The accusations of sexual harassment leveled against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain by Sharon Bialek and others have drawn attention to a common, yet sometimes under-recognized, workplace hazard.
As many as 70 percent of women and 45 percent of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, said Amy Blackstone, a sociologist at the University of Maine. The most common scenario involves a harasser creating a "hostile work environment" — in which a harassed person feels intimidated or uncomfortable, and can't perform his or her job well — but harassment can also involve the type of "quid pro quo" Bialek said she experienced.
Victims of sexual harassment can experience strained relationships in the workplace, but are also at risk for numerous health problems. Here are six health effects of sexual harassment:
Victims of sexual harassment can experience long-term depression, according to Blackstone. In a recent study of 1,000 youths, Blackstone found that people sexually harassed in their teens and early 20s can experience depressive symptoms into their 30s.
Many people who experience sexual harassment have feelings of self-doubt, Blackstone said. "For some people, that self-doubt turned into self-blame," she said, and victims can feel responsible for what happened. Such self-blame may have a negative effect on mental health, including promoting feelings of depression.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Many studies have found a link between experiences of sexual harassment and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes re-experiencing the trauma, and avoiding people or things that may remind the victim of the harassment.
In fact, women in the military who are sexually harassed are up to four times as likely to develop PTSD as women exposed to a traumatic event in combat, according to a 2009 study in the journal Law and Human Behavior. Those researchers found that experiences of sexual harassment were significantly correlated with PSTD symptoms in 450 women who were interviewed. The link held even after the researchers took into account previous psychological distress and trauma.
Sexual harassment boosts blood pressure, according to a 2008 study. The study included about 1,200 union workers from Boston who were surveyed about workplace abuse in the past year and given a health exam. About 23 percent of the workers reported at least one incident of sexual harassment.
The researchers found a significant correlation between sexual harassment and elevated blood pressure in women. Sexual harassment may trigger the same type of physiological reactions as stress, which is thought to raise the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Sexual harassment has been linked to sleep disturbances, said Debra Borys, a psychologist with a private practice in Westwood Village, Calif. This may be because the stress and anxiety of the event affects sleep habits. For instance, victims may lie awake at night ruminating about the event, or the event may be the source of nightmares, Borys said.
A 1997 study of more than 1,000 Canadian high school students suggested sexual harassment may lead to suicidal behaviors. The study found that 23 percent of students had experienced at least one incident of unwanted sexual touching, sexual threats or remarks, or indecent exposure in the past six months.
Of women who had experienced frequent, unwanted sexual touching, 15 percent said they had made suicidal attempts "often" in the past six months, compared with 2 percent of students that had not experienced sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment leads to physical aches and pains, according to a Canadian study published this year that involved nearly 4,000 women. In the study, women with neck pain were 1.6 times more likely to report having experienced unwanted sexual attention.
If confirmed by future research, the findings suggest that interventions to prevent harassment in the workplace may decrease bone- and muscle-related problems for employees, the researchers said.
Pass it on: Sexual harassment victims may experience numerous health problems.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.