#MeToo, Sexual Assault, and Mental Health
7 things you need to know about sexual assault and mental health.
Posted Nov 03, 2017
For the past couple of weeks, social media feeds have been flooded with the hashtag #MeToo after allegations were made against some powerful Hollywood executives and actors. In a show of solidarity, women, and some men, shared their experiences of sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, and other forms of sexual abuse. The magnitude of these revelations begs the question: how does this affect mental health? Here are seven facts you need to know about the #MeToo phenomenon:
Sexual Abuse Disproportionately Affects Women
Statistically speaking, almost all (at least 90 percent) of sexual abuse victims are women. As many as one in six women will be raped during her lifetime, and many more will face other forms of sexual assault such as unwanted touching or sexualized threats online. This points to extremely problematic social attitudes about women. These attitudes affect even women who aren’t victimized. Most women know someone who has been abused and many expend significant emotional and physical resources avoiding danger. Others develop anxiety about the possibility of becoming a victim.
This is precisely why #MeToo is so powerful. It showed women that they’re not alone and that their experiences happen in a broader political and gender context. It also made visible to men what often is not: that the women in their lives and at their jobs may be dealing with a wide range of trauma due to sexual abuse.
Men Can Be Victims, Too
Sexual violence is an issue many women live with, and that almost all have to think about. But this can obscure the fact that men can be victims, too. Men who have been sexually victimized may feel emasculated or humiliated and may be reluctant to come forward.
Most Perpetrators Are Men
Even when men are victims of sexual assault, the perpetrator is typically a man. Depending on which statistic you believe, men are between 90 to 99 percent of all sexual assault perpetrators. Despite this fact, sexual assault outreach often focuses on victims and potential victims, by telling them how to behave to avoid violence. We need to work to understand the factors that put men at risk of becoming perpetrators. To do that, we must treat sexual assault as a men’s issue too, not simply as something women must address.
Sexual Harassment Creates a Hostile World
Much of the recent dialogue focused on rape and other violent forms of sexual assault. Yet research shows that sexual harassment is the most common form of sexual abuse women face. In the workplace, it can reinforce gender norms and be used to make women feel inferior. It can even become a way to coerce women into unwanted sex.
Workplace sexual harassment is just one form of this abuse. Another form, called street harassment, occurs when women face aggressive sexual overtures from men out in the world. Many report that, when they rebuff these advances, men threaten them or call them ugly. This creates a high price for being a woman in public and can leave many women feeling anxious, insecure, and constantly on alert.
The Link Between Sexual Abuse and Mental Health
Most data suggests that women experience mental health problems at rates significantly higher than men. It’s easy to chalk this up to hormones, or to something unique about the female brain. Yet there’s a more obvious culprit here: women live in a society that continually exposes them to trauma and reminds them of their supposed inferiority. Research has repeatedly linked exposure to discrimination to stress and mental illness.
Much media attention has focused on the epidemic of PTSD and mental illness among military veterans. But rape and sexual assault might actually be the most common cause of PTSD. Data suggests that anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of sexual assault survivors develop PTSD. With so many women exposed to sexual assault, it becomes clear that the disparity between men and women in mental health issues might be closely related to the trauma many women face.
Victim-Blaming Compounds Trauma
Along with an onslaught of brave people coming forward with stories of abuse and survival, some people saw something else: victim blaming. Commenters asked why victims wore what they did, didn’t fight back, stayed out too late.
Healthy, balanced people do not assault others—no matter what they are wearing. But blaming people for their own assault does compound the mental health effects of trauma, and create a world where victims suffer in silence.
Many Suffer in Silence
#MeToo is so powerful precisely because it makes it hard to look away from a problem that has long remained in the shadows. Assault survivors aren’t other people; they’re our daughters, our mothers, our loved ones. But just because a woman doesn’t come forward doesn’t mean she’s not a survivor. Some women prefer to remain private. Others are concerned about the very backlash they've witnessed other women experience. And therein lies a problem: We re-traumatize survivors by questioning their stories, demanding answers, and subjecting them to public scrutiny in a way we’d never scrutinize, say, a robbery victim.
#MeToo can be the beginning of a reframing of the discussion of sexual abuse. It’s a powerful opportunity for mental health professionals to intensify their efforts to support survivors.
Cochrane, K. (2013, May 09). Men are victims as well as perpetrators of sex crime. So why aren't they talking?. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/09/men-victims-of-male-aggression-speak-up
Otto, F. (2016, May 19). What The New York Times gets wrong about PTSD. Retrieved from http://drexel.edu/now/archive/2016/May/NYT_PTSD_Purtle/