TRONDHEIM, Norway — You don’t have to be inappropriately touched by someone to feel the harmful effects of sexual harassment. A new study finds that all forms of sexual harassment, physical or not, have the ability to cause long-term damage to an individual.
Behavior that could be classified as sexual harassment takes many forms, but researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology determined one kind isn’t necessarily worse than another.
“Being exposed to non-physical sexual harassment can negatively affect symptoms of anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem,” say co-authors Mons Bendixen and Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, both of the university’s department of psychology, in a statement.
“This has been studied for years and in numerous countries, but no studies have yet revealed any lasting effects of measures aimed at combating sexual harassment,” adds Bendixen. “We know that attitude campaigns can change people’s attitudes to harassment, but it doesn’t result in any reduction in harassment behavior.”
These kinds of behaviors include derogatory sexual remarks regarding appearance, sexual orientation, and behavior, as well as unwanted sexual attention, excessive gossip, and being sexually explicit images.
The researchers wanted focus on teens to see how their psychological development was affected by sexual harassment. They collected over 3,000 responses to a questionnaire focusing on sexual harassment experienced the school year previous in two separate studies.
The results were unexpected. Girls and boys appeared to have experienced sexual harassment in equal proportions. Roughly 62% of girls and boys reported sexual harassment during the previous school year. The researchers also found that girls, when harassed, appear to be “more negatively affected by sexual harassment than boys,” according to Bendexin. “Teens who are harassed the most also struggle more in general. But girls generally struggle considerably more than boys, no matter the degree to which they’re being harassed in this way.”
The authors split harassment cases up in two groups, classifying them as either “non-physical harassment” or “coercive sexual behavior.” Previous research typically put these two categories together, allowing behavior like derogatory comments to be included in the same category as rape.
“As far as we know, this is the first study that has distinguished between these two forms and specifically looked at the effects of non-physical sexual harassment,” says Bendixen.
The authors also let the participants themselves decide whether certain actions were deemed offensive in their eyes. That’s because some behavior, like calling someone “gay” or “whore” may not be viewed as malicious or bothersome by some people.
Participants backgrounds were taken into account, including things like their parents’ marital and work statuses, educational history, immigrant status, and prior reports of sex abuse.
“We’ve found that sexual minorities generally reported more psychological distress,” says Bendixen, adding that teens whose parents were unemployed also experienced similar results.
Immigrants did not report more psychological issues than other participants.
“This has been studied for years and in numerous countries, but no studies have yet revealed any lasting effects of measures aimed at combating sexual harassment,” Bendixen says. “We know that attitude campaigns can change people’s attitudes to harassment, but it doesn’t result in any reduction in harassment behaviour.”
The authors plan on reviewing methods to decrease sexual harassment in future research and in effect, help adolescents avoid negative psychological outcomes.
The full study was published in the January 2018 edition of the International Journal of Public Health.