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Nov 3, 2006

Girls, boys and bullies

While some say that school days have been the best days of their lives, others leave school with lifelong emotional scars. Bullying can make school life a misery. What happens when something as basic as your gender becomes the target – or excuse – for bullying?

Oh childhood! The age of innocence, cute faces and young willfulness. Long days spent playing in the yard, when all you needed for entertainment was watching aeroplanes take off or catching a ladybird on your finger in the sunlight. Or watching some ants build their nest. Or watching someone wave a stick at the nest and seeing the ants panic. Or better yet, mashing up the whole anthill yourself, before someone else does.

Why is there always someone eager to destroy that anthill? Why does the misery of those little beings bring enjoyment to some kids? Why is there always a bully at school? Or maybe all this just happened in my childhood, in the pastel coloured 1980s. Maybe the kids of today are more civilized.
Apparently not. The situation hasn’t improved in the last 20 years. The same old tricks of leaving someone out or subjecting some unlucky kid to malicious gossip, humiliation, and even physical attack, are ever popular. While anthills still get the punishment, the forms of bullying may have evolved to take advantage of technological progress. Anonymous paper notes are ‘so last millennium’, while mean text messages and
e-mails have gained popularity. But the reality is that whatever the form it takes, about 5-15 % of Finnish kids are subjected to constant bullying at school.

That does not mean that there have not been any determined efforts to eliminate the problem. This year, the Department of Psychology and the Centre of Learning Research at the University of Turku have started developing an anti-bullying program called KiVa Koulu. This programme, funded by the Ministry of Education, aims to provide tools for pupils, teachers and parents to preempt and reduce bullying. It is the first ever anti-bullying program in Finland designed to function on a national, rather than a regional level.

Christina Salmivalli, one of the directors of the KiVa Koulu project, is also the Professor of Psychology at the Turku University and an internationally renowned researcher, who has studied bullying and children’s peer relationships since the early 1990s. She has discovered that although bullying does occur even among children below the school age, it tends to become much more systematic when kids enter the school world. Comprehensive programmes are therefore required to tackle the problem of bullying. As a first step towards establishing a national training network, the KiVa Koulu project will start training teachers in the spring of 2007.

Salmivalli believes that it is crucial to educate school staff in order to build a safe classroom environment, with clear signals that bullying will not be tolerated. “It is fairly difficult to influence bullies, but when the group as a whole refuses to be part of the bullying, we can begin to see some positive results,” she says. By being part of the programme, the entire school community will be committed to working against bullying. The developers of the KiVA Koulu programme will train the first teachers involved in the project at each school, eventually leading to the establishment of a nationwide training network available on the Internet.

The aim of the project is to shift the kids from supporting the bully – whether passively or actively – to actually supporting the victim. Where on earth was this programme 16 years ago when I entered 7th grade?

The whore case
It was the year 1990. Apparently everyone hated Marianne. I had no idea what she had done, but the word had been spread that during the next break she would be punished. I felt vaguely bad about the whole thing but with my lowly social status, I couldn’t really act noble or protest.
After the class we all gathered in the yard. There must have been 40 of us, both 7th and 8th graders. The toughest boys led the crowd and the rest of us followed, walking towards Marianne in a threatening way. We chased her behind the school where she was pushed to the ground. She was lying in the snow trying to cover her head while we kicked her and yelled “Whore!”

It never became clear to me what Marianne had done to deserve such treatment. Did she actually work as a prostitute? I doubt it. Maybe she had something going on with someone else’s boyfriend? Perhaps she wore clothes that were too revealing? Actually, I don’t think that it matters. The point is, she was only 13 years old and she was accused of something that clearly hints at sexual behaviour. And the kind of behaviour that obviously was not acceptable.

Just what does the word ‘whore’ mean, anyway? According to Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia, “A whore is a word degrading women, which means both a prostitute and a woman who has a sexuality that is considered too liberal. Whore is usually a much broader concept than just a prostitute selling sex. Women have been called a whore based on adultery, extra-marital affairs or simply when suspected of these.” I see. Then I suppose it is possible that Marianne had loose sexual morals that the rest of us 13 year olds had to condemn.

