After years of researching sexual assault, public health specialist Dr. Rebecca Thurston began to realize that sexual harassment is like a venom, slowly degrading its victims’ physical health.
For the first time, science indicates that sexual trauma is not just something that happens in the mind, but also has lasting consequences on the body. The harm gradually appears in victims’ cardiovascular systems — limiting blood flow by damaging blood vessels and the inner lining of their hearts.
However, injured hearts aren’t just a result of unwanted sexual contact. In Thurston’s latest study with the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, she looked at several traumatic experiences that might make sufferers sicker.
Besides sexual harassment, 272 women also reported events like car accidents, the death of a child, natural disasters or being beaten or mugged. Most women had experienced at least one of these traumas, with “unwanted sexual contact” the most common one.
Women who dealt with one (or more) of these ordeals showed it in their circulatory systems. Healthy blood vessels around the heart can expand and contract to allow the right amount of blood to flow through, but women who experienced trauma had less flexibility in their blood vessels. The more trauma they’d dealt with, the more their vessels became stiff.
Over the past several years, separate studies have found other physical complications occurring in sufferers of sexual harassment. Of course, there’s the immediate aftermath of physical injury, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted infections. But even years later, women face increased risk of heart disease, disturbed sleep, migraines, gastrointestinal problems, substance abuse and eating disorders.
There’s still no clear answers about why trauma victims would have poorer health, but Thurston and her team suspects disrupted sleep plays a big part.
It’s also highly likely that the continued stress of sexual assault takes a toll on well-being. People often think of sexual harassment as a one-time event, but much more often, it happens over an extended period of time.
That type of stress day after day does some ugly stuff to bodies, including inhibiting the immune system and inducing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, defective memory and depression.
The negative health effects of sexual assault go beyond the obvious. Emerging studies show how violating someone can seep into every element of their well-being, both psychological and physical.
Researchers hope to use the momentum of the #MeToo movement to begin to better understand sexual harassment by studying its roots, its perpetrators, its victims and its consequences. Only then can they hope to find an antidote to the slow-moving venom of sexual assault.