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New study explores the long-term health impact of sexual harassment and assault

Sexual harassment and assault are in the news a lot lately. That's in large part thanks to the #MeToo movement. But one thing we don't often hear about is how the experiences many women face may also affect their health.

A recent study looked at just that. It suggests that being sexually harassed or assaulted could influence a woman's mental and physical well-being for years to come.

Prevalent and painful

Researchers looked at data on 304 women ages 40 to 60. They found that 19 percent of them had been sexually harassed at work, 22 percent had been sexually assaulted, and 10 percent had experienced both. Nationwide, the rates are even worse: An estimated 40 percent to 75 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, and more than 1 in 3 have experienced sexual assault, according to previous research.

The authors of the current study also looked at health problems. Compared with those who had not been sexually harassed or assaulted:

  • Sexually harassed women were more likely to have high blood pressure and insomnia.
  • Women who'd been sexually assaulted were more likely to have symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. In fact, their risk of depression was nearly three times higher. Their risk of anxiety was nearly two times higher.

A curious finding

Women who'd been sexually harassed in the workplace were more likely to be college-educated. Yet, they tended to have more financial strain in their lives. Researchers put forth a few possible explanations. For instance, it could be that financially strained women lack the means to leave an abusive work setting.

As to why more highly educated women appeared to be harassed more often, the researchers also had theories. One is that these women tend to work in male-dominated fields. They also may be more likely to report sexual misconduct because they are more likely to recognize it. What's more, they may be seen as threatening to some men, and those men may try to assert power over these women through sexual harassment, the researchers suggested.

Talk to your doctor

It's a good idea to tell your doctor if you've ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, if you feel comfortable doing so. Your experiences can affect your health.

The Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence encourages anyone who needs help to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or TTY 1-800-787-3224 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE).

The study was presented at the North American Menopause Society's yearly meeting. The findings also appear in JAMA Internal Medicine, published Oct. 3, 2018.

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This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual's particular health plan.