Dangers of difference
Boys and girls are bullied in different ways. Still, the presence of sexuality and gender is a rarely acknowledged aspect of the problem. We speak in terms like “bully” and “victim” without recognizing how gender determines the form and manifestation of the bullying. School in general is seen as a fairly ungendered environment, but still sexualized remarks are commonly used as weapons in bullying, even among very young children. Sometimes this even extends as far as severe sexual harassment.

Researcher Sanna Aaltonen has studied teenagers and their relationships with each other, specifically from the point of view of bullying and sexual harassment. During her study, she analysed essays by 15-16 year olds and interviewed them. She discovered that calling someone a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore’ can actually just be a form of using power over any girl. If there are girls who are not liked, these words can be used simply as generic terms of abuse.     

It seems that there are two levels of calling a girl with sexual names. One actually judges sexual behaviour and the other just aims to be nasty to a girl who is considered irritating, perhaps because she is particularly good at school, or louder, or quieter than average. “I am not exaggerating when I say that to be accepted, girls need to be as average as possible. Difference, uniqueness or any kind of extremity is often less tolerated with girls than boys, and the punishment for it can be the label of a ‘slut’,” Says Aaltonen.

Salmivalli has also acknowledged the notion of “difference” in her research. She, however, claims that someone’s supposed difference is often merely an excuse. “Bullying is always a power issue,” she states. “What is important for a bully is his or her status in the present social circle, and unfortunately this status is often strengthened at the expense of kids who are socially vulnerable, like the new kid in the class or someone who doesn’t speak Finnish well.”

Bullying has only been studied for the last 30 years. Salmivalli believes that the problem has always existed and since the 1970s, it hasn’t really increased or decreased. Globalisation and the increasing number of immigrants in Finland has not affected the statistics either, which may sound surprising. “Actually the relationship between immigration and bullying hasn’t really been studied in Finland so far, because there have been so few immigrants here,” Salmivali explains. However, research in other countries has shown that immigrants are in a high risk group, not only of becoming victims, but also of becoming the bullies in a classroom. “Simply having a foreign background doesn’t necessarily add to the risk of becoming a victim. What is crucial is the composition of the class. If there are several immigrants in the class, the risk decreases,” says Salmivalli.

Regardless of the skin colour or background of the pupil, one characteristic that seems to irritate the bullies immensely, is loudness and talkativeness. Especially in girls.

Third grade antics
Silja was only 3rd grade when she got The Reputation. “It all started one Monday morning when I went to school. Suddenly everything was different. Everyone was giggling and looking at me. No one would talk to me. I didn’t really understand what was going on,” remembers Silja, who is now 30. “Then it all came to a head and one of the boys in the class started calling me with sexual names. I was 10 years old at the time.” From then on, Silja was bullied throughout primary school and the 7th grade by the same core group of three or four boys. Mainly for being a “whore”, apparently.

The bullying had started unexpectedly, but Silja soon understood what had originally triggered it. “There was this skiing place near where I lived, and the weekend before it all started I had been there talking to this boy my age. I just met him there and we talked and played, like two kids of the same age do, that’s all.” 

Silja’s case would seem to prove the researchers’ point. “I actually think that in the end it had nothing to do with what I did with this boy. I was just always quite talkative and loud, I asked a lot of questions in class. I was also very tomboyish. I think that irritated the others,” she muses.

Nice or nasty
Calling someone a whore is very clearly meant as a form of abuse, whether or not you believe that a good woman is a quiet, abstinent one. But what about other types of sexualized approaches, perhaps something milder like risqué comments, whistles and looks? Are they a form of bullying or just flirtatious?

The core of Sanna Aaltonen’s research was actually trying to figure out the borderlines of pleasant and unpleasant interactions between teenagers. When does friendly teasing become bullying and flirting become threatening? How do teenagers define what is an acceptable kind of sexual or flirtatious interaction and when has the line been crossed?

She discovered that girls often experience approaches whose nature leads them to question the limits of their intimacy, more than boys do. What makes the matter even more complex is that often mild forms of sexualized interaction, such as yelling and whistling or different types of comments, could be experienced as both flattering and uncomfortable at the same time. Also certain places or situations are seen to require that this type of attention has to be tolerated more. The line is very difficult to draw. Is it ok that my uncle taps me on my bum? Is it more ok if a boy on my class does it? What about if someone comments on the size of my breasts at school? Or in the disco? What about a street worker who yells something when I walk past on the street? Is it a compliment even though it may make me feel uneasy? 

