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Why Sexual Harassment Victims Can't Just 'Get Over It'

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Since October, when dozens of women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, a torrent of stories about male sexual misconduct has roiled workplaces in entertainment, journalism, government and the restaurant industry. Even yoga teachers now face a day of reckoning.

Many women have talked about the negative impact these experiences have had on their lives, but the distress isn't just anecdotal. A growing body of research links workplace sexual harassment to negative psychological and physical effects, and these can have consequences years after the events occurred.

For Cindy Patterson, workplace sexual harassment isn't just something that happened to her 25 years ago; she says it's something that still has an impact on her life today.

'We Were Going to Break That Glass Ceiling'

In her mid-20s, Patterson landed her dream job at a financial institution in the southwest, setting her sights high.


“I was one of the only women, and we were going to break that glass ceiling," says Patterson.

She quickly rose through the ranks. But when a new vice president laid off many of the women and brought in his own team, Patterson says, things changed.

“Little comments like, 'Oh, I see you’ve got some assets there, Cindy,' " she recounts. "This one guy would just stare at my breasts, and it was just -- it's bullying."

Her male executive colleagues scheduled meetings at topless bars, where they'd slide their hands under her dress. And it wasn't just over cocktails -- it happened at work, too.

"If they wanted to shut me up, they’d touch me under the table," she says. "And it did shut me up. It would throw me off my game.”

The human resources department shrugged off her complaints. The daily incidents left her feeling “as if my skin was being ripped off." She lost sleep and developed stomachaches, migraines, acne and facial hair. She put on weight, then more weight. The stress, she says, contributed to an eventual divorce.

"And I haven't worked for something like that, where it's very competitive, again," she says.

The Body Reacts

Experts in sexual harassment say they frequently hear victims report similar health consequences to those that Cindy Patterson describes. Even seemingly innocuous or occasional harassment can lead to a myriad of health effects, such as anxiety, headaches, sleep disorders, weight loss or gain, nausea, lowered self-esteem and sexual dysfunction. Victims also tend to have higher rates of absenteeism and decreased job satisfaction.

There's evidence that sexual harassment early in one's career can lead to depression down the road. Some experts have argued that sexual harassment can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Uncontrollable and unpredictable stressful experiences have very negative effects on people’s brains and bodies," says Jim Hopper, who teaches in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School and is an expert on the neurobiology of trauma and sexual assault. “These are things that affect our identity, our sense of who we are.”

It's in Our DNA

Humans are wired to respond to threatening behavior, and even a lewd comment can kick our defense circuitry into gear, says David Spiegel, a psychiatrist and stress expert at Stanford University. The moment an ostensibly safe space like an office becomes sexualized, he says, it can set off an internal alarm.

He wasn't surprised that Patterson suffered extreme stress from comments and groping.

“From that moment, she's beginning to think that she's not just uncomfortable but potentially in danger," he says. "Even if the harassment is primarily psychological, it's suggesting unwelcome sexual activity, which arouses a physical response to a physical threat. That stirs up your fight-or-flight reaction."

As in any potentially dangerous situation, sexual harassment triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which quickens heart rate and raises blood pressure, muscle tension and blood glucose levels. The response is evolutionary: The extra energy fuels our ability to flee or do combat.

An occasional spike in stress hormones isn't harmful, Spiegel says, but if a victim starts living in a chronic state of high alert, it can be toxic to the nervous system.

"The office becomes a place you can't assume your safety and go about your work; instead you're also worrying about the potential for psychological or physical assault," Spiegel says. "This chronic activation of the nervous system can lead to a kind of burnout, where your body is overreacting much of the time, and it exhausts you."

Shutting Down

Patterson wasn't only living on high alert. When groped, she would freeze up. Spiegel calls this response speechless terror. He says the emotional center, the limbic system, kicks the analytical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, into overdrive.

"The emotional part of the brain is hijacking the rest of the brain for a while because you’re having such a strong reaction," he says.

In Patterson's case, she stopped talking at meetings altogether to avoid the possibility of getting silenced involuntarily.

Long-Term Consequences

"I used to think that although [it was] unpleasant, I was above it, stronger than the harassment," says Patterson. "But later I realized how it had impacted how I acted at work and the choices I made in my career and in my personal life."

Nearly 25 years later, Patterson believes she is still paying for what happened those two excruciating years. Since then, she has struggled with weight gain, and she was recently diagnosed with heart disease, which she believes may be related to the extreme stress she was under.

"It becomes this sort of non-reversing cycle of feeling worse about yourself, doing things that make you physically worse and restrict your other options in life," Spiegel says.

Patterson does, however, find all the current attention on sexual harassment to be healing. She hopes the glass ceiling -- the one she planned to break in the 80s -- may be shattered by the #MeToo voices that are finally getting their say.


If you’re experiencing sexual harassment or assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). The call is free and anything you share is confidential. A trained staff member will help you find local resources like counseling and support groups, and will answer questions about medical concerns. You can also get information about local harassment laws.

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