“There is a clear correlation between the experience of sexual harassment or sexual assault for a woman and adverse effects on her life, be they physical or mental health consequences,” said Maureen Sayres Van Niel, a women’s psychiatrist practicing in Cambridge, Mass., and president of the American Psychiatric Association Women’s Caucus. She was not involved with the study.
The findings aren’t out of the blue. Researchers have known for years that there is a link between women who experience sexual assault and harassment and later health problems. But much of the previous research relied on self-reported symptoms, meaning that the women might be missing health problems they didn’t known about.
So the research team decided to medically evaluate each woman in the study. They ended up recruiting 304 women from the Pittsburgh area who were between the ages of 40 and 60. None of the them were smokers — smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, which has overlapping symptoms with many of the ones women were checked for in the study.
According to the results, 58 of the women (19 percent) had experienced workplace sexual harassment and 67 of them (22 percent) reported that they had experienced sexual assault. Thirty of the women (10 percent) reported that they had experienced both sexual harassment and assault.
Women who reported being sexually assaulted had nearly threefold greater odds of having symptoms of depression and more than twofold greater odds of higher anxiety and poor sleep on par with insomnia than women who didn’t report experiencing sexual assault, the research showed.
Meanwhile, women who said they were sexually harassed in the workplace had more than twice the odds of having high blood pressure and showed an 89 percent increase in the odds of having poor-quality sleep compared with women who didn’t experience workplace sexual harassment.
The women who reported workplace sexual harassment were more likely to be college educated, but they also had greater financial strains than the rest of the group, the researchers found. It’s unclear why this is, but it’s possible that these highly educated women worked in male-dominated fields and may also be more knowledgeable about what constitutes sexual harassment, lead study author Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry, clinical and translational science, epidemiology and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and her colleagues wrote in the study.
But the findings are correlational, so the researchers cannot say for sure that sexual assault and harassment cause poor health. What’s more, the study had a relatively small sample size, Van Niel told Live Science.
Even so, the findings are a step forward for research on women’s health, Van Niel said. She noted that the study adds to the idea that stressful events such as sexual harassment and assault may explain why women tend to have twice the prevalence of anxiety and depression as men do.