Sexual Assault and Harassment May Have Lasting Health Repercussions for Women
The trauma of sexual assault or harassment is not only hard to forget; it may also leave lasting effects on a woman's health. This finding of a recently published study adds support to a growing body of evidence suggesting the link.
In a US study of roughly 300 middle-aged women, an experience of sexual assault was associated with anxiety, depression and poor sleep. A history of workplace sexual harassment was also associated. The study data come from a survey of healthy women between ages 40 and 60 who had been recruited for a study on menopause and cardiovascular disease — not sexual harassment or assault. They all had their blood pressure checked at study visits, as well as height and weight.
Among other questions, the survey asked the women if they had ever experienced sexual harassment at work. Participants were also asked if they had ever "been made or pressured into having some type of unwanted sexual contact." The women were not asked when those events occurred. Twenty-two percent reported a history of sexual assault, and 19 percent said they'd experienced workplace sexual harassment.
Though the sample size was small, the results are statistically significant. Women who had experienced sexual assault had on average an almost threefold increased risk of developing depressive symptoms, compared to women who hadn't. They also had a greater incidence of clinically significant anxiety. About 1 in 4 women who had been sexually assaulted met criteria for depression, while approximately 1 in 10 who had not were depressed. Those who experienced sexual harassment at work had a twofold increased risk compared to women who hadn't of developing high blood pressure. Poor sleep was more common, too.
The findings dovetail with other research on the relationship between trauma and physical or mental health later in life. Intimate partner violence, for example, has been associated with the development of diabetes and high blood pressure.
Authors note that sexual assault and harassment seemed to be less common in this group of women than in national estimates. The prevalence in their cohort was significantly lower than a 2014 estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that 19 percent of American women had been raped, and almost 44 percent had experienced another form of sexual violence. It is thought that this is because the study excluded a fair number of women for reasons related to its original intent of researching menopause and cardiovascular disease. Women taking medications for depression were not included, for example, as well as those with serious medical problems.
While researchers weren't surprised that sexual assault and harassment seemed to be related to the development of mood disorders and poor sleep, they were impressed by the strength of the association. Based on the growing evidence, the researchers argued that sexual assault and harassment are urgent public health priorities.