science of us

Well-Timed Study Shows the Lasting Consequences of Sexual Assault

Photo: Michael Reynolds/Getty Images

This week, a study affirming the lasting impact of sexual assault and harassment on middle-aged women’s mental and physical health was published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Its timing is remarkable, published amid an ongoing national conversation and controversy surrounding the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings — specifically, allegations that he assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, now 53, when both were in high school.

For their study, researchers surveyed 304 women (all nonsmokers) between the ages of 40 and 60, 19 percent of whom reported a history of workplace sexual harassment, and 22 percent of whom reported a history of sexual assault. (Notably, both figures are significantly lower than national estimates, which hold that 40–75 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, while 36 percent have experienced sexual assault.) While previous research has established a link between sexual harassment and/or assault with poor health outcomes in women, many of those studies relied on self-report of the individual’s health, among other limitations. For this study, though, researchers assessed participants’ health themselves (by measuring their blood pressure, discussing medications and medical history, etc.), allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of these events’ specific impact.

The study’s authors found that both workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault had lasting, negative effects on women’s health. Women who reported having experienced workplace sexual harassment had significantly higher blood pressure and significantly lower sleep quality than women who didn’t. The former group was also more likely to suffer from hypertension. Women who reported having experienced sexual assault were more likely to suffer from depression and/or anxiety than those who didn’t, and were also determined to have poorer sleep quality.

Beyond the fact that their reporting rates are considerably lower than national estimates, the authors note that their experimental group is the best-case scenario in other ways, too: by choosing nonsmokers, for instance, they eliminated a factor likely to amplify those negative health effects. And by surveying participants who volunteered to share their difficult experiences, they were perhaps limited to only the best-adjusted, best-supported survivors. If a highly educated, married, and upper-middle-class woman like Dr. Ford experiences trauma symptoms decades after the assault, one can only imagine how those effects, mental and physical, might be compounded in women with fewer resources at their disposal.

Well-Timed Study Shows the Lasting Impact of Sexual Assault