The #MeToo movement has brought to the forefront the prevalence of sexual harassment against women, especially in the workplace. Originally started to empower women through empathy, the movement has grown worldwide in exposing the extent of problems with sexual harassment and assault. A new study demonstrates the immediate and longer term effects that objectification through sexual harassment has on women.
According to objectification theory, a woman’s habitual exposure to sexually harassment can lead them to adopt a viewpoint of themselves as a body or collection of body parts that is valued principally for use or consumption by others (i.e., self-objectification). The frequency and/or intensity of situations of female objectification have generally been studied as precedents of self-objectification.
This research analyzed whether direct exposure to a particular objectifying situation, as in the case of verbal stranger harassment could have these same effects. The researchers tested the consequences of exposure to lewd comments (vs. a control situation) on body surveillance and body shame in a sample of 329 Spanish women.
The impact of verbal harassment on women’s anger, anxiety, happiness, and sense of empowerment was collected and analyzed. The results showed that women’s primary reaction was anger and anxiety. However, continued exposure to lewd comments on a longer term increased body shame and dis-empowerment.
A 2017 poll by ABC News and The Washington Post also found that 54% of American women report receiving “unwanted and inappropriate” sexual advances. Another study reported women being targeted by a sexually objectifying event – most often the objectifying gaze – approximately once every 2 days and reported witnessing sexual objectification of others approximately 1.35 times per day. Further, they also found that being targeted by sexual objectification was associated with a substantial increase in state self-objectification.
All of this evidence points to the negative effects of accumulations of sexual harassment may account for an array of mental health risks that disproportionately affect women: depression, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders.
Professor Daniel Drezner stated that #MeToo laid the groundwork for major cultural shift; the acceptance that sexual harassment (not just sexual assault) is unacceptable. The scientific evidence is certainly mounting demonstrating the harm that sexual harassment heaps on women.
New cultural norms are difficult to achieve – yet they can be reached. One just needs to look at other public health campaigns and how they changed behaviour in our lifetime – cigarette smoking, seat-belt use, drinking & driving. A change in sexual harassment behaviour is long over-due. It must be seen as unacceptable and eliminated.