Being a bully linked to casual, risky sex

by Kathryn Doyle /  / Updated 

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Teens who bully other kids, or are both bullies and bullied themselves, are more likely to engage in risky sex, according to a new study. That's especially the case among heterosexual teens, researchers say.

"Some previous research has found that aggression and sexual risk-taking are related, so it was not entirely surprising that bullies and bully-victims reported more sexual risk-taking than their peers," Melissa K. Holt said.

What's more, some research has found that kids and teens cope with being bullied by using drugs or alcohol, for instance. Acting out sexually may be another way young people respond to bullying, Holt told Reuters Health.

She led the research at the Boston University School of Education.

The study included almost 9,000 high school students from 24 schools who completed a survey about bullying and sexual behavior. "Risky sex" was defined as casual sex and sex while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

About 80 percent of the students said they had not bullied other kids or been bullied themselves.

Seven percent of those teens reported ever having casual sex with someone they had just met or didn't know very well. And 12 percent said they had had sex under the influence.

The numbers were similar for students who said they had been bullied, but hadn't bullied others.

But among the 6 percent of kids who claimed to have acted as bullies, one quarter had engaged in casual sex and just over a third said they'd had sex while drunk or high.

Another 6 percent of students said they had both acted as bullies and been the victims of bulling. Of those teens, 20 percent had had casual sex and 23 percent reported having sex under the influence.

The researchers accounted for other childhood experiences that might lead to sexual risk-taking, but the link to bullying remained.

Bullies, bullying victims and kids who were both bullies and bullied were more likely to experience dating violence than other kids, too, according to the results published in Pediatrics.

When the researchers looked at students' sexual orientation, the link between bullying and risky sex was strongest among heterosexual teens.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning (GLBTQ) students are often minorities at school, Holt said, and may experience stigma and discrimination.

"These unique stressors associated with being a sexual minority might translate into coping mechanisms that are different than those used by straight teens," she said.

It is important to note that GLBTQ youth were twice as likely to report being bullied as their heterosexual peers, Amanda Nickerson said. They were also more likely to say they had experienced dating violence or been sexually abused.

Nickerson was not involved in the new study. She is the director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

"The bottom line is that bullying behavior is something that parents and teachers should be concerned about, both because of the deleterious effects of bullying itself, but also because of its association with other problems such as substance use, other aggressive behavior, criminal involvement, as well as depression and suicidality," Nickerson said.

Based on the apparent link between bullying and risky sex, bullying prevention programs might consider addressing sexual behavior, Holt said. Those programs could focus on building skills and healthy coping responses.

"That said, the majority of youth are not engaging in sexual risk-taking, regardless of their bullying involvement," she said.

"Parents and teachers should be aware of this increased risk, and assess for possible sexual risk-taking among bullies and bully-victims, but not assume that youth engaging in bullying perpetration are also participating in risky sexual behaviors." 

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