Sexual Harassment Can Affect Your Physical and Mental Health

By Amanda MacMillan

When a sexual assault occurs—in the case of a rape, for example—it’s clear that the experience can affect the victim’s health, both immediately and in the long-term. But even instances of non-physical sexual harassment can have lasting effects on the people who are exposed to it, both emotionally and physically.

As recent news reflects, behaviors like unwanted sexual contact, coercion, lewd comments, and unprompted advances are common—in the workplace, in social situations, and even within trusted institutions like schools, sports teams, and churches. Here are some of the major ways harassment can take a toll on survivors’ health and well-being, and what they (and their loved ones) can do to heal.

Depression And Anxiety

depression 2

Anyone who’s ever experienced unwanted sexual advances or commentary knows that those words or actions can really stick with them—and if they happen repeatedly, they can have long-term effects on a person’s mood and mental health.

Research shows this may be especially true when the perpetrator is someone the person works with: A 7,000-person Danish study found that employees who are sexually harassed by supervisors, colleagues, or subordinates may develop more severe symptoms of depression than those who are harassed by clients or customers.

“People may feel ashamed or dirty or scared, they may pull back from society and from friends and family,” says Charles Sophy, DO, a Los-Angeles based psychiatrist and medical director for the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services. “Any underlying depression or anxiety can also get worse, and in the worst-case scenario it can result in injury to self.”

Poor Self-Esteem And Body Image

Sexual harassment can also lower people’s self-esteem and body image—even if the comments or behaviors they’re exposed to are complimentary on the surface. “It’s all about power,” says Dr. Sophy. “Sexual harassers like to exert power over the victim, whether it’s a boss, a mentor, or someone with more money or higher stature.”

women Body

Unwanted sexual attention can also make existing body-image and self-esteem issues worse, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Public Health. The attention doesn’t have to be overly aggressive or offensive, either. “Even if it’s advances or comments that don’t actually come to fruition, sometimes that’s even worse,” says Dr. Sophy. “When harassment is subtle or non-concrete, other people might not take it seriously, and it can make the victim question whether it’s really happening.”

Avoidance Of places Or Activities

Harassment can take the pleasure out of experiences survivors would otherwise enjoy and can cause them to withdraw from activities or stop going places they once loved. For example, in an Ohio State study of nearly 300 women who played online video games, women were more bothered—and were more likely to stop playing—when they experienced sexual harassment, versus general “trash talking” of a non-sexual manner.


“People can change their habits and totally alter their daily routines just to get away from this type of harassment,” says Christine Courtois, PhD, a trauma psychologist in Washington, DC. “Other times, they withdraw from everything and everyone—especially if their friends and family aren’t supportive and they don’t feel like they can talk about their problem.”

Disordered Eating Or Loss Of Appetite

Problems with body image and self-esteem are often accompanied by disordered eating, says Courtois, and these can all be consequences of chronic sexual harassment. In addition, high levels of stress can lead to loss of appetite, which could then lead to weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, and related health risks.

Eating healthy

Women may be the most stereotypical victims of these behaviors, but at least one study has also found a link between disordered eating and sexual harassment among men. In the 2013 Michigan State research, women reported more sexual harassment and greater overall concern about their weight and shape. But men who experienced high levels of sexual harassment were more likely than women to “purge” (vomit after eating) and take laxatives or diuretics in an attempt to control their weight.

Out-Of-Control Stress Hormones

The brain perceives sexual harassment as a threat, says Courtois, which triggers the body’s flight-or-fight response. When this happens, levels of the stress hormone cortisol skyrocket, which can leave a person feeling anxious, on edge, and defensive.

Stressed out woman

This can happen anytime a person perceives chronic stress or harassment, or feels unsafe for any reason. A 2015 Indiana University study, for example, found that women who work in predominantly male workforces show signs of cortisol dysregulation, likely because of the unique challenges (including sexual harassment and low levels of support) they tend to face.

Elevated cortisol levels can be protective in the short-term, but when stress becomes chronic, it can begin to affect a person’s physical health: Inflammation levels rise throughout the body, which can lower immunity and raise the risk for serious conditions like heart disease and cancer.



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