Sexual Assault And Harassment Have Long-Lasting Mental And Physical Health Effects

The health effects of sexual assault and harassment are large, measurable and lasting. Fabrikasimf/Shutterstock

Even in the era of #MeToo, it’s not uncommon to see sexual harassment and assault trivialized. So evidence of the long-term effects suffered by survivors of such abuse remains relevant.

“Why should the perpetrator have their life ruined by one mistake when he was young?” is a common cry, although the words “the perpetrator” tend to get left out. The question leaves out the probability that the person, or frequently people, on the receiving end of abusive behavior, will carry the damage for their whole life.

Professor Rebecca Thurston of the University of Pittsburgh has presented the results of a study of the health of 304 women aged 40-60, and the effects of harassment and assault, at the Annual Meeting of the North American Menopause Society. The work has also been published in JAMA Internal Medicine

Thurston reports 22 percent of participants described having been sexually assaulted, and 19 percent reported suffering sexual harassment in the workplace. Harassment was most common for women who were in lower income jobs despite having a university education.

A history of assault, even when it occurred long before, was associated with almost three times the rate of depression and double the risks of anxiety and clinically poor sleep quality. Those who had suffered harassment were not only more likely to experience insomnia, but were more prone to hypertension and blood tests linked to risk of heart attacks.

"It is widely understood that sexual harassment and assault can impact women's lives and how they function, but this study also evaluates the implications of these experiences for women's health," Thurston said in a statement.

Thurston's work is consistent with previous studies, but more rigorous. Previous surveys asked participants to self-assess their health, and often didn't control for factors such as socioeconomic status that might potentially affect health as strongly as the issues being tested for. Thurston reported her conclusions were robust when demographic factors and medication use were taken into account.

“If you are a victim of assault or harassment, don't suffer through it. Get help.” Thurston said

This conference might seem an odd place to present Thurston's findings, but the women were originally recruited to take part in a study on menopause and heart disease, which Thurston extended, while using the measures of health risks. Exclusion of smokers and those taking certain medications made the sample imperfectly representative.

Meanwhile, in a symbolic reminder of how under-reported sexual abuse remains, calls to the National Sexual Assault hotline were more than three times normal rates on the day Christine Blasey Ford's testified about being assaulted by supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The background level was already 50 percent higher than before allegations of widespread sexual assault started making headlines a year ago.

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