Guest post: Bullied Boys

// 15 May 2009

All bullying is bad. But the Independent has its priorities mixed up, argues Rosalind Kemp

The Independent’s Education section yesterday ran an article claiming that clever boys are “most vulnerable” to bullying.

It is absolutely shocking, more so in that even within the article it is shown that clever girls are also bullied.

For example, the newspaper reports that Natalie “was bullied for being smart and speaking up in class. She was called names and had ‘lesbian’ pictures planted in her bag.”

The homophobic aspect of her bullying is ignored and she is presented more as a helper to boy victims through her work as a cyber-counselor than as a victim of bullying herself. Fran Baker, an assistant head teacher, is interviewed about how her Croydon school is combating bullying of high-achieving pupils and she makes no mention of gender. But boys are the ones who need our concern apparently.

The Independent quotes Tommy, who says: “They used to call me all sorts of things, like boffin and geek.” It is sad that he has been teased, but it’s outrageous that his experience should be considered worse than homophobic, sexist, or racist bullying. Even suggesting that it is more common doesn’t correspond to previous studies of bullying.

Stonewall’s Teachers Report on homophobic bullying indicates that it is the second most frequent kind after bullying because of weight. While Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, states that two thirds of lesbian and gay schoolchildren experience some sort of homophobic bullying, 17% of which was death threats.

Panorama in January looked at sexual bullying (covered by The F-Word at the time) some of which was very frightening and serious, and the Home Office report on transphobic bullying contains case studies of trans children experiencing strong physically violent bullying.

Bright children may be picked on, but they are conforming to the norms and expectations of the education system and society as a whole. This means that children like Tommy only have a very brief period of being made to feel like an outsider while other groups may continue to be persecuted into higher education and the workplace.

But the Independent is clear in its priorities, even uses only white boys in the photos, just to emphasise that white male people are the ones we need to care about. Their struggles are the important issues in society and this is just one more news item reminding us of this.

Comments From You

Qubit // Posted 15 May 2009 at 3:22 pm

I actually disagree with you, this is a serious form of bullying that needs to be tackled. I am not sure it is the most intelligent that suffer though rather those who as a result of the culture don’t work and therefore never achieve their full potential. That doesn’t mean the bullying isn’t dreadful and should be stopped. However the wider effect of the bullying is to discourage others from trying and this could change what future directions their life can take.

It is easy to say this bullying is limited to white boys but I believe it extends further than that. There is a youth culture particularly among boys that encourages and rewards lack of work. This will disadvantage many boys but particularly those who already are disadvantaged and bullied due to poverty, sexuality or racism. It will also increasingly become a problem among young women as the novelty of the fairly new benefits of ‘equal’ opportunity wears off and the apathetic culture prevails.

It is something that should be tackled. We need to stop boys holding each other back as much as we need to challenge cultural norms which hold back women and ethnic minorities. This is an important issue and to dismiss it just because it is less prominent among girls is wrong. Tackling this doesn’t mean problems such as sexual bullying can’t be addressed and I believe they are all related in the way they are all to do with how children see themselves and others.

NorthernJess // Posted 15 May 2009 at 4:14 pm

“Bright children may be picked on, but they are conforming to the norms and expectations of the education system and society as a whole. This means that children like Tommy only have a very brief period of being made to feel like an outsider while other groups may continue to be persecuted into higher education and the workplace.”- The pyschological (sp) implications of being bullied last lifetimes no matter what the cause of the bullying. Whilst bullying policies continue to be divided into ‘race bullying’, ‘gender bullying’, ‘sexuality bullying’ etc then this reinforces the notion of ‘difference’ and ‘other’ within these subgroups, further reinforcing the culture of ‘difference=bad’. ALL bullying is unexceptable. Also, you say that bright clever pupils who are bullied only have to live with it for a short amount of time, well I’m sorry but I’m still living with being repeatedly being punched in the face because I had the gall to do well at school, and yes I did conform to the expectations of the education system, but I think you’ll find that society as a whole still does not accept clevernees and still mocks those who are uber-intelligent as somehow devient within popular culture. I dumb down at work constantly in order to ‘fit in’, not because I am ashamed of being, whilst not the most clever person ever, quite bright and interested in the world, but because I am still petrified of the childhood bullies whoses taunts of ‘swot’, ‘geek’, etc (and yes, thats not as offensive as some terms releating to my race, gender or sexuality, but its still hurts when you’re ten to be marked out as different on any level) still follow me. It is wrong to highlight the bullying of one race and gender over another, but it is also wrong to presume that, because they will grow up to be the dominant patriachy, they still don’t have feelings when picked on as a child.

