Hit and Miss

It is not easy to describe the elation and intrigue that two girls feel when walking home together from school. They share secrets, solemnly analyze their social relationships, gossip and make an official pact to be best friends forever.

It is not easy to describe the elation and intrigue that two girls feel when walking home together from school. They share secrets, solemnly analyze their social relationships, gossip and, as they get closer to home, make an official pact to be best friends forever. But it is also possible that all the while, they are busy scheming against and tracking a third girl. Some years ago, there was a red-headed 10-year-old who was subjected to a daily ritual of intimidation every time she returned home from school. Two of her classmates would be waiting for her at the entrance to her building, and would not let her pass. The two girls would jokingly beat her up - not with painful blows - or throw things at her. They would call her names and when she broke down and started crying, the others would take this as the cue to leave. This teasing went on for two years and the redhead never told a soul. One of the tormentors, now in her forties, remembers the face of her victim convulsed in silent tears. She has not seen the girl since, but it is safe to assume that the victim of the cruel barbs carries the emotional scars to this day.

Surveys of juvenile violence usually focus on boys. They are the ones - almost exclusively - who use physical violence. Girls hide behind the rosy image of "good girls." The dark side of a girl's world is hidden far from the eyes of adults. A fleeting glance show only sweet girls, the best of friends. But girls have their own systems, forever secret, to hurt other girls. The violence is veiled, more sophisticated. The anger and the jealousy are never shown, and never verbal. As a rule, girls shy away from direct confrontation. They prefer to use murderous looks, to spread rumors, to use silence as a weapon or to isolate. Why? Physical violence is without a doubt offensive. But it seems that girls' choice of nonphysical violence can teach us a lot about their culture, the boundaries they learn to build for themselves from childhood, and the game they learn to play.

"Do Boys Fight While Girls are Manipulative?" is the name of a controversial Norwegian paper published in the 1990s, in which the focus was placed on violence by girls.

According to Prof. Ruth Butler of Hebrew University's School of Education, the different forms of violence used by boys and girls can be explained on the societal level by the differences between the sexes in general in terms of interpersonal relationships, from the formation of relationships with colleagues in the work place to raising children. She explains that the current wisdom is that the differences are biological - that girls are just innately more pro-social than boys, more sensitive to others' distress.

But there can be no doubt that the avoidance of direct aggression is also a social issue. Girls are taught from an early age that violent behavior is neither acceptable nor feminine. Even in kindergarten, while the boys are encouraged to fight back, girls learn to refrain. So they look to legitimate - that is to say, covert - ways to defuse their anger. Butler believes that the girls' social skills are better developed than those of boys' - for good and for bad. Their friendships are closer and more intimate than those of boys. "Boys go to play soccer together, while we spend hours talking about our friendships," says Shani, a high-school student from Tel Aviv. But closeness can also be a double-edged sword, since the hurtfulness can be all the more sharp.

"The identity of girls, and of women, is tied up in their relationships, from kindergarten upward," says Butler. "For men, the feeling of individuality is built more on the individual. The common claim in feminist research is that men pay for their detachment from intimate relations, while woman benefit from the same relationships. Life within a group is empowering, but loss of that connection, and the fear of loneliness, is greater."

"I know my best friends' weak points," says Ellie, a fifth-grader from Tel Aviv, with obvious confidence. "If I need to, I can get them boiling mad."

Stories of hurt

According to Butler, in women's relationships one can find all the same types of aggression that one finds among men in other spheres. Aggression among boys has been well documented here and has won many newspaper headlines. On the other hand, the phenomenon of girls' violence has not been surveyed consistently and is a new field of research.

Dr. Thomas P. Gumpel of Hebrew University's School of Education is an expert on violence in the education system. He served on the Education Ministry's Committee to Reduce Youth Violence, which came to public prominence in 1999.

He says, with complete honesty, that the committee did not even begin to look at the indirect violence by girls, since there was no information available. In addition, he says, it would look ridiculous to publish figures stating that 40 percent of girls pass insulting notes to a classmate, or that 70 percent stop talking to a friend at least once a day. And that every third girl is called "fat" at one time or another.

American researcher Rachel Simmons decided to uncover the dark stories of girls in a book entitled "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls," recently also published in Hebrew. One day after school, when she was eight years old, Simmons' best friends disappeared. They did so on purpose and she chased after them, painfully struck by being left out. The boycott and the insults bothered her for many years, even after she became an honors student at Oxford University. She sent e-mails to female acquaintances of varying ages, asking them to relate similar experiences. The number of responses she received - from women she had never met, as well as those she knew - was amazing. The waves of emotion she felt via the computer and the stories of hurt, spurred her to research the phenomenon. For three years, Simmons sat in schools, interviewing girls aged nine and 14 - the period during which female bullying is at a peak. Her book, which became a best-seller, describes girls' culture of covert violence.

Despite the American images of the blond "girl-next-door" or the cheerleader, it is easy to spot the same, familiar patterns of boycotts, betrayals and tyranny. Exposing the phenomenon was not easy. In order to uncover the complex tactics and strategies that girls employ, and to encourage them to reveal the insults, the group pressure and the precise body language they used (a phenomenon that Simmons refers to as "alternative bullying"), the researcher first had to gain their trust. She spent hours in their company, until she became part of their lives. Through the girls' honest and open stories, Simmons uncovered a fabric of unique relationships. A captive of her research, she says that even the innocent sight of two girls playing in the corner of the kindergarten can be misleading, and could be the arena for a conflict.

It would seem that girls have always been aggressive. A small, private survey conducted for the purposes of this article revealed one mother who was appalled to hear how her first-grade daughter's female classmates had labeled another girl "The Lice Kid." The mother in question was reminded that while the insults used when she was at school may have been far less sophisticated, the cause in this case for ostracizing the child - head lice - sometimes remains the same. Alienation and ostracism have an awesome power.

"Girls always want to be together," says Shani. "I have thought about that. I never go to place alone when I leave school. There's always that question - `are you coming to the bathroom?'"

Gumpel argues that the phenomenon of "social bullying" is not limited to girls alone. In an attempt to investigate and counter the phenomenon, he conducted surveys on all types of violence - open (physical), social (veiled) and sexual - in more than 60 junior highs and high schools in Israel. Some 13,000 students took part in the study, which was accompanied by conversations and counseling. Gumpel discovered that 53 percent of the girls and 47 percent of the boys had indirectly bullied another student, damaging that person's social standing. He claims that the findings, which he intends to publish in the near future, prove that social bullying is not limited to girls alone.