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Dr Maria Luca: Sexual bullying among young people and how psychotherapy can help

Sexual bullying and abuse is intertwined with abuse of power and betrayal of trust. The child who is rented out for sex by her/his parents, young women and men, as well as children who are trafficked for prostitution, deceived and manipulated into believing they are in for a good life, the girlfriend whose ex-boyfriend takes revenge through ‘texting’ sexual images of her to his friends, all are examples of sexual bullying. The internet with its global communication and easily accessible pornography lends itself to a thriving culture where sexual bullying can take place anonymously and behind the screen.

The extreme manifestation of what appears to be benign sexual innuendo among young people but is in fact malign, is presented in psychological therapy services, if indeed the person sexually bullied is able to seek help. This article will discuss sexual bullying especially where trust is betrayed and show the impact of betrayal on the mental health of the person. A vignette of a sexually bullied foreign student highlights the lived experience in being sexually bullied and explores appropriate psychological interventions.

The powerful feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame contribute to silence, where sexual bullying remains elusive until victims break down under the weight of the trauma.

Often sexual bullying remains undetected, unreported or even romanticized as part of a normal and growing sexualized culture. This creates a climate of fear of exposure with the implication that the person bullied suffers in silence and feels guilty by association. The victim’s self-esteem is often compromised. The powerful feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame contribute to silence, where sexual bullying remains elusive until victims break down under the weight of the trauma. Some perpetrators will use manipulation, empty promises, charm, even violence to achieve their aims, while others will carefully select potential victims who are vulnerable and can easily be deceived. Where sexual bullying takes place within families, the betrayal of trust is potentially psychologically crushing. This had been the case with Meryem, a fifteen year old Iranian girl referred to me for obsessive compulsive disorder.

Meryem’s parents had no idea that during family visits to relatives, the kind, child-friendly uncle, had been sexually abusing Meryem from the age of six. During psychotherapy sessions a shocking picture of a little girl manipulated and frightened was emerging. The subtle sexual bullying that was taking place slowly eroded Meryem’s sense of self, causing confusion, obsessive compulsive symptoms, self-loathing and a vehement need to suppress her budding femininity. She mistrusted and feared boys, avoided socializing with friends, and often found it difficult to concentrate on her studies. She never wore a dress as she felt uncomfortable with her femininity. She waited and hoped that someone, some day would know what happened to her without her having to tell them. I wrote the lines below in my psychotherapy file after an emotional session with Meryem. They capture her secret pain:


Satin vale covers her face,

touching it softly in regular pace,

a stream of tears and shadowy hopes

await patiently beneath her robe.

A dark stranger on a galloping horse,

in instance he touched her wondering thought:

His touch is confusing, it carries persistence;

His smile is deceiving, it’s from a distance.

The shadow of sadness clouded her eyes,

no spark, no hope, but fear and cries.

Slave to this captor, she refused to be,

love is forbidden to an infantile dream.

For hours and days she wished to reveal,

to speak, to shout out loud, to at least be seen.

Nobody spoke and nobody listened.

Her only witness was the colour grey.

Poignantly saying, I have been betrayed.


Sexual bullying induces guilt and shame, both compromising the individual’s self-esteem and sense of relational belonging to the peer group, and perpetuating feelings of being an ‘outsider’. Some victims blame themselves for not having the strength to prevent the abuse. The trauma associated with sexual bullying often remains elusive until the habitual coping mechanisms in the individual break down with negative consequences and an adverse impact on psychological health, compromising the individual’s functioning in different spheres of life.

Bullying can take the form of direct, face to face harassment, including belittlement, derogatory remarks, exclusion and sexual innuendo and increasingly cyberbullying, which is conducted anonymously by perpetrators through social media and mobile phone. The consequences of being bullied on the mental health of young people are far ranging and include depression, post-traumatic stress, decreased self-esteem, suicidal ideation and withdrawal from studies. A sense of betrayal of trust pervades the self-esteem of the bullied person with huge consequences for the sense of self, psychological and academic functioning.

There are different types of bullying which I discuss elsewhere (Luca, 2015). Here I will define a very common form, Resentful sexual bullying. This type of bulling aims to cause humiliation and distress in the victim, often because the bully has a grievance against the victim. Bullies spread vicious rumours, gossip and innuendo intended to cause psychological harm to the victim. Individuals whose amorous desires are rejected may resort to name calling such as ‘slut’, ‘whore’ etc. In their attempts to cope with rejection and vent their anger, perpetrators may use of sexual images, comments, as well as stalking behaviour that is harmful to the victim.

An inability to cope with rejection from a partner can develop into stalking behaviours as the media reports. Portrayals of individuals who developed murderous resentment towards an ex-girlfriend who rejected them are testament to the dangers of resentful sexual bullying. Bindell (2005) begins her reporting of a tragic case by saying: ‘Moments before Rana Faruqui was killed in August 2003, a 999 operator heard her pleading with her ex-boyfriend, Stephen Griffiths: “You are not allowed to come anywhere near me, Steve, Steve, leave me alone, leave me alone.” She had been cleaning the stables on her Berkshire farm when Griffiths stabbed her to death with a hunting knife’. The article highlights that stalking is not just a problem for celebrities and that one in five women in Britain and one in 20 men will be victims of a stalker at some time in their lives.

A common form of sexual bullying is through sexting. I will present a brief scenario from my psychotherapy files to highlight the impact of this type of bullying on a young woman.


