Panel: Do We Need New Words for Bullying?

by | March 1, 2012
filed under Feminism

Pink Shirt GirlYesterday was Pink Shirt Day or Anti-Bullying Day and it got me thinking about the words we use to describe bullying. Some people have raised the concern that the word “bullying” isn’t strong enough – that it lends itself to to be written off by someone saying “kids will be kids”. Take, for example, the following quote from Jowhara Sanders in an interview with Children’s Voice Magazine:

“I don’t even think the word bullying is a strong enough word for what is going on.” She believes that what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger, she reiterates, “but it is killing them.”

Others – feminist organizations in particular – have brought up the issue that much of what we call “bullying” is in fact sexual harassment. The argument is not only that the word “bullying” is not seen as as serious as “sexual harassment” but that it obscures the sexism and objectification behind the behaviour. Here’s a quote from a related article on the Ms. Magazine blog:

Despite headlines that label all harassment in schools as bullying, there is a difference between sexual harassment and bullying. And it’s an important one. When schools, the media and the public mislabel sexual harassment as bullying, they negate the role that sex and gender play in the abusive behavior. Bullying is not based on a student’s sex; sexual harassment is. Students are bullied because they may be annoying to a classmate, wear their hair differently, don’t wear the “right” brand of shoes or come from the wrong side of town. Their victimization is not based on their sex (or other protected classes such as race, religion or disability). Most significantly, bullying is not a violation of federal and state civil rights laws–but sexual harassment is.

Similarly, some, such as educators Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, feel homophobic and racist bullying would in any other situation be called “hate speech”:

The truth is, calling it “bullying” gives kids cover. Bullying, bad as the connotation might be, is something kids do. Hate crimes and assault are something grownups do. No anti-bullying program can succeed unless it confronts these underlying prejudices. Only when such intolerances are reduced will bullying go down.

Here’s what some of the GF contributors had to say about this question:

Do you think the term “bullying” is strong enough for all types of physical/verbal/emotional/sexual harassment and abuse by kids? Do you think we need other terms to capture its seriousness and the social factors to which it can be linked?


A tremendous obstacle in eradicating bullying in schools is the use of the term bullying; it is just not nuanced enough to capture the multitudinous aspects of this complex phenomenon. We need to be using very specific language so that we can very specifically address each situation. How can you fix a specific problem if you’re not using specific language, and identifying precisely what the problem is?

We need to call it what it is – sexual harassment, physical assault, verbal abuse, emotional abuse. If we don’t use the appropriate language, we’re also not providing children with the appropriate language. A child who has sexually harassed another, seriously violating their civil rights, who is told s/he is a bully is not getting the whole picture about the severity of that behaviour. If we’re really serious about addressing the issue of bullying, then we need to use explicit labels of that behaviour. When labeling things like physical assault and sexual harassment as “bullying”, the severity of the behaviour is somewhat lost in that term, especially where bullying has been framed as a normal childhood experience. We then have children growing up who might not have clear ideas of the boundaries between just poor behaviour and a violation of the rights of others.

What is also overlooked when we label a child a “bully” is that bullying is not a static phenomenon with a consistent victim and a consistent bully. Children who bully may also be bullied. Bullies have also been found to have more negative views of themselves, and tend to pick on other children who have trouble fitting in. We can’t properly address the issue if we’re not considering all relevant factors, and this is clearly an issue with social roots.


I think people tend to trivialize the effects of bullying because it happens to children. The word already has schoolyard connotations, so maybe that’s why it’s not being taken more seriously. Sometimes kids act like small problems are the end of the world, and yeah, part of growing up is learning to get along with the world’s jerks. But there is a point when it’s more than kids being kids. If, as an adult, someone I saw every day told me I was worthless or that I should kill myself, or constantly picked on and belittled me, it would be taken more seriously. If adults get beaten up the way some children do, it’s called assault. I think that’s a more appropriate word.

