If the testimonies of the thousands of women who have spoken out about their experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment as part of the #MeToo movement have demonstrated anything, it's that sexual trauma has serious impacts on mental and physical health—for life. (See: How the #MeToo Movement Spread Awareness About Sexual Assault) New research finds even more data to prove it.
Last week (which, BTW, was the one-year anniversary of #MeToo), researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a study examining both the mental and physical health outcomes in women who reported experiences with sexual harassment or sexual assault and those who hadn't.
After surveying 304 women between the ages of 40 and 60 about their experience with sexual harassment or sexual assault, the researchers completed a health assessment measuring blood pressure, height, and weight as well as evaluating symptoms of depression, sleep quality, and physical activity levels. Finally, they noted any medications the participants were taking for blood pressure, anxiety, or depression.
Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, were major. Unsurprisingly, women who experienced sexual assault showed significantly greater odds of depressive symptoms, anxiety, and poor sleep. (The connection between sexual trauma and mental health is well documented—94 percent of women who are raped experience PTSD symptoms, 33 percent contemplate suicide, and 70 percent of assault survivors experience psychological distress. They are 10 times more likely to use major drugs including opioids, and anywhere from 67 to 84 percent experience professional and emotional issues, according to RAINN.)
But the researchers also found that women who reported experiencing sexual harassment were significantly more likely to experience physical problems. These women experienced physical symptoms years later including clinically poor sleep (which in addition to affecting your mood is also tied to a lot of physical impacts like weight gain) and hypertension after researchers had adjusted for other health factors. Quick refresher: Hypertension (high blood pressure) forces your heart to work harder to pump blood through the body, which can cause arteries to narrow and raise your risk of heart attack or stroke.
These findings aren't entirely surprising, according to Rebecca Thurston, Ph.D., director of the Women's Biobehavioral Health Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, and the lead author on the study. There's a huge body of research on how stress impacts your health (Thurston specializes in it) and considering "sexual assault and sexual harassment are pretty potent stressors for women," Thurston says, it makes sense that these experiences can negatively impact your mental and physical health.
In this way, the study makes a hugely important point: Sexual trauma is a public health issue, not just a societal issue.
The authors found 19 percent of women in the study reported a history of workplace sexual harassment and 22 percent reported a history of sexual assault—though these numbers are much lower than other estimates. One recent survey done by the BBC put the number of women who've experienced sexual harassment closer to 50 percent, while it's estimated that 44 percent of women have experienced sexual violence at some point.
"As a public, we need to understand that these experiences have lifetime implications for mental and physical health," says Thurston. Right now, "we don't think about sexual assault and harassment when we think about the important factors that influence women's health." In other words, if we want to improve women's health outcomes on a grand scale, we need to systemically address sexual trauma.
It's important to note that not everyone reacts to sexual trauma in the same way. "I've worked with sexual assault survivors and sexual trauma survivors in a variety of contexts, and what has really been striking is that the mental health impact of sexual trauma is varied—it really depends on social and cultural variables," says Anitha Iyer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York who specializes in sexual trauma. "The resources that you have and the lens through which you view the experience matter."
In other words, if you're one of the estimated 321,500 victims of sexual assault each year, your future health isn't set in stone. "The equation is complex," Iyer says. "The key is to take all reports of sexual trauma seriously and connect all survivors to the appropriate resources to work through their trauma."
To take the conversation one step further, Thurston says researchers next need to understand "the impact of women coming forward and reporting these experiences," as well as how sharing their stories and getting mental health support might mitigate the long-term health impacts.
If you'd like to talk about your own sexual trauma, you can confidentially speak with a trained counselor by calling RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).