Adolescents' Psychological Health and Experiences with Unwanted Sexual Behavior at School

By Timmerman, Greetje | Adolescence, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Adolescents' Psychological Health and Experiences with Unwanted Sexual Behavior at School


Timmerman, Greetje, Adolescence


Previous research suggests that sexual harassment at school can have significant negative effects on adolescents' well-being (Stein, Marshall, & Tropp, 1993; Larkin, 1994). In a study involving grades 7 to 12 in a stratified random sample of Alberta high schools, it was found that adolescents who experienced a high rate of sexual harassment or sexual assaults were significantly more likely to have emotional disorders (Bagley, Bolitho, & Bertrand, 1997). In addition, more adolescent girls who experienced frequent sexual harassment had made suicide attempts as compared to those with no experience of sexual harassment. Furthermore, the widely cited American Association of University Women (AAUW) study among U.S. students in public secondary schools reported various negative consequences of sexual harassment (AAUW, 1993, 2001; Lee, Croninger, Linn, &Chen, 1996). That study found that the more severe the harassment, the greater the likelihood that the students would experience academic or psychological problems or avoidance behavior. Girls reported more negative consequences as an outcome of sexual harassment than did boys. Recently, Murnen and Smolak (2000) also found a connection between sexual harassment and self-esteem among young girls. Results indicated that the number of sexual harassment experiences was negatively related to global, social, and body self-esteem. No such relationship was found among the boys.

Given the correlational design of the research, the results of these studies permit only limited conclusions about the causal relations between sexual harassment and students' health. It is possible that a negative state of health may result in some children and adolescents who were being sexually harassed by others on a relatively frequent scale. The assumption that frequent and severe sexual harassment can have a negative impact on adolescents' psychosocial health is supported in studies like the AAUW research. In this research students' health was measured by having them indicate (retrospectively) which academic and psycho-social problems they had experienced as a result of sexual harassment (AAUW, 1993, 2001). More recently, Paolucci and Violato (2001) conducted a meta-analysis of the research on the health effects of sexual child abuse. In this review, sexual abuse was defined as any unwanted sexual contact, including a broad range of victimization, such as the witnessing of a sexual act between others, being fondled, being spoken to in a sexual manner, and acts of sexual intercourse. Analysis of the thirty-seven studies published between 1981 and 1995 provided clear evidence confirming the link between sexual child abuse and subsequent negative short- and long-term effects on their development (e.g., poor academic performance, depression, suicide, posttraumatic stress disorder). Furthermore, some previous studies employing qualitative research designs strongly suggest that victimization does have adverse effects on students' health (Duncan, 1999; Larkin, 1994).

The negative impact of sexual harassment on adolescents' health is further suggested in the literature on sex differences and sexual harassment experiences. In a secondary analysis of the AAUW data of 1993, Hand and Sanchez (2000) found empirical evidence for the assumption that the sexual harassment of girls and boys are qualitatively different types of behavior. Girls are not only more frequently harassed, they also experience more severe forms of unwanted sexual behavior (more physical forms or a combination of different types). The literature suggests that both unwanted physical contact and a combination of experiences can be interpreted as constituting the more serious forms of unwanted sexual attention (Nelson & Oliver, 1998; Hoefnagels, 1998). It was also found that the behavior is more upsetting to girls than it is to boys and that girls feel embarrassed more often than do boys. Given these reported sex differences in type and severity of sexually harassing behavior, we can assume that girls experience more negative health problems as compared to boys. …

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