We have children killing themselves, bringing guns to school and killing their peers. I don’t think bullying was ever harmless, but if it was at some point, it isn’t anymore. With the advance of sophisticated technology, we have children being bullied in more sophisticated ways. Our responses to this should be evolving as well. Lives are realistically at stake here.


At first I didn’t have a problem with the word “bullying”. As someone who was bullied intensely, I called it that and so the word never lacked significance for me. Technically, I was sexually harassed. For example, from age 13 to 15 I had boys throw pennies at me on the bus every day, calling me a slut who would sleep with anything for a penny. It’s serious. I don’t think using another word will necessarily get people to take it more seriously. Even “sexual harassment” has been trivialized by some groups that write it off as “boys will be boys” just as bullying gets written off as “kids will be kids”.

What I do think is the more important effect of using terms like “hate speech” and “sexual harassment” is that they illuminate how the types of abuse kids inflict on other kids are not isolated – they’re linked to social inequality, sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and gender stereotyping. “Bullying” erases all the social structures and makes it seem like those attitudes are something you age out of.

So I do think new ways of talking about bullying are necessary. What’s even more important, as Alicia pointed out in her article on Pink Shirt Day, is for adults and peers to take responsibility to empower and protect victims, to send the message that this is not okay. I understand that there may be factors driving kids to bully. I understand some grow out of it and that we all did stupid things as kids. But it is unacceptable to tell bullying victims that they have to wait it out until it gets better. By the time that happens many will be subject to potentially life-long traumas. And many more will not make it that far.

Whether we call it “abuse” or “hate speech” or “harassment” or “bullying”, there is no doubt that it destroys lives and that we need people to step up and take action.

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  • I feel there are instances bigger than the scope of the word, “bullying” and our typical reactions to it, and sexual harassment is surely one of them. In Grade Six one of my classmates came up with a game I can only describe as “play sexual assault”, where he would hold a specific girl down and make sexual threats to her. The boy doing it and his friends watching him thought it was joking fun. The principal caught on and, thankfully, reacted far beyond the usual scope of a principal reacting to schoolyard bullying. Of course all the kids had found out and were talking about it. So the principal had a conversation with all the boys where he quashed any and all victim blaming we were already doing (whether separating us by gender in talking with us was problematic I don’t remember, but I admire his effort to have a serious and safe conversation about sexual assault and victim blaming when we clearly needed it). He also brought someone in to talk to our class about sexual harassment. I remember, and this is so key, thinking he was overreacting at the time, but I’m so glad he reacted exactly as he did because it made me (and others I’m sure) think twice in the future about taking sexual bullying lightly.

    On the other hand, this same principal gave me the “boys will be boys it’s part of growing up” talk when I was verbally and physically abused and threatened (sometimes gender based, sometimes not) by several of the other boys in my class. I was called a fag many times and no one was brought in to talk about that. Now, I feel really weird about comparisons and false equivalencies where real human suffering is concerned, and I’m getting close to doing that here, but at the age of 12 I remember feeling my female classmate’s victimization was more “important” to the principal than mine. So I’m trying to look at this from a perspective kids can appreciate, because their concept of fairness isn’t the same as ours. “Bullying” is probably far too broad, but I’m hesitant to create terms that could be treated as a victimization hierarchy. Which is why I like what Jasmine is saying about bringing specific terminology to each situation, with the caveat, and we don’t have to diminish anyone’s experience in saying this, that ANY form of bullying is a violation of a person’s rights. And I LOVE how she points out the pitfall of treating bullying like a static phenomenon. Telling a kid what they are is a lot less effective than telling a kid the ramifications of what they do.

  • Personally, I feel the problem is not with bullying not being a strong enough word, but with the fact that people don’t take bullying seriously. I take it very seriously, therefore the word is PLENTY strong enough for me.

    We need to educate kids (and a lot of adults) on just how damaging bullying is, and demand that our culture takes it seriously.

    Lives are at stake.

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