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Harm of non-physical sexual harassment shown in landmark study


Non-physical sexual harassment — such as derogatory sexual remarks, unwanted sexual attention and exposure to lewd jokes, obscene gestures and sexual images — causes psychological harm, according to a new landmark study.

Researchers in Norway questioned nearly 3,000 high school students on the impacts of peer sexual harassment. While boys and girls were equally exposed to non-physical sexual harassment — 62 per cent had reported it in the previous year — the mental health of girls was more negatively affected.

“Both girls and boys (experience) negative symptoms as a result of harassment,” said psychology professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who co-authored the report recently published in International Journal of Public Health.

“But girls react with more distress — symptoms of depression and anxiety — as a result of harassment, than boys do,” he said, speaking from Trondheim, Norway.

The study comes at a time when sexual harassment and sexual assault are dominating headlines, which were initially sparked by allegations of misconduct against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein but have since triggered accusations levelled against various public figures.

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Kennair wrote the study with his colleague, associate professor Mons Bendixen, and master’s student Josef Daveronis. They say it’s the first to specifically look at the effects of non-physical sexual harassment. Most research combines both physical and non-physical sexual harassment.

They present data from studies done in the Norwegian county Sor-Trondelag: one in 2007 included 1,384 students; and another in 2013-2014 included 1,485 students. Aged 16 to 21, they were asked about their experiences in the last year with different types of sexual harassment, and about their mental well-being. Students decided whether they perceived an action or remark as harassing, negative and unwanted and only reported what they deemed offensive. Derogatory comments included remarks that were objectifying, homophobic and intended to shame.

Researchers accounted for stressors that could have influenced youths’ responses, such as whether their parents had split up or were unemployed, if they were a sexual minority or an immigrant with uncertain legal status, and if they had been sexually coerced in that year or had ever been sexually assaulted.

Being female was the greatest risk factor for struggling with anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem. The second most important factor was non-physical sexual harassment by their peers. Researchers also found that students who were sexual minorities (non-heterosexual) reported more psychological distress.

Although the study is out of Norway, Kennair would not be surprised if youth in other countries, including Canada, experience similar feelings. He notes that even in Norway — “one of the most gender-egalitarian, sexually liberal, secularized in the world” — there’s high incidence of sexual harassment and says the negative psychological effects, as noted in the study, are evident.

Audrey Rastin, manager of prevention and public education of Boost Child and Youth Advocacy Centre in Toronto, says the study reinforces what she sees in her work with schools and youth.

“All types of harassment and abuse negatively impact kids’ well-being, including bullying and online victimization,” she said. “The most important message to youth is, ‘Talk to an adult you trust about what’s happened and keep telling until you get the help you need.’ ”

Rastin would like to see research done into why some youth are more resilient to harassment than others. For instance, she notes, kids who are not heterosexual have fewer places to seek support. And, she says, adults who work with kids need to be better trained to recognize harassment and respond to it.

Although the study’s authors say they don’t know of effective interventions to combat sexual harassment — they plan on researching this in future — Rastin suggests earlier education.

“We need to start having conversations, or programming, with children at young ages about things like respect, good communication and building healthy relationships.”

TORONTO STAR

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