We know that sexual assault and harassment is psychologically traumatizing to the victim. As we have just witnessed in the recent Congressional hearings, these psychological effects are long lasting. Our understanding of the impact, however, continues to expand. A new study released last week shows that the trauma many victims feel is not limited to their emotional and psychological health. These attacks can impact their long-term physical health as well.
The study, published in Journal of the American Medical Association, found that both workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault had lasting, negative effects on women’s physical and emotional health. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recruited 304 women between the ages of 40 and 60 and recorded their blood pressure, weight and height. Through a brief questionnaire, researchers found 19 percent (58) of these women reported a history of workplace sexual harassment, and 22 percent (67) had a reported a history of sexual assault, and 10 percent (30) of the women reported they had experienced both sexual harassment and assault. The numbers for this study’s population are lower than national estimates, which indicated that 40-75 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, and 36 percent have experienced sexual assault.
About one in four women in the study who had been sexually assaulted met criteria for depression, while only one in 10 who had not been assaulted were also suffering from depression. Researchers also found that those who reported having experienced workplace sexual harassment had significantly higher blood pressure and significantly lower sleep quality than women who had not.Their findings are adding to a growing body of evidence, expanded through more than a dozen other studies over the past decade. Researchers have now documented other physical symptoms caused by sexual harassment, such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems and disrupted sleep.
“When it comes to sexual harassment or sexual assault, our study shows that lived experiences may have a serious impact on women’s health, both mental and physical,” Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry at the Pittsburg School of Medicine and the study’s senior author said in a press release. “This is an issue that needs to be tackled with urgency not just in terms of treatment but in terms of prevention.”
The researchers are right, sexual assault and sexual abuse has a profound impact on victims, and efforts to improve women’s health must target the prevention of sexual harassment and assault, not just the treatment of its consequences. While the momentum surrounding the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements (as well as ongoing current events) has inspired and emboldened more and more women to stand up and make their voices heard, this study illustrates the fact that this is an unfolding crisis and will require diligence, education, and continued attention to eliminate.
The goal of sexual assault prevention is simple—to stop it from happening in the first place. The same can be said for workplace harassment. However, according to the CDC, the solutions are as complex as the problem. Preventing sexual assault requires prevention strategies that address factors at each level of the society. To help facilitate progress, the CDC has put together “STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence,” which represents a select group of strategies based on the best available evidence to help communities and states sharpen their focus on prevention activities.
In terms of workplace harassment, it’s important to keep in mind that the same laws prohibiting gender discrimination also prohibit sexual harassment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the main federal law that prohibits sexual harassment, and each state also has its own anti-sexual harassment law. That being said, there is still a lot of work to be done. It is important that employers adopt clear sexual harassment policies and conduct regular sexual harassment training – even if your state doesn’t require or suggest training. It’s also crucial that complaints are taken seriously, and if the complaint is shown to be valid, it is followed with a swift and effective response.
Although the studies focus primarily on women, people with non-conforming gender identities also experience sexual harassment and assault at high rates. To make the changes so desperately needed, we must work together. This isn’t something that will go away, so now is the time to act. This is a health crisis we must address. We need to listen to the victims, hold attackers responsible, and create safe environments in which people to live, work, grow, and thrive.