Kennair wrote the study with his colleague, associate professor Mons Bendixen, and master’s student Josef Daveronis. They say it’s the first to specifically look at the effects of non-physical sexual harassment. Most research combines both physical and non-physical sexual harassment.
They present data from studies done in the Norwegian county Sor-Trondelag: one in 2007 included 1,384 students; and another in 2013-2014 included 1,485 students. Aged 16 to 21, they were asked about their experiences in the last year with different types of sexual harassment, and about their mental well-being. Students decided whether they perceived an action or remark as harassing, negative and unwanted and only reported what they deemed offensive. Derogatory comments included remarks that were objectifying, homophobic and intended to shame.
Researchers accounted for stressors that could have influenced youths’ responses, such as whether their parents had split up or were unemployed, if they were a sexual minority or an immigrant with uncertain legal status, and if they had been sexually coerced in that year or had ever been sexually assaulted.
Being female was the greatest risk factor for struggling with anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem. The second most important factor was non-physical sexual harassment by their peers. Researchers also found that students who were sexual minorities (non-heterosexual) reported more psychological distress.
Although the study is out of Norway, Kennair would not be surprised if youth in other countries, including Canada, experience similar feelings. He notes that even in Norway — “one of the most gender-egalitarian, sexually liberal, secularized in the world” — there’s high incidence of sexual harassment and says the negative psychological effects, as noted in the study, are evident.
Audrey Rastin, manager Boost Child and Youth Advocacy Centre in Toronto, of prevention and public education of says the study reinforces what she sees in her work with schools and youth.
“All types of harassment and abuse negatively impact kids’ well-being, including bullying and online victimization,” she said. “The most important message to youth is, ‘Talk to an adult you trust about what’s happened and keep telling until you get the help you need.’ ”
Rastin would like to see research done into why some youth are more resilient to harassment than others. For instance, she notes, kids who are not heterosexual have fewer places to seek support. And, she says, adults who work with kids need to be better trained to recognize harassment and respond to it.
Although the study’s authors say they don’t know of effective interventions to combat sexual harassment — they plan on researching this in future — Rastin suggests earlier education.
“We need to start having conversations, or programming, with children at young ages about things like respect, good communication and building healthy relationships.”