What is sexism, sexual bullying, harassment and violence, what schools can do to support victims and prevent bullying.

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What is sexual bullying?

Sexualised bullying broadly includes any bullying behaviour with a sexual element. It can be both physical and non-physical and it can be carried out to a person's face, behind their back or through the use of technology.

Anti-bullying alliance Go to https://anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/tools-information/all-about-bullying/sexual-and-sexist-bullying/what-sexual-bullying (opens new window) states that this behaviour can be between children and young people of any gender and/or sexual orientation, and between children and adults. 

Sexual bullying might include:

  • sexual comments, taunts and threats
  • inappropriate physical contact that makes the recipient feel uncomfortable or scared, this can include hugging and kissing
  • distributing sexual material (including pornography), sending photos or videos of a sexual nature
  • making phone calls and sending texts or messages of a sexual nature
  • ‘games' with a sexual element that may make a child or young person feel uncomfortable or scared. For example taking clothes off, kissing or touching games
  • pressure to spend time alone or apart from others with another person, or people, that makes the person feel uncomfortable or scared. For example behind  school buildings, in the toilets or changing rooms, in the field
  • pressure to be in a relationship with another person, or to engage in a sexual act with another person, both inside and outside of school
  • sexism in all its forms; pressure to conform to  particular gender ‘norms'. For example pressure on boys to have multiple partners, or pressure on boys and girls to be heterosexual

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a similar term to sexualised bullying. It is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which makes someone feel distressed, intimidated or humiliated:

  • sexually degrading comments, jokes or gestures
  • being stared or leered at
  • unwanted sexual advances or propositions
  • unwanted touching, groping or sexual assault
  • texts, emails or social media with a sexual content

How common is sexual harassment and sexual violence?

Sexual harassment and sexual bullying is an everyday occurrence for young people. It's wrongly normalised as a ‘part of growing up' and just ‘banter', which adds to the barriers young people have to reporting it and to teachers policing it. 

In the UK:

The Government's Women and Equalities committee carried out an inquiry into the scale of sexual harassment and violence in schools in 2016 Go to https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmwomeq/91/91.pdf (opens new window).

Sexual bullying in Bristol schools

During 2013 and 2014, pdf Bristol Public Health carried out research (390 KB)  with young people in school years 9 to 13 in Bristol to look at:

  • sexual bullying
  • harassment
  • sexism

Young people confirmed that sexualised bullying happens a lot. One in three stated that posting rude pictures online is happening between peers and 1 in 10 young people say rape threats happen in their school ‘a lot'.

One of the issues they reported was the normalisation of sexism, sexualised bullying and sexual harassment and that it was often framed as ‘just a joke'. This lessened the severity of the problem and made the victim look like they had no sense of humour if they complained.

Young people's understanding of the causes of sexual bullying and harassment

Research was carried out between 2014 and 2015 through a questionnaire and focus groups. It includes recommendations for schools and youth settings on how they can tackle sexual bullying.

Young people reported being under pressure to act up to traditional, heterosexual stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, despite what might seem like great strides forward in gender equality.

Sexism and sexual bullying appear to be used to enforce these stereotypes and highlight when someone has stepped out of place with some girls reporting being told to “know your place” and “get in the kitchen” regularly.

What schools can do to support somebody who discloses sexual harassment and sexual violence

Every school has its own safeguarding policies and procedures. To support these, the government has guidance for schools Go to https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sexual-violence-and-sexual-harassment-between-children-in-schools-and-colleges (opens new window) on how to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.

The South West Child Protection Go to https://www.proceduresonline.com/swcpp/ (opens new window) procedures is agreed by the South West Local Safeguarding Children boards and covers all types of child abuse. All the information is based on current legislation and up to date national policy. It is updated regularly and should be followed by all organisations.

For further support, schools can also access the Safeguarding in Education team by email safeguardingineducationteam@bristol.gov.uk or by phoning 0117 922 2710

What to say to the pupil

The initial response to a disclosure from a child is important. It's essential that you reassure them that you believe what they've told you and that they will be supported and kept safe.

They should never be given the impression that they are creating a problem by reporting sexual violence or sexual harassment. Nor should they ever be made to feel ashamed for making a report. 

Signposting to additional services

The South West Survivor Pathway Go to http://www.survivorpathway.org.uk/bristol/ (opens new window) lists all the services that can offer children, young people and adults additional and specialist support, with a specialist section on children and young people's services.


Training from Bristol Safeguarding Children's Board  (BSCB) Go to https://bristolsafeguarding.org/training/ (opens new window) will  support you to develop the generic skills to respond to any child protection issue.

Information for managing allegations against people who work with children.

Bristol Safeguarding Children Board (BSCB) have information about managing allegations Go to https://bristolsafeguarding.org/media/1283/allegations-management-guidance-document.pdf (opens new window).

You should notify the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) of any allegation against a person who works with children. You can do this by completing and returning the BSCB LADO notification form Go to https://bristolsafeguarding.org/children/lado-concerns-about-professionals/ (opens new window).

The BSCB also has guidance on managing allegations against foster carers Go to https://bristolsafeguarding.org/media/1171/allegations-against-foster-carers.pdf (opens new window).

What your school can do to prevent sexualised bullying

If pupils think the school environment accepts or ignores sexualised bullying and harassment, they'll think that sexualised bullying, sexism and harassment are acceptable, or that it's ok to ignore it.

As a result of the research conducted with pupils by Bristol Public Health, the following recommendations were made to tackle sexual bullying in your school: 

  • have a zero tolerance approach to all forms of sexism, sexual harassment and sexualised bullying, including homophobia
  • make sure young people understand why you're taking a zero tolerance approach
  • challenge books, music, social media that are sexist or homophobic on school or youth premises
  • help young people talk through the issues, and explore the influence of the media, in class or a workshop. Help them discuss and think about their own attitudes as well
  • support campaigns, such as Stonewall Go to http://www.stonewall.org.uk/ (opens new window), to challenge values and attitudes 
  • engage students in developing their own campaigns as a way of influencing their friends and other pupils
  • include gender equality work into all aspects of your organisation
  • do gender equality work in small groups to encourage pupils to engage
  • explore gender within relationships and sex education at school, beginning in primary school, if not earlier, and help young people understand and challenge gender stereotypes or sexuality stereotypes
  • in an age-appropriate way, explore and challenge the influences and external factors that create or support stereotypes and preconceptions, for example toys for girls vs toys for boys, male and female characters in books and films, music and music videos 
  • do an audit of what you do and don't already show, for example what images and materials or activities you have in your setting that might be supporting rigid gender roles or sexism
  • consider having champions for gender equality, both staff and young people
  • have a policy and protocol on how to deal with disclosures, don't ignore the problem or assume it's ‘just a joke' or ‘part of growing up'
  • get to know the specific issues in your school or setting and ask students for their views anonymously to inform your work
  • challenge staff sexist attitudes as and where possible, make sure you offer training as part of a whole-settings approach and not just to the staff who are interested