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The Connections Between Bullying and Family Violence, Sexual Harassment, and Dating Violence

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Important new efforts to address sexual harassment and teen dating violence are appearing at high schools and colleges across the country.  Teachers, faculty members and young people themselves are speaking up like never before on this issue and are eager to stop the violence before it even starts.

An important first step in addressing any aggressive behaviors, including sexual harassment and teen dating violence, is recognizing the intersecting factors that can contribute to these dangerous patterns of behavior.  Last spring, I had the opportunity to participate in a two-day workshop convened by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC). This working session, sponsored by the Health Resources and Service Administration, and  entitled “Building Capacity to Reduce Bullying and Its Impact on Youth Across the Lifecourse” brought together a diverse group of representatives of key sectors involved in bullying research and prevention to explore the risk factors associated with bullying and effective evidence-based models for preventing it.

One area in particular that the group coalesced around was the relationship between bullying others in early adolescence and later perpetration of sexual harassment and forms of teen dating violence as students progress through school.  The group’s close analysis of this growing body of research revealed a pattern of escalating aggressive and violent behaviors that can start with bullying and homophobic name calling in middle school and ultimately lead to unhealthy dating relationships (including dating violence) in high school and college. In fact, one recent study found that youth who admitted to verbally bullying peers in middle school were seven times more likely than their peers to report physically abusing their dates four years later. Similar to bullying, sexual harassment and dating violence are unwanted aggressive behaviors that involve a real or perceived power imbalance. As young people become more aware of their sexuality and begin dating, these power imbalances can take different forms and impact relationships with peers in different ways.

Escalating Behaviors

  • There are strong connections between bullying and sexual harassment.
  • Sexual harassment can predict later teen dating violence, including verbal, physical, and sexual coercion.
  • Youth who engage in bullying behavior resort to homophobic name-calling over the middle-school years.
  • Bullying and homophobic name-calling can lead to unhealthy dating relationships.


If bullying is not addressed early on, it can mark the beginning of a violent trajectory that can quickly escalate. Preventing bullying should be viewed as a strategy for promoting healthy relationships and stopping teen dating violence before it begins.  Many organizations have tools and resources that help address the related issues of bullying and teen dating violence, including:

  • Safe Dates: an evidence-based school-based program that address school climate issues that can also impact bullying. Safe Dates empowers students to take a stand against abusive relationships. The program seeks to prevent the onset of abuse in dating relationships through a 10-session curriculum as well as a theater production and a schoolwide poster which raises awareness of the issue of teen dating violence.
  • Dating Matters®: Strategies to Promote Healthy Teen Relationships- is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) comprehensive teen dating violence prevention initiative that focuses on 11– to 14–year–olds in high-risk, urban communities. It includes both evidence-based and evidence-informed preventive strategies for individuals, peers, families, schools, and neighborhoods. Dating Matters® aims to prevent teen dating violence and promote healthy peer and dating relationships as well as impact the shared risk and protective factors associated with multiple forms of violence including bullying.
  • GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network): a group that works toward ending discrimination, harassment, and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in schools across the U.S. GLSEN provides trainings nationwide on ways to stop and prevent bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.  The organization also sponsors the annual event: No Name Calling Week –an initiative geared toward educating middle school students about the negative impact of bullying and harassment.
  • Want to learn more? Register for the free webinar on the connections between bullying and other types of violence.