Bullying Vs. Sexual Harassment—Do You Know the Difference?

Despite headlines that label all harassment in schools as bullying, there is a difference between sexual harassment and bullying. And it’s an important one.

When schools, the media and the public mislabel sexual harassment as bullying, they negate the role that sex and gender play in the abusive behavior. Bullying is not based on a student’s sex; sexual harassment is. Students are bullied because they may be annoying to a classmate, wear their hair differently, don’t wear the “right” brand of shoes or come from the wrong side of town. Their victimization is not based on their sex (or other protected classes such as race, religion or disability). Most significantly, bullying is not a violation of federal and state civil rights laws–but sexual harassment is.

Popular use of the term bullying to encompass sexual harassment creates confusion over the behavior, the potential consequences and which policy schools should use when responding to complaints. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been very clear that schools must conduct an investigation to determine whether behavior is bullying or harassment, yet many schools fail to do so or their investigator is not competent in such investigations.

As a consultant and expert witness dealing with sexual harassment in the schools, I have noted that many schools are embracing the bullying framework to the exclusion of sexual harassment. Some school district administrators are even unaware of Title IX! As a result, the districts have not identified a Title IX coordinator —as required by OCR—and fail to conduct sexual harassment training for students, faculty, staff or administrators. Without being trained, people remain unaware of their rights and responsibilities. Using the term “bullying” when a student is sexually harassed decreases safety for girls (in particular) and LGBT students, degenders the misconduct and diminishes the likelihood that students’ civil rights will be protected. As a result, school officials fail in their responsibility to create a safe and equitable school environment based on Title IX requirements.

To learn more about this, I recommend my own book—Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Guide to Keeping Kids Safe and Holding Schools Accountable—which discusses the similarities and important differences between sexual harassment and bullying. It also offers firsthand accounts from victims and others involved in combating the activities that victimize students. The book clearly identifies the steps to take to hold schools accountable when a student has been harassed or bullied, even when the school is not stopping the behavior. It provides parents, youth advocates, scout leaders and other concerned adults with practical steps to partner with schools to prevent and intervene against harassment to help keep kids safe.

Photo by flickr user Jasen Miller under Creative Commons 2.0

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.


  1. Ack- I wish you had published this before I submitted my argumentative essay on street harassment- you illustrated some points that I wanted to make so perfectly! Also, I would have loved to show off for my Eng. Comp 101 instructor by citing Ms Magazine 🙂

  2. I used to work as an anti-bullying mentor. Everything you write here is true, true, true. By using “bullying” in place of “sexual harassment”, we make so much of the damage utterly invisible. And of course, sexual harassment feeds on claiming that it isn’t there at all.

    Well said, and thanks.

  3. Different but they are related.

  4. Rowan Frost says:

    I’m a sexual violence prevention educator. I disagree with the author. We define bullying as learned behavior that violates boundaries, involves a power imbalance, follows a pattern, and is intended to cause harm. Victims can’t make it stop (or they would) and bullies don’t have any reason to; they enjoy causing harm to others. The only way to make it stop is to level out the power involved. Sexual harassment is exactly the same as bullying behavior with a sexual or gendered focus. Stop bullying and you’ll prevent sexual harassment behaviors from developing. Research also demonstrates that teens who bully others or are bullied (both sexual and non-sexual harassment) are more likely to be involved in abusive intimate relationships. Sexualized behaviors of boundary violation with power imbalance take to the most extreme position turn into child molestation and sexual assault. Sexual harassment and relationship abuse aren’t minimized by being associated with bullying. The same behaviors underlie them all.

    • David Zerkler says:

      This is 6 years late to the party, but I’d like to know if you still feel the same way. Also, of the three people who commented before you, all three agree with the author and at least two of the three are women, while you are a man. I’m a man and I agree with you, despite not having any professional background in the field. Do you think that one’s gender plays a role in their position on this topic?

  5. Bullies will use ANYTHING available to hurt others – including, but not limited to, gender and sex-orientation, appearance, clothing.
    Bullies bully throughout their life. They deliberately marry some one they can bully (emotional, financial and physical).

    My former husband may have complained about how fat, ugly, etc. I was, but he thoroughly enjoyed seeing my pain when he told me me how awful I was on a daily basis, along with hitting, shoving, name-calling, disconnecting the brakes on my bicycle without telling me, taking me to a hotel and abandoning me there for a wife-swap arrangement without telling me that that’s what he was doing, other physical intimidation,

    Bullies NEVER apologize.
    And they don’t change. Why would they give up the satisfaction of seeing the pain they are personally responsible for causing?

    Sure, one wife may crawl away (or die – see paragraph above re: disconnecting brakes). But they can easily re-marry so they have a new victim.

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