Sexual Harassment & Assault

The widespread prevalence and impact of sexual harassment and assault have recently been brought to the fore, as a result of the #MeToo movement. People of any age, sex, gender identification, or culture can, unfortunately, be subjected to sexual harassment or assault.

Broadly speaking, sexual harassment refers to any kind of unwanted sexual advance, request, or behavior. Definitions of sexual harassment often include sexual assault - which is any kind of unwanted sexual activity. Definitions of these terms vary widely; the legal definitions, in particular, vary from country to country.

Sexual harassment or assault can be a degrading and humiliating experience, and it’s common to experience shock, fear, or anxiety in the time following. Survivors of sexual assault are also vulnerable to experiencing mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as anxiety, depression, addictions, or eating disorders.

For individuals who experience psychological symptoms, it’s essential to be aware that it bears no reflection on any personal weakness. It’s really important to seek help, and effective treatments are available to help people heal.

Types of sexual harassment and assault

According to the Department of Justice, types of sexual assault may include the following nonconsensual contact and non-contact acts (1):

In addition, sexual harassment includes unwanted verbal or nonverbal sexual behaviors, such as:

Prevalence of sexual harassment and assault

As it tends to be underreported, it’s difficult to build an accurate picture of just how prevalent sexual harassment, assault, and any associated mental health problems actually are.

However, sexual harassment appears to be a widespread problem. For example, a study in the European Union found that over half (55%) of female survey respondents had experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15, with inappropriate staring (30%) and unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing (29%) being the most frequent types of harassment (2).

In the U.S., The National Crime Victimization Survey suggests that 9.2 out of every 1000 Americans experienced incidents of rape and sexual assault in 2017 alone (1). Furthermore, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have experienced rape at some point in their lives, and around 22% of women and 5% of men who had reported experiencing symptoms of PTSD, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (3).

Consequences of sexual harassment and assault

People react in complex and often very different ways over the short and long term. Reactions can be influenced by individual factors, the nature of the experience, and the support resources available.

Those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault may:

In the weeks following sexual harassment or assault, some people experience symptoms of trauma, such as:

As with any type of trauma, those who have experienced sexual assault may be at increased risk of mental health conditions. As such, if any of the above symptoms impact your functioning at work, cause strain in your relationships, or last more than a few weeks, they may be a sign of one of the mental health conditions below, and it’s important to seek treatment.

Ways to heal from sexual harassment and assault

If you’re feeling distressed or experiencing mental health challenges in relation to sexual harassment or assault, also consider one or more of the following options:

For many people, the experience of sexual harassment or assault is traumatic. The American Psychological Association suggests that there are several things you can do to help improve your wellbeing following a traumatic event, including (8):

Therapy types to consider

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to therapy, and this is especially true for sexual assault and harassment. This is because people can have very different psychological responses to such experiences, which influences the type of treatment and therapy that is most appropriate. Common types of therapy to consider include:

It’s important to consider different therapy types and how they resonate with you before choosing. If you’re unsure, your prospective therapist is a great person to seek advice from.

What to look for in a therapist

There are several factors to keep in mind when selecting a mental health professional, including:

Specialization: Look for a therapist who has specialized training in trauma or sexual trauma, as well as the particular therapy type that resonates with you. Therapists often include this kind of information in their onlne biographies so that it’s easy for you to find.

Qualifications: With so many different provider types available, it can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see. The most important thing is to look for a currently licensed therapist. That said, if you think medication might be needed, make sure you see a psychiatrist. This particular type of mental health professional is able to prescribe.

Personal fit: The trusting relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. This is especially true of treatment for experiences related to sexual harassment or assault, given much of the work relies on you feeling comfortable sharing difficult memories with your therapist. The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also enables you to ask about their experience, which therapy type they suggest, and what therapy with them will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding on a provider.

Sources and references