Teenage Bullies Want Us to Believe They Have a Lot of Sex

Teen bullies are more likely to have sex than non bullies, according to new research reports. With sexual harassment bullies being featured all over the news and in many of our workplaces, it seems both sad and true that people who abuse and manipulate others will have more sex. But this study tells us more about how Canadian teens respond to polls than it does about some universal truth about human sexuality.


Where did it come from

This research is being carried out by the Folk Laboratory at Brock University, which is studying the evolutionary roots of bullying through teen personality tests . They strive to use this knowledge to design more effective anti-bullying programs.

The study was published in Evolutionary Psychological Science , and on December 14, the journal’s publisher sent a press release to reporters and news outlets. Several news articles followed, and after a while Big Think picked it up.


Volk Lab recruits children to study from sports teams and youth clubs from all over Canada (average age about 14), as well as first-year university students (average age 18). Subjects are predominantly white. Most call themselves the middle class. Freshmen are recruited from psychology lessons, mostly girls.

The group previously claimed that teenage bullies are more likely to have sex . For example, they say their research supports the idea that boys beat boys to impress girls.

So in what super-scientific way do they find out who the bully is and how much sex they have? It turned out that researchers conducted a personality test on adolescents along with a questionnaire in which they asked whether they bully people, whether they had “voluntary” sexual activity and with how many partners. In this study, because their subjects were very young, they simply divided adolescents on whether they said they had ever had sex or not.

So this previous study boils down to this: Children who say they bully others also tend to say they’ve had sex. Recent research has linked this behavior to personality traits, but only occasionally. For example, younger adolescents (mean age 14) with low honesty-humility scores reported bullying and having sex. But first-year psychology students with low honesty-humility were more likely to report that they bully people, but not more often to say that they had sex.

Even if you believe adolescents are telling the truth, there are serious flaws in the study. For example, researchers could only tell if self-reports of bullying and sex were occurring together, but if one was causing the other. And they didn’t ask if the teens were victims of bullying, only if they were bullies.

The researchers have one very good point: younger adolescents approach social situations differently than older ones. For example, extroverts are more likely to be sexually active in the older group, which suggests that older teens have learned that talking to someone you like is more rewarding than beating up people you consider your competitors. Extrapolate this further, however, and we can assume that adolescent behavior probably says very little about adults.

Bottom line

Here’s how it all relates to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and in other adult situations: Nothing. The subjects were teenagers, only asked if they had ever had consensual sex, and the results suggest that teenagers who will bully and manipulate others are telling the truth about their behavior and sexual history. For adolescents, the authors write that anti-bullying programs need to “recognize and respond to the relationship between personality, sex and bullying.”


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