In a sobering echo of earlier teen suicides, a 10-year-old Illinois girl took her life Nov. 11 after allegedly experiencing two years of bullying at school. And although Ashlynn Conner was just in fifth grade, her mother says her peers taunted her by calling her a slut.
As nonsensical as the word seems applied to a child, it's a common refrain for young teen and tween bullies, according to psychologist Maureen McHugh of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who studies bullying, sexual harassment, and especially "slut-bashing," the practice of peers labeling other peers as dirty and promiscuous, oftentimes in the absence of any sexual activity at all on the part of the victim.
"Their peers know what kinds of words to use to hurt them," McHugh told LiveScience, adding that sexuality becomes an Achilles heel in the beginning of adolescence.
"Their sexuality is emerging," McHugh said. "It's a kind of vulnerability."
Sex and bullying
Not all bullying is tied to sexuality, but a number of studies find that sexual and gender-based taunts are extremely common during the teen years. Students who are gay are bullied three times as much as heterosexual kids, research finds. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, 44 percent of gay male students and 40 percent of lesbians said they'd experienced bullying in the past year, compared with 26 percent of heterosexual boys and 15 percent of heterosexual girls.
"Recent research is showing that it's not their sexuality that's getting them bullied, but their gender expressions," Ritch Savin-Williams, a Cornell University expert on sexual-minority youth and adolescent development, told LiveScience last year. "It's that they transgress those gender roles that we have established. … It's not like they're saying, 'Oh, you're having sex with another girl.' That's not what they're picking up on. What they're picking up on is, 'You're not acting like a girl is supposed to act.'"
But sexually themed bullying isn't just limited to gender-nonconforming kids. A study released this month by the American Association of University Women found that among 2,000 middle- and high-school students surveyed in a nationally representative study, 48 percent had been sexually harassed in the 2010-2011 school year. About 56 percent of girls had been sexually harassed, as had 40 percent of boys. Most of the students, 87 percent, said the harassment had a negative effect on them, with 37 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys saying it made them not want to go to school. [How to Avoid Raising a Bully]
Slut-bashing and double standards
Reports of 10-year-old Connor being called a "slut" echo the story of Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who killed herself in 2010 after also allegedly suffering obscene taunts. Prince, witnesses said, had dated a popular upperclassman, allegedly bringing the wrath of other girls who wanted to put the teen in her place. Among the alleged taunts was the phrase "Irish slut."
Middle-school girls and young teens come under enormous pressure both to flaunt their sexuality and to keep it in bounds, McHugh said. As girls experiment with makeup and sexualized fashion, their peers police them, sometimes brutally.
"There is pressure to adopt a girly identity," McHugh said. "And there's monitoring of people wearing too much makeup or dressing too provocatively, so it's a weird fine line."
To McHugh, the fact that the "s"-word can hurt is evidence that the sexual double standard, in which guys who have sex get kudos and girls who have sex get shamed, is alive and well, albeit wrapped in a perplexing array of mixed messages.
"If they don't act sexual at all, they might be rejected, but when they act sexual, they get blasted," McHugh said. "And it's not just at that age, but in high school, and even in college."
Often, McHugh said, girls labeled "sluts" aren't even sexually active — bullies simply use the word because they know it works.
"Both boys and girls participate and use the term 'slut' as a way of criticizing people they don't like or who they're mad at," she said.
It's no secret that bullying of any sort is bad for the mental health of victims. Cyberbullying, for example, has been linked with both physical problems such as headaches and psychological problems such as emotional difficulties. And bully-ridden schools tend to be plagued by low test scores, according to an August 2011 study.
"It is serious, and not only in terms of something as devastating as suicide, but also people not doing their best in school to live up to their potential," McHugh said. "They don't apply themselves, or they skip school because they can't bear to be there. [Bullying] has a huge number of consequences for a lot of people."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.