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Centre for Psychological Research

Addressing sexual bullying across Europe

Combatting sexual bullying in Europe through the peer-led training of young people and legislative change.

Addressing sexual bullying across Europe

the challenge

Sexual bullying is a growing problem among young people, and can have a serious impact on the person being bullied, including reduced self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and sometimes, suicidal behaviour.

Research to date has been limited in terms of methods (mainly survey-based), geographical location (USA; Western Europe) and focus (typically on a single problem, for example, homophobic bullying).

The aim of this project was to design a predominantly qualitative research project that was young-people-centred and encompassed the full repertoire of sexual bullying practices in under-researched countries.

The Approach

The Addressing Sexual Bullying Across Europe (ASBAE) project, was a two-year EC Daphne-funded project focused on sexual bullying (encompassing sexual harassment, homo- and bi-phobic bullying and transphobic bullying) amongst young people across five European countries (Bulgaria, Italy, Latvia, Slovenia and the UK).

Working in partnership with young people (aged 13-18) the project team conducted research with 253 young people and 37 professionals in the field of child education and protection about their understandings and experiences of sexual bullying and their ideas for tackling it.

The ACT Pack

The ACT Pack is a research-informed intervention helping to prevent sexual bullying among young people in Italy, Latvia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and England. It is designed to help youths aged 13-18 recognise sexual bullying and protect themselves and others from harm. Since 2015, the pack has been implemented with over 6,000 young people in the five countries and 1,200 teachers and youth workers have been trained using the ACT Pack. The research has also influenced changes to Relationship and Sex Education Policy in England (2017) and legislation in Italy on cyberbullying (2017) and gender-based violence (2019).

Our intervention, the ‘ACT Pack’, incorporates all 12 of our recommendations from the research phase of the ASBAE project. The pack includes a three-day training programme for young facilitators and the adults who support them, and the materials and evaluation tools for a two-day peer-to-peer workshop to address sexual bullying. The workshop covers five themes – awareness of sexual bullying, gender and sexuality, sexting, effects of sexual bullying and tackling sexual bullying – and incorporates discussions, media clips, roleplay and other interactive activities.

Young people are keen to be given space to talk about issues relating to sexual bullying. This kind of bullying appears to be a pervasive feature of young people's lives that many find upsetting, yet its problematic nature is often overlooked or downplayed by young people, precisely because it has become such a taken-for-granted part of their everyday experiences.

The Impact

The project has had an impact in four key ways:

  1. More confident and knowledgeable teachers and informed training in the five countries

    Teachers in Latvia reported that the ACT Pack increased their confidence on a difficult topic, and that it was also accessible and easy to use. Our Italian partner facilitated the professional development of 1,200 teachers by training them on sexual bullying and the ACT Pack in the Lombardy Region in 2018. In Bulgaria, our partner applied their new learning to develop a peer-led programme on the prevention of sexual abuse and bullying, and subsequently, 15 university students were trained to deliver the programme to >1,000 children in schools.

  2. Raising awareness of sexual bullying across Europe

    The ACT Pack was downloaded 500 times from the project website in the first nine months, with the website attracting 6,534 visitors. It was distributed via the Slovenian government-funded platform Safe on the Internet (safe.si), which is used by schools and colleges nationally, and the Bulgarian Agency for Social Protection circulated the ACT Pack to 27 regional and 143 municipal directorates for social assistance. In the UK, the findings in our research report were raised in the House of Commons in January 2015, with resulting media coverage, for example, BBC World Service (1.3 million weekly listeners) and the Yorkshire Evening Post (circulation 27,000). The EC commented: “The deliverables are good and have reached a wide audience of both youth and adults who could act as multipliers”

  3. New legislation in Italy and new governmental policy in the UK

    Our project informed two new laws in Italy – n. 71 on cyberbullying in 2017 and n. 69 ‘Red Code’ on victims of gender-based violence in 2019, following the presentation of our research findings and ACT Pack to the Lombardy regional government in January 2017 and the Italian Parliament in Rome in February 2016 by our Italian partner. In England and Wales in 2017, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening, announced her intention to put Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) on a statutory footing and to make Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education statutory in the future. Our evidence about the normalisation of sexual bullying among young people was cited within the Committee’s Inquiry Report (paragraph 23, pp. 10-11) and is directly reflected in the Committee’s conclusion that young people are “developing a sense that sexual harassment and sexual violence are acceptable behaviours and learning social norms that are carried through to adult life” (paragraph 47, p.15).

  4. Empowered young people in Bulgaria, England, Italy, Latvia and Slovenia

    Our project impacted over 6,400 young people through the project activities and implementation of the ACT Pack. Over 400 young people across the five countries participated in the research and intervention phases, reporting, for example, that they were better able to recognise sexual bullying following the focus group discussions: “Now I definitely know what lies under sexual bullying”, and better equipped to respond to sexual bullying after participating in the intervention: “It helps you to understand what are the best things to do in case you witness bullying”.

This is a very serious issue, our schools should be places where children can feel safe and secure. The research from Leeds Beckett University shows a worryingly high number of young people suffer sexual bullying at school, so clearly there is a lot more we can and should be doing to support young people and properly tackle this issue.

Greg Mulholland Liberal Democrats

Outputs and recognition

  • Turner-Moore T. & Milnes K. Sexual bullying in young people. The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation Inaugural Conference, London, November 2018.
  • Milnes, K. and Turner-Moore, T. Why bullying definitions matter and why intent, repetition and directness might be ‘red herrings’. Paper presented at the BPS Psychology of Women and Equalities Section Annual Conference, Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, July 2018.
  • Turner-Moore, T. and Milnes, K. Gendered explanations and victim-blaming in young people’s talk around sexual bullying and harassment. Paper presented at the Inaugural Gender Research Conference, Leeds Beckett University, March 2018.
  • Milnes, K. Thinking critically about sexual bullying. Invited keynote address at the BPS PsyPAG Annual Conference 2017, Northumbria University, July 2017.
  • Milnes, K. and Turner-Moore, T. ‘Boys will be boys’ so ‘man up’ and ‘get on the banter bus’: Gendered assumptions and the normalisation of sexual bullying and sexual harassment. Paper presented at the BPS Psychology of Women Section 30th Anniversary Conference, Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, July 2017.
  • Turner-Moore, T. and Milnes, K. Sexual bullying among young people: Findings from a two-year European project. Invited talk at Contemporary Issues Affecting Young People: A Masterclass, Basis Yorkshire, Leeds, November 2016.
  • Turner-Moore, T. and Milnes, K. Gendered understandings and experiences of sexual bullying in young people. Paper presented at the Violence: Children, Family, Society Conference, University of Northampton, June 2015.
  • Milnes, K. and Turner-Moore, T. Problematising young people’s individualistic and interpersonal explanations for sexual bullying. Paper presented at the Violence: Children, Family, Society Conference, University of Northampton, June 2015.

The project attracted very positive press coverage and wider attention with the research being covered in the Yorkshire Evening Post and on the BBC World Service's Health Check radio programme (including an interview with Dr Tamara Turner-Moore) and being discussed by local Liberal Democrat MP Gregg Mulholland and Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP in the House of Commons.

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