A New Study Shows How Sexual Harassment Affects Boys And Girls In Completely Different Ways

by JR Thorpe
Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As sexual harassment allegations continue to be made public against powerful men in Hollywood and other industries, more and more people are acknowledging that humans of all genders are subject to sexual harassment of different kinds. A new study is adding a different perspective on how certain types of sexual harassment affect women and men at a particularly vulnerable time: adolescence. The research, published in the International Journal of Public Health, looked at data from nearly 3000 high school students in Norway, and found that non-physical sexual harassment affects boys and girls equally, but girls are much more likely to experience a psychological impact.

This isn't the conventional way in which we depict harassment narratives in the news, and it's an important development. As we've known, men are vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault just as women are, but the Norwegian study found that non-physical sexual abuse is a big part of the lives of adolescent boys. This is a key aspect of how we understand and recognize harassment in all its forms, as well as its origins. But the second aspect of the study, which found a link between being female and experiencing depression and low self-esteem as a result of non-physical sexual harassment, that is uncovering new information about this phenomenon.

The Reality Is That Boys Are Harassed Too

The Norwegian study was looking at a very specific kind of harassment: between peers and classmates who were the same age. And, it turns out, teen boys in the study encountered non-physical harassment among their peers just as much as girls. "Usually one does not split non-physical and physical harassment," the lead scientist, Professor Leif Ottensen Keinnair, tells Bustle via email. Non-physical harassment, in this case, meant derogatory comments or online behavior of a sexual nature; this could be the use of homophobic slurs, or sending sexual images without the receivers consent, or spreading non-consensual intimate images, according to the study.

The highlighting of non-physical harassment matters a lot, because people are much more likely to dismiss non-physical acts as less damaging or important than somebody using physical force. In reality, though, as this study shows, it can be seriously upsetting.

62 percent of both boys and girls reported to the researchers that they'd encountered "unpleasant or offensive non-physical sexual harassment" in the past year. (Girls were much more likely than boys to experience "unpleasant sexual gazes," but the researchers removed that question to see if it skewed the results, and revealed that in every other aspect of non-physical harassment, boys and girls were pretty equal.) But the gender parity here is both surprising and pretty depressing.

Girls, however, experienced more distress

The Norwegian study was looking at a range of different factors when it came to sexual harassment by classmates and peers, not just gender. They asked students whether their parents were divorced or unemployed, what their immigration status was, and how they identified in terms of sexuality, to see if this affected their experience of peer sexual harassment and how they reacted to it. But when the results came in, it was gender that seemed to be the most important factor.

When they asked students to rate their self-esteem, body image, depression and anxiety symptoms according to various tests, the researchers found that girls who'd endured non-physical sexual harassment were at very high risk of low scores across the board. Being an immigrant, having divorced parents, or being queer weren't as big a risk factor for serious psychological distress as simply being a girl. Boys who'd gone through the same treatment, by contrast, seemed to suffer a lot less. So what's going on?

"Part of the explanation for this gender difference may be linked to reactivity to stress such as coping styles and rumination," the researchers suggest in the paper. This refers to a popular idea that women deal with stressful events differently than men, by dwelling on negative things over and over in the brain. But that might not actually hold true; a 2013 study showed that women and men don't actually seem to have different levels of rumination.

They also point out that just because there's a link doesn't mean one necessarily causes the other. "It is possible that students who are more depressed, anxious or have low self-esteem are disproportionally targeted for sexual harassment," they explain. "Depression (and possibly anxiety or low self-esteem) may be perceived as a sign of vulnerability or exploitability in the eye of the harasser." So depressed and anxious girls may experience more non-physical harassment because they feel distressed, not the other way around.

"It is hard (or really impossible) to address the reasons for sex differences in responses," says Dr Kennair. "We can only conclude that when considering both genders, high school students report mental health symptoms due to non-physical harassment, although it would seem that girls react with more symptoms given the same increased report in sexual harassment. But obviously, we know the young women report more depressive symptoms overall."

There are limits to this study, most importantly that it only looked at teenagers from one country. Norway has been declared one of the most gender-equal countries worldwide, which shows how even in the very top ranks of gender equality, there's still a lot of insidious, unchecked harassing behavior. One of the big lessons to get out of this research, though? Leaving teens out of our understanding of harassment and its implications would be a massive mistake.