being bullied and harassed.
While bullying is not done solely with sexual and gender-based insults, it is common. Teens that are homosexual are bullied three times as much as heterosexual students. Research into the topic shows that it is not so much the identity that kids have problems with, but the transgression of gender roles. During this time of development, tweens/teens are heavily policing one another in terms of gender and sexual identity. But the bullying is not kept to only nonconforming students. In a national study of 2,000 7-12 grade students, 48% reported they had been sexually harassed in the 2010-2011 school year.
Using sexual taunts and identity based insults as tools for bullying has potentially dangerous consequences. In the same national study, of the people who reported sexual harassment, 87% said it negatively affected them and between 25-37% said it made them not want to go to school. Bullying is not a personal issue felt by the person being bullied. It is systemic and dangerous. And not only because of the risk of suicide. Kids who are bullied are less likely to perform to their highest ability in school and can have physical and emotional difficulties.
Ashlynn Connor is only the most recent in a string of teen suicides caused by bullying. In FVPC’s primary prevention program, Start Strong, volunteers go into middle school classrooms to discuss the topics of bullying and relationships. In the discussion of bullying, identity-based insults are covered specifically. An identity based insult is when a person takes a piece of someone’s identity to use as a put down. Volunteers discuss specifically how calling someone/thing “gay” and how calling someone a girl is problematic. Anytime someone attacks a fundamental part of you, which you cannot change, it creates tension and shame – two things one should never feel about being yourself.
Kids imitate what they see performed for them. When watching television, or talking with a tween/teen, make sure you are promoting healthy and positive examples. If there is bullying on a show you are watching, take a minute to talk about it. If you are prone to using gendered or identity based insults (like “gay” “retarded” or “queer”), think about how someone you care for might be hurt by their use. If you hear someone else using them, talk to them about it. Bullying, like domestic violence, is a learned behavior, which means that the kids who are bullying today first saw someone else do it and get away with it. Break the cycle.