Teenage bullies have more sex than non-bullies, according to reports of a new study. With sexually harassing bullies all over the news and in many of our workplaces, it seems both sad and true that people who abuse and manipulate others would have more sex. But this study tells us more about how teens respond to surveys than about some universal truth of human sexuality.
- Why Bullies Have More Sex (Big Think)
- Do teenage bullies have more sex? Nasty young people put rivals down in an attempt to look strong and dominant in front of their love interests, study finds (Daily Mail)
- Exploitative and manipulative traits can lead to more sex, according to a new study (Business Insider)
Where It Comes From
This research comes out of the Volk lab at Brock University, which studies the evolutionary roots of bullying by giving teenagers personality tests. They aim to use this knowledge to design better anti-bullying programs.
The study was published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, and the publisher of that journal sent a press release to reporters and news outlets on December 14. Several news stories followed, and Big Think picked it up sometime after that.
The Volk lab recruits kids for their studies from sports teams and youth clubs from across Canada (average age around 14), plus first-year university students (average age of 18). The subjects are overwhelmingly white. Most describe themselves as middle class. The freshmen are recruited from psychology classes, which are mostly female.
So what is the super scientific way they find out who is a bully, and how much sex they’re having? It turns out the researchers give teens a personality test alongside a questionnaire asking whether they bully people, and whether they have had “voluntary” sexual activity, and with how many partners. In this study, since their subjects were so young, they just separated the teens into whether they said they had ever had sex or not.
So this previous research boils down to: kids who say they bully others also tend to say they have had sex. The newest study links that behaviour to personality traits — but only sometimes. For example, younger teens (average age 14) with a low “honesty-humility” score reported bullying others and having sex. But first-year psychology students with low honesty-humility were more likely to report that they bullied people, but not more likely to say that they had had sex.
Even if you believe the teens are telling the truth, the study has some serious flaws. For example, the researchers could only tell whether self-reports of bullying and sex occur together, not whether one causes the other. And they didn’t ask if the teens were victims of bullying, only if they were the bullies.
The researchers have one very good point: younger teenagers approach social situations differently than older teens. For example, extroverts were more likely to be sexually active in the older group, suggesting that older teens had figured out that talking to your crush is more helpful than beating up on the people you see as your competition. Extrapolate that further, though, and we could surmise that the behaviour of teenagers probably says very little about adults.
The Bottom Line
Here’s what all of this has to do with sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and other grown-up situations: Approximately nothing. The subjects were teenagers, they were only asked whether they had ever had consensual sex, and the results assume that teens who would bully and manipulate others are telling the truth about their behaviour and sexual history. As for teenagers, the authors write that anti-bullying programs should “recognise and respond to the relationships between personality, sex, and bullying.”