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Key Gender Differences After Experiencing Sexual Violence

Sexual violence, defined by sexual harassment and sexual assault, are overly pertinent in today’s society. Harassment and assault are prevalent in all genders, but more so in those who identify as women. Sexual harassment or assault sadly take place everywhere, such as school or work environments. Although prominent, these incidents are still severely underreported. Few survivors seek help, whether it be to a friend, family member, or professional.

Distinction Between Harassment and Assault

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are often used interchangeably. However, the two have different meanings. Sexual harassment is defined as, “…unwelcome conduct of sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” (Hill & Kearl, 2011). Sexual harassment is seen as an umbrella term to include sexual assault, but the term includes much more than that. Sexual harassment includes verbal or written comments, physical coercion, gestures, showing images, stalking, or a combination of these. Sexual harassment can take place in person, online, through text messages, and through social media outlets (Bureau, 2017; Hill & Kearl, 2011). Sexual assault, on the other hand, is defined as, “illegal sexual contract that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent… or who places the assailant… in a position of trust or authority,” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Rape is a common example of sexual assault.

Sexual harassment definitions have been modified to the school and workplace environments. In the school setting, sexual harassment is defined as, “…unwanted sexual behavior that interferes with a student’s right to receive an equal education,” (Hill & Kearl, 2011). To ensure that all students are getting an equal education, Title IX was implemented in schools. In the workplace, sexual harassment is defined as, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” (Smith, 2012). Human resources, or HR, is often the place survivors of workplace sexual harassment are encouraged to turn to. In schools or in the workplace, sexual harassment can be classified into quid pro quo or hostile environment. Sexual harassment would be classified as quid pro quo if someone in power, like a teacher or a boss, pressures a subordinate into sexual activity in exchange for a good grade or a promotion. Sexual harassment would be classified under a hostile environment when the unwelcome sexual attention is “severe, persistent, or pervasive,” to limit participation in a work or educational activity (Hill & Kearl, 2011). In most cases, sexual harassment falls under the hostile environment category.

The concept that appears in every definition of sexual harassment and sexual assault is providing consent. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.), consent means, “to give assent or approval.” This definition has been construed by many to assume that if someone does not say no, they give consent. Up until recently, this thought process has been the justification in many rape cases as to why the alleged perpetrator engaged in such behaviors. Savannah Badalich, of University of California, Los Angeles, put it best regarding consent when she says, “…the absence of no is not a yes,” (“California adopts historic ‘yes means yes’ rule on sexual consent”, 2014). There has been more emphasis on this idea, as of late, through social media and news outlets.

Sexual Harassment and Assault in Females

Due to the commonality of sexual harassment and assault among women, young girls are often raised on the idea that precautions must be made to avoid sexual harassment or assault in the future, merely due to identifying as female. These precautions include keeping track of drinks, even watching while it is being made, traveling in groups, and walking to the car with keys between their fingers. Smith (2012) mentioned that women even take these precautions during the day, when they are not in a drug zone, or a bad neighborhood. This insinuates that sexual violence can happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. While young women grow up learning these precautions, young men do not. Young men often do not worry about risks, like walking to the car at night, watching their drinks get made, or even taking a friend with them to the bathroom at a bar.

Sexual Violence in an Educational Setting

Sexual harassment in a school setting usually takes place at the middle school or high school level, while sexual assault in a school setting will typically take place at the collegiate level (Allen & Swan, 2015; DeLoveh & Cattaneo, 2017; Grey & Boyd, 2008; Young et al., 2015). School-based harassment can be based on a person’s ability, or lack thereof, to conform to societal gender norms. This puts members of the LGBT+ community at risk for sexual harassment (Hill & Kearl, 2011). Researchers have also found that women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment in a school setting. Women are more likely to experience unwanted sexual jokes, comments, gestures, see unwanted sexual pictures and be touched inappropriately (AAUW Educational Foundation, 1993; AAUW Educational Foundation, 2001; Young et. al, 2008). According to student report, women and girls who are “too sexual”, “too masculine”, whose bodies are more developed, societally defined “pretty” girls, and girls who are not “pretty” or “feminine”, are targets for sexual harassment at school (AAUW Educational Foundation, 1993; AAUW Educational Foundation, 2001). According to student report, every woman is at risk for being sexually harassed at school. It does not matter if she’s “popular and pretty”, or “unpopular and unattractive”, she is still at risk of being sexually harassed by peers or faculty members.

