Sexual Harassment Versus Bullying

September 29, 2011

This post is part of a new series on sexual harassment in school, launched in conjunction with the upcoming AAUW report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. Follow @AAUWResearch on Twitter for more information. 

How is sexual harassment — the topic of the upcoming AAUW report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School — different from bullying? Since sexual harassment is frequently misclassified by schools and the media as bullying, especially when it occurs among youth, we’d like to discuss this distinction.

In the most basic terms, sexual harassment is defined as unwanted behavior that is sexual in nature. This can include making lewd comments, showing or sending someone sexually explicit photos, spreading sexual rumors, engaging in inappropriate touching, or using homophobic slurs. Bullying, on the other hand, involves a power dynamic in which perpetrators intend to harm their victim or victims for any number of reasons (or no reason at all). Intent is a required component for a behavior to be classified as bullying. For sexual harassment, the person does not have to intend to harm someone else; the behavior is defined by the effect it has on the harassed person.

If sexual harassment and bullying are both negative behaviors that harm students, why should we bother to highlight the difference? If they both fall into categories of things that no one should have to tolerate, then why not brand them both as abusive and simply tell kids to be nice to each other.

Sexual harassment revolves around sex and gender and affects girls and boys differently. It also has a disproportionate negative impact on students who are not heterosexual. Harassers and bullies often differ in motivations, and parents and educators need to understand these differences to create effective prevention and response programs. When we talk to young people about sexual harassment and not just bullying, we start a larger conversation about bodily rights, personal safety, and gender identity. In other words, we begin to teach students about consent, tolerance, and gender equity. And frankly, that’s the type of education that all young folks deserve.

Additionally, sexual harassment and bullying are recognized as different issues under the law. Most states have anti-bullying laws of varying effectiveness, but there is no federal bullying law. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is illegal under federal law — specifically Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — when it is pervasive or severe enough to impact a student’s education. All schools that receive federal funding are required by Title IX to respond to sexual harassment when it is brought to their attention. If they do not, they can lose public funds and are susceptible to lawsuits. It is important for schools to acknowledge and respond to sexual harassment and not brush it off as bullying, mistakenly thinking there is no responsibility on them to address the problem.

This post was written by AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund Intern Julie Smolinski.

Avatar By:   |   September 29, 2011


  1. Avatar Anna McNaught says:

    I’m not a lawyer, nor am I a legal scholar, but personally, and from experience, I cannot disagree more with the writer’s analysis of sexual harassment.
    It depends on the way it is expressed, and is not always as innocent of abuse as Ms. Smolinski suggests.
    I may be reading the essay incorrectly, but is there really merely an “unwanted behavior that is sexual in nature” that does not affect the person to whom it is aimed?
    (Even if it is a little thrill of satisfaction when you get whistled at when you are 70 years old, on the streets of Baltimore?)
    With thanks for the essay, and to Julie Smolinski, for opening up this difference.

  2. Beth Scott Beth Scott says:

    AAUW is lobbying hard for a federal anti-bullying law to protect students from all forms of physical and emotional abuse, but there are other ways to protect students from bullying. Last October, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights told schools receiving public funds that under current civil rights laws, they are responsible for stopping, fixing, and preventing bullying. You can read more about this letter at

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