Because boys still matter more: The popularity of anti-bullying campaigns and the erasure of sexism

The relatively recent development of the anti-bullying campaign has been almost universally accepted as something that is unquestionably “good”. These campaigns are politically correct, they are focused on kids (a largely unhateable group), and they are relatively easy to get behind for most people, (with the exception of some religious groups) particularly those who consider themselves to be open-minded, liberal folks.

Support for these campaigns has surged in popularity with celebrity endorsements and the almost immediate, enthusiastic incorporation of anti-bullying discourse into elementary and high schools. Projects like Dan Savage’s It Gets Better, aimed at inspiring hope in alienated and harassed LGBT kids, are hard to criticize, particularly in light of stats around the increased likelyhood of suicide attempts by these youth. But while anti-bullying campaigns grow ever more popular and schools rush to adopt anti-bullying training for teachers and parents, put on anti-bullying events and create anti-bullying programs and policies, generally patting themselves on their backs for implementing these progressive measures, the elephant in the room grows ever more visible.

That elephant is, of course, girls and women.

While incorporating words like homophobia, gender, ethnicity, or the favorite, diversity, into schools’ plans to “tackl[e] the bullying problem,” seems easy for school boards, the media, and the public to swallow, that uncomfortable word, women, remains distinctly absent from the conversation.

We seem able to talk about a number of different ways people can be bullied or harassed in schools, focusing largely on issues such as sexual orientation and gender identity, without addressing sexual harassment or without naming women and girls as a specific target. Sexism starts early. It starts in the classroom. And yet all we can manage to rally around is the neutral “bullying.” Why? says that bullying can take many shapes and forms and isn’t limited by age, gender, or education level…But can it happen because of sexism? Meh. Who knows!

While we are, apparently, becoming comfortable with language around “challenging homophobic bullying” and “celebrating difference,” our understanding of the ways in which young men learn to view and treat women, which begins very early on, is left, distinctly, off the table.

Explaining to kids that calling someone a “fag” or using the word “gay” in a derogatory sense is happening, which is good. Part of what is missing, though, is the recognition that, generally, boys are called “gay” because they act too much “like girls.” Because yes, being a girl is still a bad thing.

When Lady Gaga got on board with anti-bullying campaigns in school, she said, as part of her message: “It is important that we push the boundaries of love and acceptance. It is important that we spread tolerance and equality for all students…I am going to be working as hard as I can to make bullying a hate crime.”


And sure, that’s a pretty good message. Not much to argue with there. Certainly no one believes that anyone else should be harassed because they fail to conform to universal standards of masculinity (Lady Gaga, in the video, is addressing Jacques St Pierre, who “was bullied in elementary school by students who called him a fag for being interested in theatre and drama“) But let’s think about what it is that it means to be a man. What it means to be masculine, as far as avoiding being called a “fag” goes, anyway. It means, not-like-a-woman. It means being tough, unemotional, often athletic (i.e. not into theatre) or physically strong, sometimes it means being violent or aggressive, and often, of course, we understand masculinity in terms of how a man views and treats women. In order to avoid harassment, as a boy, you must be sure to “pass” as adequately masculine. In order to be adequately masculine, you must not only be clearly not-like-a-girl, but you must see women as ‘less than’ while simultaneously trying to fuck them. Being fucked by a man means you are less than. As man, if you enjoy or desire to be fucked by another man, it means you aren’t adequately masculine. And that feminization that comes along with being fucked by men makes you deserving of harassment. This isn’t, of course, the only issue at play when it comes to homophobia, but it certainly is one of them.

In light of the recent sexual harassment claims which have come out around the RCMP, wherein Cpl. Catherine Galliford detailed the years of harassment that eventually led her to take medical leave on account of the stress and emotional toll this treatment had taken on her, one would think a light would have gone off in someone’s head.

“Hey!” One might think. “I wonder when this kind of behaviour starts?” “I wonder how men learn to treat women like sex objects?” “I wonder if there’s any way we could curb this behaviour before it becomes completely normalized?”

Galliford’s experience was not an anomoly. Other women have since come out about the harassment they experienced in the RCMP as well. From men planting pornography in a female co-worker’s desk to propositioning to inappropriate touching, it’s clear that this kind of behaviour, on the parts of men, is both common and acceptable.

But how seriously does the state take sexual harassment? And how willing are we, as a society, to actually address the issue? It feels a little bit awkward to witness the immediate and eager embrace of anti-bullying campaigns while sexual harassment and sexism remain so common, so destructive, so acceptable, and yet, relatively, unaddressed.

For me, the experience of sexual harassment was introduced to me when I was about 11. I remember, very specifically, meeting with a teacher, along with several other Grade 6 girls, because the boys in our class had taken to making comments about our prepubescent (or non-existant) breasts. And while I believe the behaviour was addressed with the individual boys who were doing the harassing, there was never any kind of discussion around sexism or sexual harassment as part of any program or curriculum in all my years at school. For the rest of the boys, for those who aren’t called out by individuals early on (or who don’t have feminist parents), I imagine that sexual harassment just becomes part of the routine of presenting as masculine.

So I was in Grade 6 in about 1991. I imagine this kind of behaviour and sexual harassment has been experienced by many, many girls before me and continues to be a common experience today. Boys learn very early on what girls are for and they learn very early on how men should treat women, in order to be adequately masculine and to be accepted by their peer group.

And yet, as pointed out by a friend who is currently completing a PhD in Education, the concept of sexism and the issue of sexual harrassment remains non-existant in both elementary and high school curriculums. Is it really a mystery that men grow up to sexually harass women on the streets, in the workplace, in bars, and, generally, anywhere a woman might be, when they are never taught that this behaviour won’t be tolerated?

While we all seem to be madly in love with the idea of anti-bullying campaigns and have managed, very, very quickly to start creating programs across North America to address the issue of bullying in schools, we have yet, in all the years of sexism and sexual harassment (never mind rape and assault) that has existed from very early on in schools, to address the issue of patriarchy. We have yet to make a concerted effort to address the ways in which boys learn to treat women as objects that don’t deserve their respect, in school. We seem talk a lot about equality without mentioning the word sexism. We seem able to talk about gender without mentioning the word woman. And we talk a lot about harassment without mentioning the fact that both bullying and harassment are things that women experience, on a fairly constant basis, from the time they are very young. Simply because they are girls in a man’s world.

When we say “gender” today, what we mean is “gender expression” or “gender identity.” It has become a very neutral term and it has become a way for the state and the law to avoid naming “women” as a target. As far as anti-bullying campaigns go, girls are not named as a specific target even though “gender” and “equality” are common terms within this discourse. And while it is good that we are addressing this idea that boys need not fit into this perscribed role of “masculinity,” we seem to be completely afraid to address why that is and what the consequences of a system that views masculinty as “good,” simply because it isn’t “femininity” are for women in that culture.

Within the neutrality of the way in which “gender” is used in anti-bullying campaigns and in the distinct absence of a focus on sexual harassment, and an absence of words like “sexism” or “patriarchy,” anti-bullying campaigns appear to remain safely designated for boys.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.