The Long-Term Effects of Sexual Harassment

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

Sexual harassment and outright sexual assault is still at crisis levels in America. Recent research indicates that more than one-third of adult women in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted, and anywhere from 40 to 75 percent have been sexually harassed in the workplace. These are horrifying statistics — these numbers, after all, refer to real women suffering real consequences. Probably the only optimistic note we can strike is to say that more and more people — men and women alike — are loudly stating that enough is enough.

A distraught woman

From a health perspective, there is another aspect to sexual harassment and assault that should get more attention. That is the long-term psychological and physical effects on women who have suffered harassment or assault. Writing for ABC News, Dr. Tambetta Ojong points out that, “Sexual harassment and assault are psychologically traumatizing, but a new study has linked these attacks with long-term physical health consequences as well. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that women who had experienced harassment or assault were about twice as likely to have elevated blood pressure and insomnia.”

Ojong then goes on to define the problem and offer some excellent advice, beginning with:

What is sexual harassment? This is kind of like the old comment about pornography: I can’t define it very well, but I know it when I see it. Intuitively, we identify sexual harassment by the nauseous feeling we get when we’re subjected to it. Ojong, though, offers a more clear-cut definition: “Uninvited, unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate.” That final clause if of paramount importance to anyone who works in a hierarchical structure. Bosses have simply for far too long taken and too often advantage of their position of authority to prey on others.

What is sexual assault? The law helps us out here with specificity, and Ojong sums it up nicely: “Illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person or in inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent.”

What are some of the mental health impacts? After-effects of sexual trauma vary widely. Some people consciously or unconsciously blame themselves, which can also subtly be encouraged by societal pressure. Hurt and disappointment are common, with resulting emotions ranging from anger to anxiety. To make matters even worse, some people then self-medicate and in extreme cases can attempt suicide. Sleeplessness is also a common problem.

What are some of the physical impacts? This is a classic example of how the mind and body powerfully interact. Psychological trauma can linger long after the physical trauma has passed. That may result in anything from headaches to high blood pressure to sexual dysfunction.

What are some of the long-term consequences of sexual trauma? Psychologists and counselors often uncover the long-term consequences in therapy. A relationship may be suffering and it may take a while to realize the root problem is sexual trauma suffered years earlier.

Can you talk to your doctor about trauma? Absolutely. Medical doctors are trained to in confidentiality and can refer you to the appropriate professional based on your situation. Trauma is a serious matter — take it seriously and please reach out for help if necessary.