Teenage boys who witness their peers abusing girls are more likely to bully and fight with others, study says

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The study, published in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that boys who witnessed their peers’ abusive behaviors to girls were more likely to be violent toward others, in characteristics like bullying, youth violence, rape and dating abuse.

Teaching young boys to respect their female peers goes a long way — it may even help prevent violent behaviors, one study reports.

The study, published Friday in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine,” was led by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

They found that boys who witnessed their peers’ abusive behaviors to girls were more likely to be violent toward others, in characteristics like bullying, youth violence, rape and dating abuse.

But that doesn’t mean boys with equal gender beliefs were without fault. The team also found that homophobic teasing was prevalent among the boys, regardless of gender beliefs.

There’s a ‘pressure to conform,’ lead author says

The team surveyed 866 13- to 19-year-old boys — 91% of whom were of color — in 20 Pittsburgh neighborhoods described as “lower-resource.” They said this is the first study to gather information from teenage boys in the United States from community-based settings, not just schools or clinics.

Boys who said they’d seen their peers engaging in at least two different abusive behaviors toward women and girls were more likely to perpetuate violence against others, regardless of sex — ranging from twice as likely to rape and five times as likely to bully others, the study says.

“This reinforces that pressure to conform to stereotypes about masculinity that perpetuate harmful behaviors toward women and girls is also associated with getting in a fight with another guy,” said lead author Elizabeth Miller, a professor of pediatrics, public health and clinical and translational science at Pitt. “These behaviors aren’t happening in silos — if we’re going to stop one, we need to also be addressing the other.”

On the other hand, in boys who thought of girls as equals, there were lower odds of violent behaviors — except when it came to nonpartner sexual violence and homophobic teasing.

And while nonpartner sexual violence was the least common of all the harmful behaviors — with 5% reported among the boys surveyed — homophobic teasing was the most common, with 76.3% reported.

Homophobic teasing is common, regardless of gender beliefs

The numbers show that even with an understanding of gender equity, homophobic teasing — defined in the study as using terms such as “homo” or “gay” to both friends and not — continues to be widespread among these boys.

Dr. Alison Culyba, one of the authors on the study, called that finding “puzzling and troubling.” She attributed the numbers to the normalization of homophobic jokes.

“It is so commonplace, they may see it as a form of acceptable, possibly even pro-social, interaction with their peers,” said Culyba, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at UPMC Children’s.

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