All types of sexual harassment can be psychologically harmful, says study

Korin Miller
Writer
Sexual harassment in any form can be psychologically damaging. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sexual harassment has dominated headlines recently after allegations were brought against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and other powerful men in the entertainment and media industries. The latest example: Influential art critic Benjamin Genocchio has been ousted from his role as director of the international Armory Show for sexual harassment after five women spoke to the New York Times about being victimized by him.

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, but it’s easy for critics to dismiss sexual harassment as harmless if no physical contact was involved. However, new research has shown that it’s anything but.

The study, which was published in the International Journal of Public Health, found that being exposed to nonphysical sexual harassment can prompt symptoms of anxiety, depression, poor body image, and low self-esteem. For the study, researchers analyzed data from 3,000 high school students on sexual harassment they experienced in the past year, and there were some disturbing findings.

The researchers discovered that boys were often the aggressors, but they targeted girls and other boys alike. Both boys and girls were equally exposed to sexual harassment, with more than 60 percent reporting that they experienced it in the past year. While boys and girls were both victims, the researchers found that girls were affected more by the harassment. Researchers controlled for other factors like having parents who had separated or were unemployed, whether the students were in vocational or regular studies, whether they were sexual minorities, their immigrant status, and whether they had experienced sexual assault in the past.

Among the harassment, people reported receiving derogatory sexual comments about their looks, behavior, and sexual orientation, unwanted sexual attention, being the subject of rumors, and being shown sexual images.

Nonphysical sexual harassment can actually influence a victim’s mental well-being beyond being stressed in the moment, study co-author Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, a professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The effect of nonphysical harassment is evident, despite controlling for so many different factors,” he says.

This type of sexual harassment can be damaging because it creates a sense of uncertainty for the victim, clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When you are psychologically, verbally sexually harassed, you are wondering what comes next, and what is the next step that person is going to take,” Mayer explains. “It can lead to severe paranoia, withdrawal, isolation, and avoidance such as leaving a job, school, groups, or friendships.”

While Kennair’s study didn’t make suggestions for what victims can do to protect their psychological well-being, Mayer says there are a few effective steps victims can take. The first is to speak up. “Let the perpetrator know this harassment most stop,” he says. “When you speak up, make sure you label it what it is — sexual harassment.” Then let an authority figure know what’s going on. If it happened at school, a teacher or principal should be informed. If it was at work, you should go to HR. “Don’t keep this to yourself,” Mayer says.

And, of course, if you find that you’re feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious over being harassed, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional.

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