Research More than a decade of research—often originating in US colleges
and universities—has established the strongest possible links between middle
school violence and gender norms.
Rite of Passage Learning to enact masculinity
and femininity and being publicly acknowledged as a young man or woman is a
major rite of passage for nearly every adolescent or teen. This can be
especially true during the "gender intensification” years of ages 9-13,
when interest in traditional gender norms intensifies, and belief in them
Yet the language of
school violence often obscures the importance of gender norms. "Bullying,”
sounds like a problem of individual acts by singular malefactors. "Sexual
harassment” sounds like sexual coercion or pressure being applied, yet
adolescent bullying is almost never about sex per se.
harassment” addresses straight-on-gay attacks, and references common taunts
like "That's so gay" and "You're a fag."
Although straight harassment of LGBTQ students is serious and pervasive, most
middle schooling harassment of this type is straight males victimizing peers.
And not only because only a small minority of middle school students are (or
are perceived to be) gay.
researcher C J Pascoe spent a year living with Denver high school students and
tracking the use of homophobic epithets. Pascoe found that that the vast
majority of taunts like "That's so gay” and "You're a
fag” were not directed at LGBTQ students, but rather straight males
attempting to humiliate their peers to promote masculinity or
punish gender non-conformity--similar to saying "You cry/throw
like a girl" or a football coach who addresses his recalcitrant team
as "ladies" (Dude, You're A Fag! Masculinity and Sexuality
in High School, University of California, 2007).
Three Groups In fact, studies have repeatedly
found that three groups of adolescents are consistently targeted for
victimization in middle school:
1. Boys who are perceived as not masculine enough;
2. Girls who are perceived as not feminine enough; and,
3. Girls whose bodies mature before their peers.
case, policing gender norms or punishing some sort of perceived gender
non-conformity is clearly integral to the attack.
Harassment Indeed, middle school bullying
might be more accurately termed "gendered harassment”--which seeks to
promote masculinity in boys and femininity in girls, keep girls in subordinate
positions, regulate girls' bodies, and punish unmanliness in boys.
Ignoring Gender Despite this, prominent school
violence programs and policies largely ignore the role of gender norms, instead
focusing on animus towards specific groups (LGBTQ students), specific acts
(sexual harassment or homophobic epithets), or promoting generic messages of
tolerance and no name-calling. By avoiding focusing on the specifics of gender
intolerance, these programs cannot be as effective as they must be.
Zero Tolerance In addition, these efforts are
increasingly coupled with "Zero Tolerance" policies meant to offer
offenders little or no reprieve.
to Keyboard However as middle school violence moves
from the blackboard to the keyboard, punishment-based policies won't work.
Depending on how it's measured, online attacks grew from 500-900%, just in the
four years from 2001 to 2005 (one of the last years for which we have good
data), and that's well before social media took off.
via websites, Facebook, texting, video and email are anonymous, intrusive
(think of a pager going off at 2am), permanent (Google forgets nothing) and can
quickly "go viral," scaling from two or three classmates to tens of
thousands of strangers within a matter of hours (as YouTube shows).
Zero tolerance and
similar punishment-oriented policies--or programs that focus on individual
malefactors or identities---are simply mismatched for the digital age.
Moreover, they may only drive face-to-face attacks online.
effective school violence programs must begin to focus on the harsh gender ideals,
which are the root causes and entrenched attitudes driving school violence.
Only by addressing causes--rather than punishing behavior--can we hope to
succeed in a digital age.
closing, it is important to note that studies have consistently found that the
majority of middle school students report being victimized by gendered
harassment regularly. In many studies well over half of all students report
being attacked in the past year, with rates in some studies reaching as high as
behavior that involves a majority of students on a regular basis should not be
conceptualized as an aberration to be stamped out. It
qualifies as a significant cultural norm: a part of the daily fabric
of adolescent social life, an integral component of how girls and boys learn
the limits and imperatives of the gender system.
Systemic Approach As such, we should begin thinking of
gendered harassment as a systemic problem, one that can only be successfully
challenged through a systemic approach.
Our Work Gender transformative approaches
highlight, challenge and change the systemic culture of gender conformity and
intolerance that drives middle school social violence, both online and off. We
believe research must begin to inform practice, and move gender norms to the
center of the debate. TrueChild is committed to leading and helping in this