In October 2018, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)’s Internal Medicine regarding the physical health of women who had experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment. The findings might surprise you, or sadly, they might not.
The Pittsburgh/Harvard study surveyed 304 women between the ages of 40 and 60 about their experiences with sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. They also collected information about their current state of health, and evaluated them in regard to symptoms of depression, sleep quality, blood pressure, weight, and their physical activity. They also noted if the women were on any medications for blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.
Nineteen percent of the women in the study reported being sexually harassed at some point in their lives, and 22% reported sexual assault. The women who had been sexually assaulted did have higher instances of depression, anxiety and poor sleep, which isn’t shocking in itself, since mental health issues, including PTSD, are extremely common in assault survivors, as are drug and alcohol abuse and depression. The surprising aspect of the research surfaced when it became clear that the women who reported workplace sexual harassment had higher instances of hypertension (high blood pressure, which can increase your risk of a heart attack) and poor sleep than women without these experiences.
What does it mean?
If you have experienced sexual harassment at work, you might not have any trouble believing that hypertension could be a long term side effect. You may spend a lot of time being super stressed out wondering if it’s going to happen again and what it will look like if it does. You may wonder: ‘Do I report it? Will anyone believe me? Will the person harassing me lose his/her job? Will I lose my job? You probably aren’t sleeping, at least not very well.
Much of this can also be true for sexual assault survivors. In addition to the (extremely rational) fear that no one will believe you, statistically, the person who assaulted you is likely someone you know, someone you might see every day. This psychological stress can and often does manifest in anxiety, chronic fatigue, suicide attempts, changes to the menstrual cycle, and more. (A reminder here that not everyone responds to trauma in the same way, nor should she be expected to.)
In other words, women who have experienced sexual assault and/or harassment know that there are physical side effects that come with it, because they live it every day. There’s no shortage of scientific research supporting the theory that stress is bad for you, and so it shouldn’t be shocking to anyone that events like sexual harassment and assault, which provoke stress, would impact one’s health negatively. The results of this study demand that sexual harassment and violence be taken seriously as women’s health issues, and that survivors be believed and supported.
If you are sexually assaulted
If you are ever sexually assaulted, it’s important to tell a trusted loved one as soon as possible (immediately after the event, if you can) so you can be taken to the hospital and contact the proper legal authorities. Hospitals now have protocols to help check you if something like this happens, including offering you medication that may reduce or eliminate the likelihood of contracting STIs like HIV. It may sound overwhelming, but you’ll also want to consider calling the police (who can meet you at the hospital) to file a statement. Even if you decide to not move forward with any charges, having the statement gives you the choice later to do so with strong written documentation.
If you are a survivor
Even though it probably feels like it, you are not alone. The Joyful Heart Foundation’s website is a great place to find resources in the form of counselors, health centers, hotlines, and local legal services. There’s also the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), where you can get free and confidential support from staff, as well as referrals.