Epidemiologist Rebecca Thurston has spent years studying women who have suffered sexual abuse and harassment. She finds that over time, sexual harassment works like a poison, stiffening women’s blood vessels, worsening blood flow and harming the inner lining of their hearts. More than a dozen other studies show that sexual harassment causes physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems and disrupted sleep. Sexual harassment lasts for longer than six months in more than a quarter of cases, according to surveys of harassment in the military, which are required by law and therefore among the most comprehensive. During that period, a woman’s body reacts strongly: the immune system suffers, inflammation increases, and the body begins secreting higher levels of cortisol, which contributes to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, impaired memory function and depression. The negative effects can linger for years.
One of the most comprehensive studies tracked 1,654 employees at an unnamed Midwestern university over the course of six years. The 2005 study, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, found that those who experienced sexual harassment were more prone to sickness, illness and accident, and not just around the time they experienced the harassment. When researchers surveyed the group again years later, the harassment continued to have an enduring effect on their rates of illness, injury and accident.
The mental strain of harassment also often leads to depression, anxiety and other disorders. In recent years, studies have shown sexual harassment makes women more likely to drink as a way of coping. Harassed women are also more likely to develop eating disorders. Researchers have shown the harmful effects even trickle down to co-workers who witness or hear of the harassment, a phenomenon analogous to secondhand smoke.
Among the most debilitating effects is post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2015 study found that 20 percent of female veterans of the Vietnam War suffered from PTSD – not because of the war itself but largely due to sexual harassment they suffered from their male counterparts.