Becoming a woman
Since the age of four, Katja was repeatedly told that she was ugly, stupid and fat. “I don’t even remember what started it all. It feels like it has always been there,” she says now at the age of 27. “My only fault was that I was born late in the year, so I was a lot younger than many of the other kids and therefore probably more childish. At that age even 10 months is a big age difference.” Like Silja, Katja was a loud and curious little girl, who asked lots of questions and couldn’t always concentrate in class. Her liveliness ended quickly when the bullying began and she started to become more and more introverted and lonely.

The tone of the bullying shifted when she hit puberty. When she turned 10, Katja – the youngest girl in the class – faced real trouble. Her breasts started growing. “I was so ashamed,” she says. The bullies who had called her fat seemed to get even more gas into their fire about her breasts, and Katja was constantly ridiculed about it. “It was probably just curiosity from the boys but it was extremely frightening and awful for me,” Katja remembers.

“Once I was changing my shirt in the toilet when I realized that this boy had climbed over the door and was peeking in. Of course I wasn’t left alone for months after he announced to everyone that he had seen my tits. When I started my period around the same time, it became a public discussion and a source of exhilaration and disgust in the class. I was repeatedly left out, laughed at and spat at. I remember having deep feelings of shame about this “womanhood” which seemed out of place as it was, even without all the public humiliation.”

Hormones and responsibility
Katja, like many other young girls, thought that nothing could be done about this type of bullying. It is often seen as some type of unavoidable, unpleasant everyday occurrence; part of being a girl.
“What is very typical when talking about bullying with teenagers, is that when it is questioned, it is almost always explained to stem from the victim rather than the bully: his or her weight, clothes, looks etc. Following the same logic, a girl who gets unwanted sexual attention is often made to feel responsible for it herself. “Maybe she ‘dressed wrong, sent the wrong signals’,” says Aaltonen. “If not that, then at least she should be understanding because the boy may not have meant it in a bad way. Boys will be boys, as they say. Adults often adhere to this saying, just shrugging things off as teenage hormones going wild.”

Katja tried laughing off her experiences in order to avoid seeming uptight. When Silja’s bullying eventually lead to her being physically attacked, her parents said it would only be educational to her. Our society sends very contradictory messages to young girls. On one hand being sexy and attractive is admirable: the media is full of highly sexualized imagery of women for girls to look up to. But on the other hand, crossing the line even slightly may end up stigmatizing you for good. Popular girls are pretty and sexy, but not too much. How in the world are you supposed to know where the line goes? Especially at the age of 13 or 14, when everything is vague and confusing as it is!

Needless to say, all this is at least as confusing to growing boys as it is to girls. “For boys, the main visible signs of puberty are the breaking of the voice and growing taller. With girls, things like growing breasts are very noticeable and easily sexualized. The female form seems to be under constant observation. It is a free game and interfering or commenting on it can happen anytime, anywhere,” says Aaltonen.

Boys say no
Of course boys experience harassment too. The most common stories are set in public swimming pools, where older men are the violators. However, boys seem to be able to set their boundaries more firmly than girls. Where girls often quietly accept the sexual harassment they face, Aaltonen notes that when boys talked about these experiences, they made it very clear that they under no circumstances accepted it. They felt very strongly that their privacy had been interfered with. The same degree of self-respect is definitely  much needed in the girls’ camp too!    
According to Aaltonen’s research, the taboo for the boys is actually the harassment caused by girls their own age. “Boys would very strongly deny that this type of harassment existed. They insisted that girls are not capable of doing such things since they are always smaller and weaker,” Aaltonen explains. However, Aaltonen says that the girls she interviewed did not agree with this, claiming they had pinched boys’ bottoms and teased them. The conclusion to be drawn, then, must be that either boys did not find the bullying by the girls threatening or unpleasant, or it was difficult for them to admit that they had fallen into being victims.

Boys, unlike girls, are not bullied for having an active sexuality; quite the opposite. A sexually active boy can be seen as a hero. And once a boy is late in his puberty or is sexually inexperienced, the bullies are quick to draw the conclusion that he is homosexual. It seems that the worst thing a boy can do is to have an unclear heterosexual masculinity. Clumsiness, femininity and intelligence are of course immediate grounds for suspicion. 

