Any form of sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical, has the power to cause psychological harm, according to a new study.
The research, which was published Thursday in the International Journal of Public Health and comes at a time when sexual misconduct is under increasing public scrutiny, finds that non-physical sexual harassment — such as derogatory comments, unwanted sexual attention and unsolicited explicit images — can take a psychological toll, potentially exacerbating symptoms of anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem.
“It’s original because people usually don’t consider the effects of non-physical harassment without a certain amount of physical harassment,” says Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, a professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and one of the study’s authors. “Even when you control for [physical coercion and force], you still find an effect on mental symptoms due to non-physical harassment.”
Kennair and his colleagues collected data from two groups of Norwegian high school students, totaling almost 3,000 in all. The students were asked to respond to surveys about their experiences with sexual harassment over the past year, as well as their mental well-being. The first group was polled in 2007, while the second took surveys from 2013 to 2014.
Based on the groups’ answers, which mirrored one another quite closely, the researchers concluded that being the victim of any type of sexual harassment, even if it was strictly non-physical, was correlated with an uptick in symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health indicators.
The effect was particularly pronounced among female students, though it was true of all genders. Roughly 62 percent of both male and female students said they had experienced non-physical sexual harassment over the past year.
“Unwanted sexual attention is probably a greater stressor for women,” Kennair explains. “The more harassed they were, both groups got more depression symptoms. But women got more depression symptoms, compared to the boys, due to the same increase in harassment.”
The researchers also found that sexual minorities and students with unemployed parents reported higher-than-average psychological harm resulting from non-physical incidents, suggesting that socioeconomic factors play a part in mental well-being.