“Being exposed to non-physical sexual harassment can negatively affect symptoms of anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem,” say Associate Professor Mons Bendixen and Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.
This applies to derogatory sexual remarks about appearance, behaviour and sexual orientation, unwanted sexual attention, being subject to rumouring, and being shown sexually oriented images, and the like.
The researchers posed questions about sexual harassment experienced in the previous year and received responses from almost 3,000 high school students in two separate studies. The responses paint a clear picture.
Worst for girls
This is not exclusively something boys do against girls. It’s just as common for boys to harass boys in these ways.
Girls and boys are equally exposed to unpleasant or offensive non-physical sexual harassment. About 62 per cent of both sexes report that they have experienced this in the past year.
“Teens who are harassed the most also struggle more in general. But girls generally struggle considerably more than boys, no matter the degree to which they’re being harassed in this way,” Kennair notes.
“Girls are also more negatively affected by sexual harassment than boys are,” adds Bendixen.
Being a girl is unquestionably the most important risk factor when teens report that they struggle with anxiety, depression, negative body image or low self-esteem.
However, non-physical sexual harassment is the second most important factor, and is more strongly associated with adolescents’ psychological well-being than being subjected to sexual coercion in the past year or sexual assault prior to that.
Level of severity
Bendixen and Kennair believe it’s critical to distinguish between different forms of harassment.
They divided the types of harassment into two main groups: non-physical harassment and physically coercive sexual behaviour, such as unwanted kissing, groping, intimate touch, and intercourse. Physical sexual coercion is often characterized as sexual abuse in the literature.
Studies usually lump these two forms of unwanted behaviour together into the same measure. This means that a derogatory comment is included 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.
Comments that for some individuals may seem innocent enough can cause significant problems for others.
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