New research by Brock University shows adolescent bullies have a higher number of sexual partners than their non-bullying peers.
Building on previous studies on the issue, Brock Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies Tony Volk looked at what makes teens willing and able to use bullying as a strategy to meet their sexual needs.
“Is it being really angry? Is it being really reckless? Is it being really low in empathy? These are all common ideas to explain this behaviour,” says Volk, whose research was published last month in the journal Evolutionary Psychology Science.
“The answer, generally speaking, was no to all of that,” he says. “The one common personality trait was being willing to exploit others, an arrogant belief that you deserve better than other people or that different rules apply to you, something, sadly, we see in the adult world.”
The research team, headed by Volk, set up two groups, one consisting of younger teens with an average age of 13.5, and another group with an average age of 18.5.
Participants in both groups filled out the HEXACO Personality Inventory and a questionnaire that measured how frequently they were involved in bullying activities in school.
Co-developed by Brock University and the University of Calgary, the HEXACO model measures six major dimensions of personality: honesty-humility; emotionality; extraversion; agreeableness (versus anger); conscientiousness; and openness to experience.
The team found that both older and younger teens who scored low in honesty-humility were most “willing and able to use bullying as a way to get sexual partners, which in turn may increase their sexual opportunities,” says the study, titled “Do Bullies Have More Sex? The Role of Personality.”
Older teens who scored low on agreeableness and were more introverted were also more likely to be bullies, although they didn’t necessarily have more sexual partners than their non-bullying peers.
Teens bullying to gain sexual partners exhibit several characteristic behaviours, Volks says.
Boys tend to intimidate girls by controlling the girls’ movements and who they have access to, and threaten to harm the girls’ reputations if they don’t go along with the boys’ demands.
Volk says girls tend to “browbeat” boys into doing what the girls want and also threaten to harm the boys’ reputations.
Both boys and girls will attack their same-sex competitors.
“Because the bullies view themselves as being more deserving and others as less deserving, they’re more likely to view life as a competition where there are winners and losers: ‘I’m going to knock down the losers so I can be a winner,’” says Volk.
Opinions vary as to the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate on whether bullying and other types of behaviours are biologically determined or come about as a result of environment.
This includes mixed messages about respecting women and prominent figures who bully to get what they want, says Volk.
“The analogy I always use when I talk about development is that it’s like baking chocolate chip cookies,” says Volk. “What’s more important to have? Chocolate chips, which are your biological ingredients, or an oven, which is the environment? You need both.”
He says bullying by teens who score low on honesty-humility can be reduced if parents are aware of their teens’ activities.
“Our results suggest that both research and intervention efforts with older and younger adolescents need to recognize and respond to the relationships between personality, sex and bullying,” says the study, whose first author, Daniel Provenzano, was a master’s student at Brock. Provenzano is now at the University of Windsor.
There are ways to cut down on teen bullying, says Volk. These include:
Changing competitions in schools to move away from a winner-loser model to one where many people win
Addressing issues of income inequality
Provide bullies with meaningful roles and responsibilities in schools and at home