All sexual harassment — even nonphysical — is psychologically harmful
As sexual harassment allegations abound in Hollywood and dominate the headlines, critics have raised questions about who is allowed to claim victimization. But one recent study proves that all inappropriate acts, whether physical or nonphysical, pose serious psychological dangers.
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Published in the International Journal of Public Health, the study analyzed data from 3,000 high school students and found those who were exposed to nonphysical sexual harassment, like derogatory sexual comments about their looks, behaviour and sexual orientation, unwanted sexual attention, being the subject of rumours and being shown sexual images, experienced anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and body image issues.
“The results of the study make sense and are consistent with what I’ve seen in my clinical practice,” says Dr. Jillian Roberts, a family psychologist and professor of educational psychology at the University of Victoria. “Sexual harassment is a form of harassment and it hurts. It is a form of aggression and a kind of bullying.”
The study found that boys were more often the aggressors, but both girls and other boys were targeted. And although both genders reported experiencing sexual harassment (in fact, 60 per cent of respondents said they had been harassed in the last year), girls were more profoundly affected.
“The aggressor is using sexual innuendo as a weapon to intimidate or even coerce their intended victim. Victims need to understand that it is not a form of flirtation, but rather it is a form of aggression,” Roberts says. “The victim also needs to know that it is alright to seek out support from a mental health professional.”
In addition to mental health issues, the fallout of sexual harassment can manifest itself in physical ailments. These include muscle aches, headaches and even long-term chronic problems like high blood pressure and blood sugar imbalances.
What’s worse, when sexual harassment happens in the workplace, victims are prone to blaming themselves for their actions, which they perceive to have invited the harassment, and expressing self-doubt.
“They may feel that they did something to make this happen or egg it on in some way,” Dr. Colleen Cullen, a licensed clinical psychologist, said to NBC News. “Embarrassment can be experienced, a fear over other people finding out. Also, particularly early in their career, a person may doubt their ability, and wonder if they weren’t only hired because of their sexual value. They may question their achievements, and if they’re young or new to a field, they may ask, ‘Is this just what it’s like in this field?’”
The experts agree that the most important thing a person on the receiving end of sexual harassment can do is speak up and speak out.
“Victims need to let someone know what has occurred so that the aggressor can be held responsible,” Roberts says. “Dealing with trauma-caused sexual harassment can be difficult and one should know that they don’t have to deal with it alone.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
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