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teens and sexual harassment

The Effects of Sexual Harassment on Teens

It’s been a few weeks since #metoo started flying around, and if anything became apparent in that wave of outrage, it is that sexual harassment and assault isn’t limited to adults. Unfortunately, plenty of women’s stories date to the time they were minors, and while the women who have lived these indignities can attest to the impact of them, there’s finally now some research to back up what they’ve been saying all along: The effects of sexual harassment are damaging to well-being, particularly for teens.

“Being exposed to non-physical sexual harassment can negatively affect symptoms of anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem,” said Mons Bendixen and Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, psychology professors at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and co-authors of the study, which explored the psychological effects of sexual harassment. The study was published in the International Journal of Public Health.

The researchers defined non-physical sexual harassment as being subjected to derogatory sexual remarks about appearance, behavior or sexual orientation; unwanted sexual attention; rumor-spreading; unwanted sexually themed images; and similar behaviors. The study questioned nearly 3,000 high school students about their experiences of the above behaviors, as well as their experiences of physically coercive sexual behavior, such as unwanted kissing, groping, intimate touch, and intercourse, all of which is typically considered sexual abuse. Previous studies have lumped together these two forms of unwanted behavior together, including an offensive comment in the same category as rape.

“As far as we know, this is the first study that has distinguished between these two forms and specifically looked at the effects of non-physical sexual harassment,” says Bendixen.

To take into account the role context plays in interpretation of harassment (i.e. not everyone perceives being called “whore” or “gay,” offensive, or might consider it offensive coming from certain people but not others) the researchers let the adolescents decide whether they perceived a given action as offensive or not, and had them only report what they did find offensive.

Perhaps surprisingly, they found that girls and boys are equally exposed to unpleasant or offensive non-physical sexual harassment in Norway; about 62% of both sexes reported they had experienced sexual harassment in the past year. (One imagines that, in countries not as famed for their gender egalitarianism and general progressivism, the percentage would be much higher.) Across the board, the researchers found non-physical sexual harassment had a clear negative effect on teens’ psychological well-being, as measured by indicators of anxiety, depression, negative body image or low self-esteem.

“Teens who are harassed the most also struggle more in general,” Kennair said.

The only factor that had a greater effect than non-physical sexual harassment on teens? Gender. Teen girls, in general, struggle most with anxiety, depression, healthy body image and self-esteem, which can compound the effects of sexual harassment.

“Girls are also more negatively affected by sexual harassment than boys are,” Bendixen added.

The researchers also took into account a number of other potentially influential factors, such as having parents who had separated or were unemployed, educational programme (vocational or general studies), sexual minority status, immigrant status, and whether they had experienced physical coercion in the past year or any sexual assaults previous to that.

“We’ve found that sexual minorities generally reported more psychological distress,” said Bendixen, adding that sexual minorities did not seem to be more negatively affected by sexual harassment than their heterosexual peers.

What the researchers didn’t find was a solution.

“This has been studied for years and in numerous countries, but no studies have yet revealed any lasting effects of measures aimed at combating sexual harassment,” Bendixen said. “We know that attitude campaigns can change people’s attitudes to harassment, but it doesn’t result in any reduction in harassment behavior.”

Bendixen and Kennair hope to look into effective practices for decreasing harassment in their next study. Until then, parents will just have to keep being the change they want to see in the world, modeling gender-equal and sex-positive attitudes, and empowering kids to speak up about any harassment they may encounter, so they can get help.

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