A double betrayal

Svetlana, a 19 year old attractive, intelligent and vulnerable young woman, moved to the UK from Ukraine to study. This was towards the end of her first year BSc course. She was anxious and depressed. It was a cold winter day and when she walked into my consulting room she was wearing a grey coat, grey gloves and black boots. Her pale skin looked withered and also grey. I settled into my chair ready to conduct the initial assessment. She went on to describe how her mother worked long hours to finance her education and had aspirations for her to break free of the family working class struggle, an aspiration that weighed heavily on Svetlana. To fail had been associated with disappointing her mother and appearing ungrateful of her hard labour and sacrifice to make this dream real.

Svetlana presented with not only anxiety and depression, but self-harm and passive suicidal ideation. Her self-esteem appeared to have also deteriorated in the last six months. She had hoped that therapy would help her cope with these symptoms and destructive behaviours so she could successfully complete her studies.

I used the assessment to enable me to obtain a general view of Svetlana’s situation, early traumas and current symptoms and behaviours. I listened with respect and empathy, trying to understand Svetlana’s experiences, at times sharing my understandings. This is an important approach in helping clients develop trust, which fosters a working alliance and opens the door for more in-depth work.

My working psychological formulation was that Svetlana had an ambivalent attachment style, both craving closeness with father, while at the same time distancing herself from him. Her parents’ divorce and her father moving to another area far away from home, left Svetlana feeling abandoned. She was very close to her mother, but felt protective of her, wanted to please her, was frightened of disappointing her and compensated for her guilt that she would burden her mother, by being ‘the good girl’.

After several months our work deepened and Svetlana disclosed material which she spoke to nobody about before. The main focus now turned to a sexual relationship experience that turned sour. She met a young man at a party and soon they became sexually intimate. They were in a steady relationship and she felt happy until one day a friend told her that her boyfriend was having sex with other girls behind her back. Svetlana confronted him and this led to a break-up of their relationship.

Svetlana’s ex-boyfriend took revenge by texting sexual images of her to a group of friends and uploading sexually revealing material of them together on the internet. She felt exposed, humiliated and betrayed. This trauma was also a catalyst of a previous trauma when she had been sexually abused by her grandfather. This was a double betrayal. First the grandfather she trusted and now the boyfriend she dotted on. Her symptoms were indicative of post-traumatic stress. She felt bereft of her self-respect and cheated of the right to her own dignity.

Sexual harassment is prevalent in real and virtual environments, causing significant psychological harm to victims (Barak, A. 2005). Sexual bullies take advantage of the vulnerability in the victim and exploit it to their own advantage. According to the study by Pryor and Stoller (1994), men who are high risk in sexually harassing women perceive a connection between sexuality and social dominance. In Svetlana’s case humiliation was a perverse triumph for the man she trusted and who now degraded her. She felt violated, ashamed, and degraded. She could not function normally. This traumatic experience had also been a catalyst of sexual abuse in childhood. In such instances the victim is flooded with overwhelming emotions and can resort to self- destructive behaviours as a way of fending off psychological pain.

Therapeutic approach

My clinical approach was inter-personal, actively involving Svetlana in creating shared understandings, reflecting and processing her feelings and normalizing her reaction. I paced exploration of her trauma to ensure she did not become overwhelmed, which can cause severe regression and severely compromise functioning. The therapeutic relationship is a very important consideration in inter-personal therapy where a spirit of collaboration, the establishment of a working alliance and shared responsibility on how therapy progresses create the cornerstone for a positive therapeutic climate. Svetlana’s trust in me was withering during some therapy phases, a common occurrence in PTSD. Rather than avoiding addressing her doubts, I opened exploration and invited her to think about what was negatively impacting on our work, while processing it. Another potential betrayal, this time by her therapist was at the forefront of her mind. By openly acknowledging this, we were able to move beyond her anxieties and deal with the underlying emotional trauma.


Sexual bullying causes significant psychological harm to victims. It is used by some perpetrators to exercise control and dominance, a perverse triumph in the face of suffering in the victim. In cases where sexual bullying takes place within a current or previous intimate relationship, it is a betrayal of trust. Victims betrayed in this way become mistrustful of intimate relationships, fearing further exposure and humiliation. To cope, victims resort to isolation and avoidance, strategies aimed at managing their distress. However, isolation can cause depression and prevent victims from leading a normal life. As we have seen in the above vignette, Svetlana’s studies were compromised, her mental health deteriorated and more crucially, the sexual bullying by her ex-boyfriend was a catalyst of early childhood trauma. Left untreated, her condition could compromise her life.

Young people are at higher risk of suicidal ideation and ‘participation in bullying

increases the risk of suicidal ideations and/or behaviors in a broad spectrum of youth’ (Kim & Leventhal, 2008, p. 133). This makes it more pertinent that parents and higher education institutions are cognisant of sexual bullying. Access to psychological support is therefore fundamental.

Note: Names and demographic details have been changed to protect the anonymity of victims presented in this article.

About the author

DSC_0129Dr Maria Luca lives in London. She worked as a psychotherapist in the NHS for 12 years and she now has a small private practice in London. Her career as an academic has spanned over 15 years. She was Head of the School of Psychotherapy & Psychology for 5 years until she took up a position in 2009 as a Senior Research Fellow at Regent’s University London. Maria is the author of two books and several articles. Her recent book was published in 2014: Sexual Attraction in Therapy, Clinical Perspectives on Moving Beyond the Taboo – A Guide for Training and Practice. London: Wiley/Blackwell. Contact: [email protected]


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