Rosalind // Posted 15 May 2009 at 4:44 pm

I don’t disagree with your points but the Independent article didn’t make such insights in its article and that was what I was responding to. Also I wanted to highlight the way that they had covered the issue, not to make comment on the resources for victims that were suggested nor to argue that any victim of bullying doesn’t deserve help.

I agree that views of masculinity as incongruent with academic achievement are damaging. I did not see that the author of the article was arguing this. She was saying that boys who do well were most likely to be bullied despite there being little evidence to suggest either that bright girls get bullied less or that bright boys are more bullied than other groups.

From the little information that is available it would appear that achievement related bullying is more temporary and less severe than the other types I mentioned. The stonewall report suggests that bullying related to weight is actually the most common known to teachers but I doubt that papers would be so eager to write a piece asking to help fat kids avoid bullying.

Also, I never claimed that this type of bullying is limited to white boys. That was how I interpretted the article. Do you not think that the Independent’s focus on this one group of bullying victims shows a concern with middle-class males* over other groups in society?

*and I’d still argue that they assume these boys are white too

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 15 May 2009 at 4:46 pm

I think every form of bullying needs to be dealt with – all of it is extremely cruel!

However, to brush over the homophobic and clever-girl bullying like that does seem very messed-up.

Sexual bullying, homophobic and transphobic bullying, weight-based bullying – these issues just don’t get the media attention, and you have to feel that it’s because the victims fall outside the “normal” image of what people are supposed to be (or else, in the case of sexual bullying, the perpetrators are just doing what is “natural”).

Jennifer Drew // Posted 15 May 2009 at 6:21 pm

Yet another instance wherein sexual harassment and bullying become one and the same thing.

But there is a huge difference and that is sexual harassment and sexual intimidation within schools is overwhelmingly carried out by boys against girls. The Panorama programme too deliberately obscured the gendered issue by claiming the issue was solely one of ‘bullying.’ It is not because the issues are more complicated.

Girls are subjected to sexual harassment and sexual imtimidation because it is a deliberate attempt by boys to ‘put girls in their place’ and reducing girls to their sexuality is a deliberate ploy and is not limited to boys because adult men too engage in this form of sexual harassment against girls.

Boy on boy intimidation is all about policing boys who do not conform to dominant notions of ‘masculinity.’ The fact the Independent decided to focus on white boys but not boys of other ethnicities or races is very telling. Boys from non-white groups are also subjected to intimidation from white boys but the issue is both about racism and masculinity.

Also, how girls and boys experience and internalise sexual harassment and intimidation differ because boys are not reduced to their sexual identity whereas for girls this a common occurrence.

The Independent by publishing an article on white boys which also promotes the belief only white boys’ issues and needs are important.

Becky Francis, Wayne Martino and Christine Shelton to name just three academic experts on education have all written extensively on how rigid gender norms are enforced within the educational system. This enforcement includes policing girls’ sexualities and if girls are seen as deviating from the heterosexist script they are subjected to sexualised insults.

Boys, however, are scrutinised by their male peers to ensure they conform to a narrow white masculine indentity and if any boy is perceived as deviating he too is subjected to insults.

One aspect of dominant masculinity within the school environment is the belief that boys who are perceived as being ‘intelligent, work hard and achieve good grades’ are seen as ‘effeminate or feminine’ since masculinity is about promoting a hard and strong image. One wherein achieving good grades and working hard is deemed ‘feminine.’

The Independent obviously did not undertake sufficient research in respect of the issue of male on female sexual harassment and male on male pressures to conform to a misogynist masculine identity.

Ruth // Posted 15 May 2009 at 7:52 pm

Hearty “yea” to every point NorthernJess made.

We are not talking a few years of mild verbal taunting here, happily glossed over by a future life of privilege and achievement. Pupils commit *suicide*, or on the ‘milder end’ may drop out of education altogether because of anti-high-ability bullying. Some of them end up in the criminal justice system or with mental illness.