Women who are at risk for sexual harassment are also at risk for sexual assault. College woman are at greater risk for sexual assault then college men. According to researchers, 20-25% of college women have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, compared to 7% of college men who have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault (Allen & Swan, 2015; DeLoveh & Cattaneo, 2017). Due to the increasing awareness of Title IX on college campuses, students are more aware of the resources available to them. Students in a study by Allen and Swan (2015) thought that the resources available to students are more helpful for women survivors than for men survivors. The majority of resources are designed with a female survivor treatment model because women are more likely to seek the resources and it is assumed the survivor will be a female (Allen & Swan, 2015).

Sexual Violence in a Public Setting

Sexual harassment is more common than sexual assault in a public setting. Catcalling is a common method of sexual harassment heard in on the street and public transportation. In New York, 60% of reported sexual harassment incidents happened on the street, and another 22% happened on public transportation. Consequences of street harassment vary by state. In New York, a person is guilty of harassment if the person, “…intentionally and repeatedly harasses another person by following such person in or about a public place or places by engaging in a course of conduct or by repeatedly committing acts which places such person in reasonable fear of physical injury,” (Smith, 2012). However, California does not consider catcalling sexual harassment; a person becomes a survivor of street harassment when they have been touched in an intimate part of the body against their will for the purpose of sexual gratification, arousal, or abuse (Smith, 2012). In 2010, noncontact, unwanted sexual experiences were the most common form of sexual violence women faced. Approximately 33% of women will experience this type of violence compared to 12.8% of men (Smith, 2012).

Women and men often have differing attitudes to street harassment and why it occurs at all. Emily May, who runs an organization trying to end street harassment feels that it is a human rights issue. She says, “…it infringes our right to walk down the street safely…” (Smith, 2012). One man claimed that men were raised to objectify women due to the media. Another man claimed that the way women dress invites comments. Both of these men agreed that, “women get treated the way they allow themselves to get treated,” (Smith, 2012). Men, and subsequently, society, usually have the attitude that it is the woman’s fault. If she didn’t act, or dress, the way she does, she wouldn’t get harassed or assaulted.

Barriers to Reporting

Although sexual assault and sexual harassment are prevalent, they are severely underreported. The United States Census Bureau (2018) found that rape is one of the most underreported crimes in America. According to researchers, 14-43% of sexual assault survivors seek help in the general population. However, 12.5% of college students who have experienced a rape and 4.3% of college students who have experienced a sexual battery seek help (Campbell, 2008; Patterson et al., 2009; Ullman, 2007; Krebs et al., 2016).

Barriers often prevent survivors from reporting sexual harassment or assault. A barrier is considered anything that decreases the likelihood a survivor will tell someone else about their victimization or seek formal services for help after their attack (Allen & Swan, 2015). Rape myths are a large barrier against reporting a sexual assault. Rape myth are false beliefs that deny and minimize a rape and often blame the survivors for the rape (Allen & Swan, 2015). These myths often discourage survivors from classifying their experience as sexual assault and influence the reactions of others towards survivors (DeLoveh & Cattaneo, 2017). Brittney Gilbert, a sexual assault survivor, went to the police to report her assault and claimed, “I didn’t expect anyone to give me a hug, but I was just surprised at how difficult it was to file a report. [The policeman] didn’t say to me ‘You can’t file a report,’ he just kept questioning if that’s what I wanted to do,” (Smith, 2012). Campbell (2008) found that treatment from professionals, like the police, is so traumatic to survivors that it is often coined “the second rape.” This type of treatment from professionals could be one of the reasons why studies have found that survivors of sexual assault are more likely to disclose the attack to peers than they are to professionals, like the police or medical professionals (Allen & Swan, 2015).

Barriers preventing survivors from reporting sexual assault are high in men and women, but more so in men (Allen & Swan, 2015). The male sexual assault is far less talked about than female sexual assault, and because of this, it is believed that men cannot be sexually victimized. Rape myths and feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and fear of not being believed deter men from reporting. Male assaults usually come to attention when the survivors seek medical attention for nonsexual injuries sustained from the attack (Allen & Swan, 2015).

