Public Release:  Peer victimization in middle and high school predicts sexual behavior among adolescents

Binghamton University

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IMAGE: In a recent study, David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University has discovered that peer victimization affects the onset of sexual activity and promiscuity among college students. view more

Credit: Jonathan Cohen

BINGHAMTON, NY - Peer victimization during middle and high school may be an important indicator of an individual's sexual behavior later in life. These are the findings of Binghamton University researchers Andrew C. Gallup, Daniel T. O'Brien and David Sloan Wilson, and University at Albany researcher Daniel D. White. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Personality and Individual Differences, the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences (ISSID).

According to Gallup, peer aggression and victimization during adolescence is a form of competition for reproductive opportunities. Female college students who were frequently victimized during middle and high school reported having sex at earlier ages and more sexual partners than their peers, while males reported just the opposite.

In a sample of over 100 college students, surveys showed that over 85 percent of all victimization occurred between members of the same sex, and that indirect victimization (e.g., teasing, demeaning, isolating) predicted sexual behavior, while physical aggression did not.

According to the researchers, the relevance of victimization and sexual behavior may be embedded in our evolutionary past.

"Aggression may resolve intrasexual competition for the same resources, often including members of the opposite sex" said Gallup. "Adolescence serves as a premier age in which to study competition for reproductive access. As the life span of our ancestors was greatly diminished, those who began having children at younger ages would have been selected over those who postponed their sexual behavior."

Competition among peers for a boyfriend or girlfriend may be influenced by these socially aggressive behaviors. Interestingly, study results indicate different effects for males and females.

"Nearly inverse outcomes were observed between the sexes in terms of victimization and sexual behaviors," said Gallup. "And according to evolutionary theory, these types of aggressive and socially dominant strategies operate by different means between males and females. For instance, females preferentially seek status when choosing mates, while males place a larger emphasis on physical attractiveness."

The researchers believe that victimization acts to lower social status in males, and thus females find these males less attractive. It is also proposed that limited physical prowess or physical immaturity may be contributing to this effect, by promoting both an increased likelihood of being victimized and reduced sexual opportunity.

The study presents multiple explanations for females as well. One interpretation is that females who are highly victimized by other girls may have lower self-esteem and could be more susceptible to male sexual pressure. Therefore, the heightened sexual activity of female victims could be an artifact of male coercion.

Another possibility is that attractive girls may simply be the target of aggression by other girls out of envy and resentment over male attention. For instance, research has shown that females often try to slander good-looking girls in front of men in an attempt to make them less desirable. As males focus on physical appearance and not status, attractive female victims do not suffer reduced sexual opportunities. It is important to note however, that this study did not measure physical attractiveness.

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