Scars of reputation
Silja’s bullying started slowly wearing off when she got to 8th grade. What initially got her into trouble, at least supposedly, was spending time with a boy, and paradoxically, that was what also lifted her out of it. She got her first boyfriend and as a consequence she became a normal, accepted girl. “Only nothing changed within me. I was exactly the same person. I felt like an outsider then and I still feel like one now,” she says.

Katja used to believe her bullies when they said that she was stupid and fat, even at the age of 15 when she was severely underweight. When she went to her class reunion a couple of years ago and faced her bullies again after a long time, she brought up her past. “No one seemed to remember that I had been bullied. Of course no one admitted to bullying either. Well, why would they really? It didn’t mean anything to them. For me, it still means self-esteem problems as well as repeated feelings of shame that I can not place.” 

“Bullying leaves some type of trace into the victim in nearly all cases,” Salmivalli says. Depression, feelings of shame, and distrust towards others are all after effects suffered by victims of repeated bullying. “If we can not influence the school environment beforehand to prevent these cases, and an acute situation has already developed, then the bully has to be challenged. As grown-ups we must communicate very clearly the fact that we refuse to accept this type of behaviour. It is a very serious matter.”

Well, it doesn’t sound that difficult. Just teach the kids to accept others. A social status must not be achieved at the expense of others. The vulnerable ones must not be exploited. I suppose all we need to do before teaching this to our kids, is learn to follow these guidelines ourselves.

Bullying remembered
“When I was on 5th grade, there were only of bunch of us who had started our period. It felt really embarrassing and difficult. However, one of my classmates decided to arrange a pajama party where only the ones whose period had started were invited. It was such a great and positive thing because I always felt like a freak because I got mine so young. Well of course someone in the class heard about who had been invited, and from then on who had started their period was public information and constantly laughed at.” (Laura, 28)
“In my group of friends there is this guy I know, who has started to harass me. For example, he sometimes touches my bum and breasts. I told my boyfriend about this several times but he didn’t take it seriously. I have ALWAYS told him that he has to stop and how disgusting he is, but he won’t believe me.” (Linda, 16)

“When I was in high school me and my friends harassed a boy on our class. He was lanky and tall, had badly fitting glasses and a high voice. We would pretend that we were in love with him and called him Manolito, after a handsome soap opera star of the time. I think he was gay. It was completely brutal. Basically we ridiculed his manhood on a daily basis.” (Leena, 51)

“There was this boy on our class whose development was really slow. When we were on 9th grade, he still had a really high pitch voice and he blushed easily. We used to completely torment him. I remember I often pretended to flirt with him just to get him to blush. I would chase him during a school trip, trying to grab his ass as he desperately attempted to run away.” (Maija, 29)

“I think Janne must have had some type of an illness. He looked a little peculiar and had very big eyes. Everyone called him “Eyes Without a Face”. He didn’t have one single friend, as far as I know. For as long as I can remember, he was haunted by the other kids. Once we were hanging out when Janne walked past, and a group of us chased him so long that he climbed into a tree to escape. The poor boy was sitting in the tree like a scared animal.”(Oskari, 25)

“Helena was frail and tiny. Her skin was like translucent white paper and she blushed easily. She was miles away from the strong, popular girls of our class who were already starting their period and tried smoking behind the school during break times. She didn’t seem to have many friends, and instead she often spent time at the local riding school taking care of horses. The boys in the class just wouldn’t leave her alone. They would surround her, talking and asking sexually explicit stuff until she was the colour of a beetroot, desperately trying to hold her gaze on a book and ignore them. When the teacher came in, the boys ran back to their seats and no one had the courage to say anything in her defense.” (Minna, 36)

KiVa Koulu

  • The chief officers responsible for the KiVa Koulu programme are Christina Salmivalli, Professor of Psychology, and Elisa Poskiparta, the head of the Centre for Learning Research, both from the University of Turku.
  • The programme will be ready for full national distribution in the autumn of 2009.
  • The aim of is to create a modern programme which meets international quality standards and whose results are monitored throughout its application.
  • The programme is part of a wider package of long term measures, started by the Ministry of Education in 2006, which aims to develop schools in a way that increases the well-being of the children.
  • The programme puts emphasis on the prevention of problems, early intervention, securing the well-being of school pupils through structural innovations, as well as increasing the participation of the pupils.
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Posted: Nov 3, 2006 7:37am


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