The Four Bullies


Strategies for prevention and intervention to eliminate bullying on- and off-campus

The term “bullying” can refer to a wide range of behaviors. I begin this workshop by describing the four kinds of bullying:

  • Boy-on-boy bullying
  • Girl-on-girl bullying
  • “Hate”-based bullying
  • Sexual harassment

We explore the different motivations underlying each of these behaviors.

  • What is the most common reason why boys bully other boys? Because they enjoy it.
  • What’s the most common reason why girls bully other girls? Because they perceive a threat to their social niche and they are trying to defend their niche.
  • “Hate”-based bullying is motivated by differences in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. Although this kind of bullying receives a disproportionate amount of press coverage, it is empirically much less common than either boy-on-boy bullying or girl-on-girl bullying.
  • Sexual harassment is fundamentally different from the three other categories because the origins and motivations are so different. Sexual harassment often begins when a student’s romantic or sexual advances toward another student are rebuffed or mocked. To understand sexual harassment in schools today, one must begin with the fact that girls and boys today often don’t really understand the rules of good behavior; or they may know the rules but they have no interest in following those rules. Many students are immersed in popular culture, the culture of Eminem, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. The Eminem subculture is different from the Justin Bieber subculture, which is different from the Akon subculture; but all those subcultures actively encourage boys to be arrogant and disrespectful. The Lady Gaga subculture is different from the Rihanna subculture which is different from the Nicki Minaj subculture; but all those subcultures actively promote the idea that modest girls are uncool, that chastity is uncool, that a girl has to be a skank, or at least sexually adventurous, to be cool. See my essay on this topic for Psychology Today, online at

Next we consider who is the bully and who is the victim in each of these kinds of bullying. In boy-on-boy bullying, the bully and the victim usually come from different social groups. The boy bully is usually, though not always, bigger and physically stronger than his victim. The victim is often a “gender-atypical” boy. These gender-atypical boys share a number of characteristics which distinguish them from ‘mainstream’ boys (for the relevant scholarly citations, please see Why Gender Matters, chapter 9):

  • These boys may be athletically talented, but if so, they tend to prefer tennis, track, or golf, rather than football or soccer. They don’t like to hit or to be hit. By contrast, many gender-typical boys will play games such as “How about I hit you as hard as I can, then you hit me as hard as you can?” The gender-atypical boy doesn’t want to play such games; that’s sometimes how the boy-on-boy bullying begins.
  • These boys are more likely to suffer from allergies, asthma, and eczema
  • These boys are more likely to be precocious, particularly with regard to language
  • These boys are NOT more likely to be homosexual. Sexual orientation is an independent parameter. The muscular boy who plays football is just as likely as other boys to be homosexual; and the gender-atypical boy is no more likely than other boys to be homosexual (for more on this point, see my first book Why Gender Matters, pp. 203-213 and pp. 223-228).

This last point is particularly important. School leaders and teachers often misunderstand what is happening in boy-on-boy bullying. The victim in boy-on-boy bullying is often teased as being “gay.” The school faculty mistakenly believe that they are witnessing “hate”-based bullying, i.e. they think that the victim is being bullied because the victim is believed to be gay. In fact, the bully usually is aware that the victim is not gay. The bully is calling the victim a fag as another way of tormenting him. School leaders then implement programs designed to promote empathy among straight kids toward non-heterosexual peers. Such programs might help to diminish bullying motivated by “hate” but such programs do nothing to prevent the boy-on-boy bullying we are talking about here.

In girl-on-girl bullying, the girl and the victim often come from the same social circle. In many cases, Sonia and Vanessa were friends, sometimes even best friends; then suddenly Sonia begins a campaign of bullying against Vanessa. Sonia also tries to get her friends to be mean to Vanessa. The most common precipitant is some event which causes Sonia to perceive Vanessa as a threat to Sonia’s social niche. Sometimes the precipitating event is obvious, for example if Sonia’s boyfriend shows a romantic interest in Vanessa. Sometimes it’s more subtle: for example, a friend might say “Did you hear what Vanessa did? It was SO funny. Hysterical! She is SUCH a clown.” If Sonia perceives her own role as the being the clown in her social circle, and a friend gives Vanessa the title of clown, Sonia may feel that her own niche is threatened. Sonia may not realize that there is room for more than one girl in that niche. After all, Sonia is not an adult woman; she does not have the judgment and perspective that an adult has.

The boy bully is often easy to recognize. Boys who bully are less socially sophisticated, on average, than boys who don’t. But that’s not true for girls. Girls who bully are often more socially sophisticated than girls who don’t; and girls who bully are often especially adept with adults. As a result, adults who have not been trained in these differences often don’t perceive the girl-on-girl bullying which is going on in front of them.

Tactics vary. Traditionally, boy-on-boy bullying has been more physical. Getting shoved into a locker is a classic example of boy-on-boy physical bullying. Likewise, girl-on-girl bullying used to be more subtle and concealed: an unkind look, a roll of the eyes, a shrug of the shoulders – easily missed by grown-ups who are not in the loop. But that’s changing. Across North America, girl-on-girl bullying is becoming more physical and more violent, for reasons I explore in Girls on the Edge. In addition, girl-on-girl bullying seems to be occurring at younger and younger ages. Girl-girl bullying which would have been typical of girls in middle school 20 years ago is now often seen in the elementary grades, even the early elementary grades.

Cyberbullying is best understood as a tactic rather than as a different category of bullying. Each of the four bullies described above may employ Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. in their bullying; and each may use texting as a medium for bullying. But the most effective way to eliminate cyberbullying is to address the root cause of the behavior, while also deploying other specific strategies to address some of the technical challenges posed by cyberbullying both online and via text message.

Effective strategies which actually do work to end these behaviors must begin with a solid understanding of how these four kinds of bullying are different. Empathy-based strategies are of some value in preventing “hate”-based bullying but have little effectiveness in preventing or stopping the other three types. I show how school leaders, along with counselors and classroom teachers, can change the culture of the school so that girls and boys no longer want to bully others. Examples are drawn from schools which have eliminated bullying by employing these strategies. School leaders and classroom teachers must work mindfully and intentionally to create a school culture which is consciously opposed to the current popular culture; a school culture in which girls and boys, including the most popular girls and boys, strive to be “ladies and gentlemen.” I give examples of schools where I have visited and worked, which have successfully created such a culture. We consider several case studies, specific situations in real schools, pausing for discussion at different points in the story to consider alternate strategies for intervention.

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