Although men are more likely to be deterred from reporting sexual assault due to barriers, women are more likely than men to be aware of the barriers to reporting a sexual assault. It is hypothesized this is due to social networks and media coverage (Allen & Swan, 2012). Women who report sexual assaults are typically viewed in a negative light through these outlets. These negative views and assumptions of women who have reported then become a barrier for future women to come forward about their assault.

Sexual assault is likely to be underreported if the survivors do not label their experiences as sexual assault. Harned (2005) found that 60% of women whose experiences meet legal definitions of sexual assault do not label it that way. The study conducted by Harned (2005) also found that survivors who do not label their sexual assault as such usually blame themselves for not resisting enough during the attack. It has also been found that survivors of sexual assault are less likely to report the incident if they do not perceive the attack to be serious enough, regardless if they endured physical pain or psychological distress (Krebs et al., 2016).

Sexual assault is often committed by someone the survivor knows, whether intimately or as an acquaintance (Fisher et al., 2003; Kilpatrick et al., 2007; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2006). Researchers found that knowing the offender increases the likelihood that the survivor and other people will blame the survivor for their own attack (Fisher et al., 2003; Harned, 2005). It has also been shown that the closer the relationship between the offender and the survivor is, the less likely the survivor is to seek formal help (Fisher et al., 2003). Survivors of sexual assault where drugs and alcohol are involved are less likely to seek help because they are afraid of getting themselves or their friends in trouble, they are less clear about what happened, and are worried that professionals will not believe them (Fisher et al., 2003, Harned 2005, Kilpatrick et al., 2007).

Effects of Sexual Violence

Sexual harassment and assault can be the cause of clinical pathology in many individuals. Individuals who have experienced sexual violence can be at risk for developing anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, and attempted suicide. Researchers also found an association between sexual abuse and somatic disorders, like gastrointestinal disorders, psychogenic seizures, and chronic pain. Some of these occurrences can be intensified by the occurrence of rape (Chen et al., 2010).

As a clinician, when meeting with a client who is experiencing symptoms of a clinically significant disorder, it is important to determine the root of the symptoms and what potentially caused them. Some clinicians may not think some disorders, like eating disorders, could be linked to sexual violence. Clinicians may not think to link anxiety or depression to sexual violence if their client is a man. If a clinician has a bias against survivors of sexual violence, they need to be aware of it. Clients may be unwilling to disclose their history to a clinician at first for fear of a negative reaction. Clinicians should be a safe person a client can report their assault to. If the client experiences a negative reaction from a clinician after disclosing their past, they may be unwilling to go back to therapy and will be less likely to seek help again.


Sexual violence can be broken down in to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Women are more likely than men to be harassed and assaulted in public settings, at school, and at work. Although women are more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault, men are less likely to come forward about their experience. Barriers, like rape myths, keep survivors from reporting their experiences, as well as the survivor’s relationship to the offender. A lack of reporting means some survivors are dealing with their experiences alone, which can create psychopathy. Survivors of sexual violence are, therefore, at higher risk for developing a variety of lifelong disorders, like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. As mental health professionals, clinicians should be aware of any potential biases against sexual violence survivors. Clients will probably be hesitant to disclose their experience at first, especially if they are not sure if their experience is an assault or if they do not classify it as such. If the clinician has known biases against survivors of sexual violence, the client probably will not disclose their experience, or they may not come back to therapy.

Hayley is a third year psychology trainee getting her doctor at in Clinical Psychology at Nova Southeastern University. She is originally from Ludlow, Massachusetts and completed her bachelor's degree in Psychology from Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts. Hayley received her master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Hayley completed her practicum at the Healthy Lifestyles Guided Self-Change clinic where she worked with substance use, tobacco cessation, sleep and insomnia concerns, and motivation. She is currently a practicum student at the Trauma Resolution and Integration Program. Hayley has been serving on the executive board of the Eating Disorder Awareness Association, first as Secretary and currently as Vice President. She also serves on the executive board of PsychEdge, a student led organization to promote advocacy, as the Public Relations chair. Hayley's clinical interests include eating disorders, trauma, and substance use. In her spare time, Hayley likes to cook, knit, and spend time with friends and family.

Cite This Article

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