Health Problems in Women Can Persist Years After Sexual Assault

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Women can experience lingering health problems years after workplace sexual harassment or sexual assault, a new study finds.

These health problems can include high blood pressure, poor-quality sleep, anxiety and symptoms of depression, the researchers found after doing medical exams of about 300 women.

The findings are timely given the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, in which a growing number of women are talking about their sexual harassment and assault experiences, according to a statement about the research, which was published online today (Oct. 3) in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine and will be presented at the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) annual meeting in San Diego on Friday (Oct. 5). [6 Ways Sexual Harassment Damages Women's Health]

"There is a clear correlation between the experience of sexual harassment or sexual assault for a woman and adverse effects on her life, be they physical or mental health consequences," said Dr. Maureen Sayres Van Niel, a women's psychiatrist practicing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and president of the American Psychiatric Association Women's Caucus, who wasn't involved with the study.

"There is no question that the elimination of sexual violence will improve the health and mental health of women," she said.

Lingering health problems

The new findings aren't completely out of the blue. Researchers have known for years that there is a link between women who experience sexual assault and harassment and later health problems. But much of the previous research relied on self-reported symptoms, meaning that the women might be missing health problems they didn't known about.

So, the research team decided to medically evaluate each woman in the new study. They ended up recruiting 304 women from the Pittsburgh area who were between the ages of 40 and 60 years old. None of the them were smokers — Smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, which has overlapping symptoms with many of the ones women were checked for in the study.

According to the results, 58 of the women (19 percent) had experienced workplace sexual harassment and 67 of them (22 percent) reported that they had experienced sexual assault. Thirty of the women (10 percent) reported that they had experienced both sexual harassment and assault.

Women who reported being sexually assaulted had nearly three-fold greater odds of having symptoms of depression and more than two-fold greater odds of higher anxiety and poor sleep on par with insomnia than women who didn't report experiencing sexual assault, the research showed. Meanwhile, women who said they were sexually harassed in the workplace had more than twice the odds of having high blood pressure and showed an 89 percent increase in the odds of having poor-quality sleep compared with women who didn't experience workplace sexual harassment.

The women who reported workplace sexual harassment were more likely to be college educated, but they also had greater financial strains than the rest of the group, the researchers found. It's unclear why this is, but it's possible that these highly educated women worked in male-dominated fields and may also be more knowledgeable about what constitutes sexual harassment, lead study author Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, and her colleagues wrote in the study.

However, the findings are correlational, so the researchers can't say for sure that sexual assault and harassment cause poor health. What's more, the study had a relatively small sample size, Van Niel told Live Science. [The Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos and Bizarre Facts]

Even so, the findings are a step forward for research on women's health, Van Niel said. She noted that the study adds to the idea that stressful events such as sexual harassment and assault may explain why women tend have twice the prevalence of anxiety and depression as men do.

Women who have experienced unwanted sexual attention should know that there are treatments available that can help them manage any physical and mental health problems that may have stemmed from such experiences, Van Niel said.

To get help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, which is available 24 hours a day and is completely confidential.

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.