Sexual Harassment And Assault Have Lifelong Health Consequences For Women

New evidence shows that sexual trauma hurts not just psychological health, but physical health too.
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The Brett Kavanaugh vote is barreling forward, but regardless of its outcome, Christine Blasey Ford and survivors like her will be left with the legacy of what they experienced. Ford testified that Kavanaugh assaulted her, which she said contributed to lifelong anxiety, phobia and PTSD-like symptoms. Many survivors of sexual violence report lasting depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But new research published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine draws a clear link not only between sexual trauma and lasting psychological issues, but also physical effects that contribute to disease and even death.

What’s more, sexual harassment — which previous estimates say anywhere between 25 and 85 percent of women experience in their lifetimes — also contributes to these poor health outcomes.

The study, conducted by a research team from the University of Pittsburgh, looked at health outcomes for just over 300 nonsmoking women aged 40 to 60 years old. It found that those who reported a history of sexual assault were more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and poor sleep.

And a history of sexual harassment was tied to higher blood pressure, poor sleep and higher triglycerides — which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The study’s researchers did not intentionally time the release of their findings to Ford’s testimony or the growing Me Too movement. In fact, their initial aim was simply to study the impact of hormonal changes in menopause on heart health.

But they were struck by the high levels of harassment and assault reported by the study participants, who answered broad questions about their life experiences and health. Using a common questionnaire, researchers asked women if they’d ever experienced or been pressured into unwanted sexual contact.

Nineteen percent of the women said they’d experienced sexual harassment at work, 22 percent said they’d been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, and an additional 10 percent experienced both.

“These experiences are really common,” study researcher Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry, psychology, and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, told HuffPost.

“And [they] do have profound implications for women’s lives,” she continued. “Not just on their overall functioning at work or school, but also their mental and physical health.”

Though the study does not attempt to establish cause and effect, Thurston said there are several ways in which sexual harassment and assault might influence long-term health.

Research has long shown, for example, that trauma can negatively influence people’s health behaviors. So people who are victims of sexual violence may be more likely to do things like smoke and drink, which in turn hurts overall health.

But the stress that accompanies assault and harassment might have a direct physiological effect as well.

“Stress, particularly if it’s chronic, is linked to elevated stress hormones, which can impact the genome,” Thurston said. Indeed, in the past decade researchers have begun unpack the ways in which stress hormones can alter gene activity and ultimately influence the body’s ability to regulate itself.

The researchers did not gather data on when in their lives the women said they experienced sexual assault or harassment. However, research shows these kinds of events often occur in late adolescence or young adulthood. Because the women in the study were between the ages of 40 and 60, the findings suggest these health effects last for decades.

Thurston said she does hope her work, combined with this political moment that is focused on the stories of survivors, will help shine a light on how much more research is needed to understand how prevalent sexual trauma is and the extent to which it can shape a person’s well-being. (She noted that the same might be true in men, she just happens to research women’s health specifically.)

“We’re kind of playing a game of catch-up here in understanding how prevalent these toxic stress exposures are, as well as how they impact women’s health,” she said.

Her team’s work was presented at the the North American Menopause Society’s annual meeting this week.

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