Study Confirms That Teens Who Bully Have More Sex

This depressing finding comes with a silver lining -- understanding how bullies operate could lead to better interventions.

Steve Crane/Flickr

In today’s News of the Irritating, it turns out that bullies get more action.

A new study by a team of Canadian researchers, published in Evolutionary Psychology, found that teens and young adults who bullied others dated more and had more sex.

It’s not all bad though, says lead author Anthony Volk. By understanding the ways that bullies benefit from their bad behavior, it will be possible to develop better interventions and anti-bullying programs.

“The idea that we can just think of bullies as Nelson Muntz from the Simpsons — kids who come from disadvantaged homes, low IQ, don’t understand other kids, can’t socialize — just isn’t something that’s really tenable anymore,” Volk tells Inverse.

Only about 10 percent of bullies fit this profile, he says. The rest are what researchers call “pure bullies.” They are powerful, smart, skilled, and have figured out how to use bullying to their social advantage — think the cheer captain or the quarterback.

The study surveyed kids in high school and recently graduated from high school and had them fill out questionnaires about bullying, victimization, dating, and sex.

While the results did show that bullies tend to date more and have more sex, the results don’t show anything about the quality of those relationships. “We don’t know if they have better relationships, longer lasting relationships, what kind of safety they have around those sexual encounters,” Volk says.

And, although it’s unclear from this particular study if some well-liked kids do better sexually than the bullies, there is evidence to suggest that being nice can be more effective over time than bullying.

“The kids who are purely pro-social, the kids who are popular, powerful, and nice, do better than bullies,” says Volk. “A child who is pro-social, who has that power but doesn’t exploit other people with it, is not only respected by his peers — as a bully might be — but is also liked.”

So the key to ending bullying, then, is to give kids alternative tools to get the benefits that bullying brings, like social standing, power, and apparently sex.

An upcoming paper described one potential way of doing this, says Volk. Give kids a role — something meaningful that comes with a degree of power. “You offer children a meaningful job that gives the same status and social recognition that they might get from bullying,” he says.

In theory, kids with access to alternative tools to achieve their goals should then choose not to bully, since bullying comes with downsides, like being disliked by your peers, getting caught and punished, or having the victim retaliate.

“We can’t ignore the benefits of bullying, and in particular the sexual benefits of bullying,” says Volk. “So if you’re asking kids to stop bullying you’ve got to recognize that you’re asking them to give up something. In this case, sex is a pretty big reward for a lot of adolescents.”

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