Bullying: Experiences and Discourses of Sexuality and Gender (Book Review)

Author:  Rivers, Ian and Neil Duncan
Publisher:  Routledge. 2013, 171 pp, London and New York
Reviewed by:  Charles Silverstein

Bullying: Experiences and Discourses of Sexuality and GenderThe subject of bullying in the schools, and particularly bullying of LGBT kids, has been in the forefront of the news lately. It’s about time! Bullying and its newer transformation, cyberbullying, has been studied since the 1990s, but you would never know that by looking at school policies and procedures regarding bullying and various other forms of harassment. Until the recent killings so well publicized by the media, one would never know that a public report by the Secret Service and the Department of Education published in 2002 showed that 71 percent of child attackers in schools (37 incidents from 1974–2000 with 41 attackers) had been seriously bullied in schools, and that 78 percent were significantly depressed. The only higher percentage recorded was those who used guns for the attacks. That was 100 percent. They were also all boys.

The recent surge in cyberbullying has made things worse. What used to be a separation between the school campus and the outside world has nearly vanished with the rise in electronic technology. The home, once a place of safety against bullying and sexual harassment, is now merely one more venue in which to torture school-age children and teenagers.

There are two exceedingly important questions for psychologists to answer regarding bullying LGBT kids in the schools. The first has to do with terminology. Do we view the bullies as “homophobic,” meaning that they suffer from some form of pathology that if identified, can be cured? “Homophobic” lets society off the hook—it’s just those bad kids. Or do we follow Herek’s (1996) suggestion that these kids are discriminated against by a heterosexist society? He tells us, and I agree completely, that punishing a teenager for bullying is counter-productive in a school culture that prizes a rigid form of masculinity and punishes kids who fail to conform to that standard. How one identifies the problem determines the direction for school change.

The second question is this: What is the responsibility of the school in dealing with the bullying and cyberbullying epidemic? Should schools monitor the actions of its students when they are off-campus? Do our school systems have the responsibility, and the legal authority, to punish those students whose actions harm other students, in its most benign form leading to significant psychological problems, and its most serious form to death? It is sad to notice how many 12–14 year-old kids commit suicide after either physically aggressive or cyberbullying. The courts are already deciding First Amendment cases on this very question of the limits of free speech.

Rivers and Duncan have assembled an astonishingly good group of researchers in this edited volume. Edited books are notoriously difficult to complete. One has to find colleagues who know the material, have the time to write their chapters, and write well enough to convey their messages. The editors have hit a home-run with this book. They obviously kept to a strict page limit. One can sense that from the succinctness and clarity with which every single chapter author presented his or her work.

While I learned things in every chapter, a few stand out as especially of interest to members of Division 44. Poteat et al. (“Homophobic Bullying”) summarizes what we know about bullying kids who do not conform to gender demands of masculinity. They also show that the penalties for gender non-conformity increase as boys progress through high school, while they remain at the same level for girls.

Espelage (“Bullying and Sexual Violence”) raises some significant questions. She discusses how often heterosexual boys are subjected to homophobic bullying, once again a gender issue, not sexual orientation. She also suggests that students who bully their peers are more likely to be more violent in their dating relationships. Might teenagers and adult men who batter or sexually molest women have begun their careers by being bullies in the school? Hopefully further research will clarify this question.

Other chapters that stood out for me included those on homophobic language (McCormack), immediate and long-term effects (Cowie), Cyberbullying (Rivers), and girls & indirect aggression (Jennifer). Rivers and Duncan have a well-written summary chapter tying together the work of the chapter authors.

I was disappointed by the absence of a chapter on how litigation has affected the schools. Presumably this was not touched upon because it is not a psychological question. But litigation and First Amendment questions have influenced school policies throughout the country and it would have been helpful to read about them in this book. I would also have liked to read a chapter about student suicide. This is discussed briefly in one chapter or another, but I would have preferred to see a more lengthy exposition on the subject. I would also have liked to find more written about how “sexting” has been used by teenagers to harass other students, and in some cases lead to suicide. Perhaps the reason is that our research cannot keep up with technology. While conducting and publishing research takes years, the latest technological wizardry is just around the corner. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if technology, for once, led to a positive change in gender non-conformity.

But these are small points in an otherwise wonderful book. I suggest that it must be read by anyone connected to our educational system from grade school to college. All clinicians have heard how their patients have suffered from anti-gay discrimination. This book puts flesh on that bone by clarifying the component roles of gender, sexual orientation, and sexuality.

References

Herek, G. M. (1996). Heterosexism and homophobia. In R. P. Cabaj and T. S. Stein (Eds.), Textbook of homosexuality and mental health, pp. 101–113. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.