Big Surprise: Sexual Harassment Leads to Health Woes

Cartoon of Man Slapped After Sexually Abusing a Woman

I suppose we owe a debt of gratitude to Herman Cain, in some strange way.  The seriousness of sexual harassment has come once more into the forefront, and that means that conversations are happening.

Important ones.

I realize that sometimes the line gets blurred, that people take things the wrong way, and so on … but the fact remains that sexual harassment is a problem.  A big one.

And Fox News recently ran a piece pointing out that there are medical repercussions of suffering sexual harassment.

Serious ones.

And the truth of the matter is, virtually all of these areas of concern are made …

… significantly worse by—if not completely caused by—stress.


1. Depression

Victims of sexual harassment can experience long-term depression, according to [Sociologist Amy] Blackstone. In a recent study of 1,000 youths, Blackstone found that people sexually harassed in their teens and early 20s can experience depressive symptoms into their 30s.

Many people who experience sexual harassment have feelings of self-doubt, Blackstone said. “For some people, that self-doubt turned into self-blame,” she said, and victims can feel responsible for what happened. Such self-blame may have a negative effect on mental health, including promoting feelings of depression.

Depression is prevalent enough as it is … when you figure in the exacerbation factor vis a vis sexual harassment when you consider that, according to University of Maine sociologist Amy Blackstone, 70% of women and 40% of men have experienced it.

2. Post-traumatic stress disorder

Many studies have found a link between experiences of sexual harassment and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes re-experiencing the trauma, and avoiding people or things that may remind the victim of the harassment.

In fact, women in the military who are sexually harassed are up to four times as likely to develop PTSD as women exposed to a traumatic event in combat, according to a 2009 study in the journal Law and Human Behavior. Those researchers found that experiences of sexual harassment were significantly correlated with PSTD symptoms in 450 women who were interviewed. The link held even after the researchers took into account previous psychological distress and trauma.

It seems logical that PTSD would be a direct effect, and when you consider the countless people that never come forward about being sexually harassed … well, I guess it answers some questions as to why some people have trouble holding onto a job.

3. Blood pressure

Sexual harassment boosts blood pressure, according to a 2008 study. The study included about 1,200 union workers from Boston who were surveyed about workplace abuse in the past year and given a health exam. About 23 percent of the workers reported at least one incident of sexual harassment.

The researchers found a significant correlation between sexual harassment and elevated blood pressure in women. Sexual harassment may trigger the same type of physiological reactions as stress, which is thought to raise the risk of cardiovascular disease.

This really gets to the heart of the matter, actually … like physical abuse or rape, there is an involuntary reaction to the degree of stress inherent in sexual harassment.  It’s no surprise, really, to learn that this could potentially wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system.

4. Sleep problems

Sexual harassment has been linked to sleep disturbances, said Debra Borys, a psychologist with a private practice in Westwood Village, Calif. This may be because the stress and anxiety of the event affects sleep habits. For instance, victims may lie awake at night ruminating about the event, or the event may be the source of nightmares, Borys said.

I know all too well about being so haunted that sleep is both an escape from reality and a scary place where horrible things recur over and over again.

And a lack of sleep causes a whole host of medical maladies in its own right.

5. Suicide

A 1997 study of more than 1,000 Canadian high school students suggested sexual harassment may lead to suicidal behaviors. The study found that 23 percent of students had experienced at least one incident of unwanted sexual touching, sexual threats or remarks, or indecent exposure in the past six months.

Of women who had experienced frequent, unwanted sexual touching, 15 percent said they had made suicidal attempts “often” in the past six months, compared with 2 percent of students that had not experienced sexual harassment.

I would like to think that people would be able to find someone to talk to should they feel that suicide is their only recourse, but the stigma of levying sexual harassment accusations keeps many from dealing with their problems.

It’s tragic, really.

6. Neck Pain

Sexual harassment leads to physical aches and pains, according to a Canadian study published this year that involved nearly 4,000 women. In the study, women with neck pain were 1.6 times more likely to report having experienced unwanted sexual attention.

If confirmed by future research, the findings suggest that interventions to prevent harassment in the workplace may decrease bone- and muscle-related problems for employees, the researchers said.

It kind of goes without saying that the tension that often leads to neck pain would be an obvious effect of sexual harassment.

The term “sexual harassment” is in reality a large umbrella covering “the type of ‘quid pro quo’ [Sharon] Bialek said she experienced” from Herman Cain to the more common “hostile work environment”, where a person feels “intimidated or uncomfortable, and can’t perform his or her job well”.

I mean, imagine this …

BOSS: So, did you meet the new employee we just hired?

FEMALE EMPLOYEE (DIVORCEE WHO SORT OF INFAMOUSLY PLAYS THE FIELD): Yup, I gave him some training stuff and my cell phone number in case he has any questions.

BOSS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t get too excited … he’s married.

That’s a true story.  It happened recently.

And every time that employee sees her boss, she thinks about what happened, how he felt that it was somehow okay to say that to her, how he made it very clear what he thinks of her.

Is that an egregious example of sexual harassment?  No, of course not.  Did it cause the woman in question to feel “intimidated”, “uncomfortable”, and less comfortable performing her job effectively?


Sexual harassment is wrong on every level; innocent misunderstandings can be smoothed over in some cases, but in general, working relationships are forever altered.  That’s bad enough.

The health consequences?  Bitter icing on a very ugly cake.

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  1. Pingback: A parliamentarian says “segregate” women | MindBlur

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