It can include serious, repeated physical violence – yes, I speak anecdotally from my son’s experience but I know from others that it’s not uncommon, and we are talking casualty department and broken bones here – AND homophobic abuse (being smart is ‘gay’, don’t you know; if you prefer books to football you must be “queer” [he is actually bisexual, but they didn’t know that and didn’t need to to weigh in with the homophobia].

This level of abuse can be sustained over years and years of a child’s most vulnerable psychological and emotional development, often ignored, even abetted, by those who are supposed to protect children on school property – doesn’t do much for a child’s sense of trust – and parents can, however hard they try, be impotent to stop it – more damage to vital relationships. If you want to argue that an entire school career is a brief and trivial period, then I say that you are dead wrong. The scars can be permanent.

Othering is the enemy of respect and recognition of the worth of every individual. Ignorance and fear of difference *of any kind* cause bullying, and anti-ability bullying can be ‘defended’ by the patriarchy justifiers [yes, teachers too] as just as ‘natural’ as any other othering-based bullying, on the grounds that exceptional ability makes you ‘a freak’ and a threat to the homosocial group.

Yes, no doubt the article should have at least mentioned other grounds for bullying – not that they can necessarily be easily demarcated, see above, and as Natalie’s experience showed – accusations of homosexuality are an all-purpose item in the bigots’ armoury, whether accurate or not. But is it impermissible to focus on a real and genuine issue in many, many schools because other groups suffer too? I thought we didn’t play Oppression Olympics around here.

Rob M // Posted 16 May 2009 at 3:20 am

Rosalind, you’re doing the same as what you’re arguing against – creating some sort of spurious league table of importance of Types Of People Who Are Bullied. Although you’re going further into the wrongness, in weirdly suggesting the victims of “homophobic bullying” (etc.) somehow form a completely separate group to these “smart kids”.

Bright children may be picked on, but they are conforming to the norms and expectations of the education system and society as a whole.

Mmm, certainly the gay, disabled, mixed-race bright children are, eh?

(Even going with the ludicrous idea of an isolated ‘bright kids’ group, the statement’s wrong: exceptionally smart kids – geniuses – by their nature are massively noncomformist.)

But anyway. The Independant article is shite, and so badly written that you could spend all day pointing out holes in its arguments, without needing to one-up ‘brightness’ in the Reasons-For-Bullying League. I’m more offended that it is a disingenuous anti-Comprehensive agenda piece disguised as an article about bullying.

Amy Clare // Posted 16 May 2009 at 6:39 pm

I’m a bit ambivalent about this piece. I got bullied for being clever so I’m glad the issue is being highlighted, but they should have emphasised that it hurts girls just as much as boys (indeed clever girls can be seen as more threatening – remember Gail Trimble?).

It is wrong to say that bright children are only picked on for a short while though, and that they actually conform to society’s norms eventually… firstly bright children come in all genders, ethnicities, sexualities etc. Secondly, the scars left by bullying are still with me after 15 years and my cleverness has never been socially acceptable in any of the places I’ve worked in since university. Also, the norms of the ‘education system’ and the norms of the school peer group (and corresponding workplace peer groups) are VERY different from each other.

Jess McCabe // Posted 16 May 2009 at 7:44 pm

I think the point isn’t that Rosalind was saying being bullied for being clever is any less bad, but that the article was framing the bullying of boys for being clever as shocking, while sidelining/ignoring sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic bullying. I think she’s right in that the Independent is horrorified at the idea of academic cleverness being punished, over and above other ‘types’ of bullying, even when it’s being reported in the same story.

I was bullied in primary school. I’m not sure there’s a specific ‘reason’ for it – although being relatively bright probably did play into it (for some reason, the school thought it was a good idea to rank kids on their ability and make them sit at tables reflecting that!)

But at the same school, racist bullying in particular was rife. I remember that it was very common for the (white boy) bullies to target Asian kids at the school with racist slurs.

The fact that the bullying I was subjected to was not racist didn’t mean it wasn’t damaging or awful. But, yeah, the generalised bullying I was subject to has not really rolled forward into the rest of my life. It’s not part of a structural oppression in our society, in the way that the kids who faced daily racist taunts will have grown up into a racist society.

None of it should have been tolerated (even condoned) by the school, of course…

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