Many women have a story about the first time they were catcalled or looked at lewdly by a man. Maybe they remember the first time some commented on their body’s still awkward curves. It will be a feeling that follows them for a long time.
A study profiled by the BBC suggests young girls who endure this unwanted kind of sexual attention may experience mental health issues, including self-harm, suicidal thoughts, maladaptive dieting and substance use. For black and Latina girls especially, puberty tends to begin at an earlier age. Studies also show that those girls who do develop at an earlier age are more likely to be sexually harassed earlier as well.
Silvia M. Dutchevici, a clinical social worker, noted that even how we talk about sexual harassment doesn’t quite grapple with its possible long-term effects.
“To me, it seems like it is assault,” she says. “It may not seem to most people like its not assault because no one is getting touched but there is a psychological assault that happens when you’re being sexualized or talked about as an object.”
In her practice, Dutchevici uses the old feminist phrase “The personal is political” as a guide to looking at societal problems like sexual harassment. “Girls are sexualized from birth,” she says. “It happens from their parents and their school.” She cites the language society uses for girls, like “you’re so pretty.”
In a study published earlier this year, doctors connected being exposed to sexual harassment earlier in life with girls being more likely to view their bodies as objects, an act that could also lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
Therapist Allison Abrams says she works a lot with adolescent girls. “That’s when they become conscious of their bodies. They’re confused and there’s a lot of shame with that.” She wants to see school teach both boys and girls about the harms of sexual harassment the way they talk about bullying and sex.
If it happens, Abrams wants parents and teachers to have more open communication so that any child can talk about what happened and not feel ashamed. “It’s okay for them to feel distressed,” she says. “They should know they can tell an adult and they’ll be supported.”
My journey into womanhood was on the earlier side of what doctors expect, but that’s not really anything you can control. I remember when I wasn’t yet a teenager, I followed my dad to the bar of a restaurant, and there was a man who stared at me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. It would be the first of many times I would be made to feel unsafe because of my body.
Sexual harassment manifests in many forms. What once was thought harmless is being questioned and what once taken as just another part of the female experience is getting an overdue reexamination.