"Kids are introduced to sexual materials earlier in life, some of which they don't understand—language they don't understand," she says. "Kids use these words really not knowing that there are serious short-term and long-term consequences."
Sexual bullying is really a form of sexual harassment, Dr. Espelage says. "Sexual harassment is calling others these names of 'gay' and 'fag,' and when you do that, directed to boys, it's the most hurtful thing you can do to attack their masculinity," she says. "When you call a girl a 'whore,' a 'lesbian,' it serves the same purpose."
Dr. Espelage says it's important to realize that this bullying isn't usually perpetrated by one bully. "It's groups of kids that do it. Some kids that are popular, this is how they establish dominance; this is how they look cool," she says. "Then you've got good kids around them ... contributing to it, egging it on, not supporting the victim, and ultimately it becomes a climate problem. It's the school's problem."