Sexual bullying, like sexual harassment, can have harmful effects. Here’s the difference between the two and how to cope.

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Bullying is hurtful behavior that can have adverse consequences on mental health and well-being. And it doesn’t just happen on schoolyard playgrounds anymore.

In today’s world, bullies can intimidate in person or online, making it a wide-reaching societal problem.

Being sexually bullied can be equally detrimental and distressing. People who engage in sexualized bullying or harassment can cause a great deal of harm to another.

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According to, any words or actions of a sexual nature intended to pressure you to do something provocative, relenting, or sexual is considered sexual bullying.

It can happen to anyone in any situation, especially through social media or text.

It’s also not gender specific. People who identify as male or female, trans, or nonbinary can experience sexual bullying.

Research published in 2021 on focus groups consisting of 253 people ages 13 to 18 years old suggests that sexual bullying and sexual harassment could be considered “two sides of the same coin.”

Sexual harassment is about perpetrating unwelcomed or unwanted sexual acts. Sexual bullying is about eliciting a sexual outcome.

Sexual harassmentSexual bullying
unwelcome advancespersistent sexual comments or communications to or about
control and powercontrol and power
acts hurt and harmacts hurt and harm
behavior directed at protected group
(gender, race, etc.)
behavior directed at individual
uses imbalance of power uses imbalance of power
acts distress or embarrassacts intimidate, defame, or humiliate
intent to coerce outcome

Though the two overlap in some respects, the difference between sexual bullying and sexual harassment is how they are classified, charged, and prosecuted by federal laws.

Currently, there are no federal laws against bullying in the United States.

Despite the harm bullying causes, kids, teens, and adults may bully others for various reasons.

Some motivations for bullying may include:

  • the desire to exert power and control over another
  • gain social status
  • fit in with a social group

In addition, people who’ve experienced bullying within the family dynamic or have low self-esteem may be more at risk of bullying others.

If someone’s words or actions of a sexual nature make you feel pressured, debased, antagonized, singled out, afraid, or intimidated, then you’re likely experiencing sexual bullying.

Obvious sexual bullying can include:

  • making fun of or belittling someone’s gender identity (e.g., deadnaming)
  • using words or actions to invoke sexual shame
  • sexual jokes or innuendoes about an individual
  • sexual comments on social media posts tagging or calling out an individual
  • persistent and unwanted sexual attention
  • sexual gestures or inappropriate touching
  • demanding or sending (unrequested) sexually explicit photos or sexts
  • continually asking for sex or sexual acts

Also, sexual bullying can be so subtle it’s difficult to identify. Examples include:

  • A romantic partner may use sexual coercion to pressure you to engage in activities you aren’t comfortable with.
  • Others may pressure you into posting sexually uncomfortable material in exchange for acceptance into their group.
  • Someone might use subtle sexualized words, actions, or behaviors that leave you confused about whether it’s flirting or sexual harassment.

Sometimes it’s difficult to prevent sexual bullying because it can occur unexpectedly. To be clear, it’s not your fault.

There are ways to ensure the behavior is less likely to happen to you or a loved one:

Establishing boundaries

Boundaries are essential for physical and mental well-being and clearly state what you will or won’t tolerate. Consider evaluating your personal boundaries and working toward strengthening them if needed.

Speaking up and speaking out

Sexual bullying often goes unreported. This includes feelings of shame, responsibility, or worry about what might happen if the bully finds out.

Openly discussing sexual bullying, what to watch for, and how to cope can help you and those you care about self-advocate.

Being aware of cybersexual bullying

Years ago, bullying happened in person or through phone conversations. Now, with the vast world of online, app, and text-based communication, sexual bullying can happen anywhere and at any time.

Still, 2017 research suggests many young people are still unaware of the prevalence of cybersexual bullying.

If sexual bullying is happening through social media, there are ways to stop it, such as:

In addition, preventing online bullying is possible by being mindful of who you connect with and what types of texts and posts you create.

Sexual bullying can encompass a wide range of words and actions designed to control or shift the balance of power to the bully.

Bullying of a sexual nature can happen to anyone and cause significant harm to those experiencing it.

Preventing bullying involves keeping open lines of communication with your loved ones and being aware of signs of sexual bullying. It also means developing and maintaining healthy boundaries.

If you’d like more information about sexual bullying, these resources may help: