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Sexual Harassment and Assault Are Understudied Health Risks

They're linked to high blood pressure, insomnia, and depression.
Woman and man in a workplace.

When public-health researchers look at people—for studies, at least; not sure what they're like at dinner parties—they think in terms of "exposures." Exposures are factors in the environment that have the potential to affect people's health. Exposures can include everything from air pollution in people's neighborhoods, to how much radiation folks encounter at home and work, to the racism people face (which has been shown to hurt their health). One "exposure" that's gotten a lot of attention lately, but which hasn't been very much studied as a public-health risk, is sexual harassment and assault.

"There's been such a dearth of research in this area," says Nancy Krieger, an epidemiologist at Harvard University who studies health inequalities. That lack is especially notable because so many Americans—women especially—face sexual harassment. In a new study of more than 300 healthy, middle-aged women in Pittsburgh, about one in five reported having been sexually harassed at work. About the same number said they had been sexually assaulted before. "That's not a trivial exposure," Krieger says.

The new study is one of the few to link having been exposed to sexual harassment and assault and health outcomes. Women in the study who said they had faced workplace sexual harassment were more likely to have high blood pressure. Women who said they had dealt with sexual assault—defined as unwanted contact involving either person's private body parts—were more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety. Both were more likely to have insomnia.

The study didn't go into too much detail. Study volunteers were just asked to answer "yes" or "no" to whether they had experienced harassment or assault before. In a field where such measures are lacking, however, the study was an important start. "Given the high prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, addressing these prevalent and potent social exposures may be critical to promoting health and preventing disease in women," the study's authors, a team of psychiatrists and social scientists from the United States and Switzerland, wrote in their paper, published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The results fit in with a larger body of literature that suggests being sexually harassed and assaulted probably does hurt people's health, even if scientists haven't figured it out in-depth yet, according to Krieger, who was not involved in the study. Lots of studies have found that racial discrimination is associated with depression, low self-esteem, high blood pressure, obesity, and heart conditions, which suggests negative social interactions make a physical difference. Krieger herself worked on a study, published 10 years ago, that found that female members of certain unions in Boston—working in jobs like manufacturing, meat processing, and school-bus driving—were more likely to have high blood pressure if they had been sexually harassed at work.

Better research could help inform how doctors should take care of patients who have been harassed or assaulted before, Krieger says. But even now, with the research that already exists, there's an important takeaway: Among all its negative effects, sexual harassment is also a health risk—and, in theory, a preventable one.