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The effects of non-physical peer sexual harassment on high school students’ psychological well-being in Norway: consistent and stable findings across studies

Abstract

Objectives

The paper examines how strongly non-physical peer sexual harassment is associated with a wide range of well-being outcomes from symptoms of depression and anxiety to self-esteem and body image.

Methods

Two large community samples of high school students were analyzed (n = 1384 and n = 1485). Students responded to questionnaires on being subject to non-physical sexual harassment, sexual coercion and forced intercourse, and to well-being indicators ranging from anxiety, depression, self-esteem, body image.

Results

Regression analyses suggest that being harassed by peers in a non-physical way was moderately associated with lower levels of well-being over and above the effect of other risk factors. This effect was present for all indicators of well-being. The effect of peer harassment on depressive symptoms was moderated by sex (affected women more) but not by sexual or ethnic minority status.

Conclusions

The findings imply that although sticks and stones may break bones, it does seem that derogatory words and other forms of non-physical sexual harassment definitely harm high school students.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Sør-Trøndelag County Authority for supporting this research, and to the students and staff of the participating high schools. Mons Bendixen (MB) and Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair (LEOK) conceived the study, designed and coordinated both studies, and drafted the manuscript. MB performed the final statistical analyses. MB and LEOK participated in the interpretation of the data. Josef Daveronis (JD) participated in the development of the research questions, performed the initial statistical analyses and drafted the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Authors

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Correspondence to Mons Bendixen.

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Ethical statement

The study was carried out in line with the American Psychological Association’s ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct.

Appendix

Appendix

Harassment acts, Study 1

  1. 1.

    Unpleasant sexual gazes.

  2. 2.

    Denigrating comments such as “cunt”, “prick”, “bitch”, “whore”, etc.

  3. 3.

    Denigrating comments such as “gay”, “lesbo”, “fag”, “dyke”, etc.

  4. 4.

    Dirty/debasing talk or denigrating comments on body or looks.

  5. 5.

    Shown sexually laden pictures or objects.

  6. 6.

    Having had sexual rumors spread.

  7. 7.

    Having had pictures of you distributed online when undressed.

  8. 8.

    Receiving sexual content through electronic media (mobile or internet).

  9. 9.

    Sexual requests (being asked for sexual service).

Note: this item was not part of the Study 2 list of items.

Harassment acts, Study 2

  1. 1.

    Denigrating comments such as “whore”, “manwhore”, “slut”, “manslut”, “loose”, etc.

  2. 2.

    Denigrating comments such as “gay”, “lesbo”, “fag”, “dyke”, etc.

  3. 3.

    Denigrating comments such “cunt”, “prick”, “asshole”, “bitch”, etc.

  4. 4.

    Dirty/debasing talk or denigrating comments on body or looks.

  5. 5.

    Shown sexually laden pictures or objects.

  6. 6.

    Having had sexual rumors spread.

  7. 7.

    Having had pictures of you distributed online when undressed.

  8. 8.

    Receiving sexual content through electronic media (mobile or internet).

  9. 9.

    Sexual requests (being asked for sexual service).

Note: All items were coded 0 = no and 1 = yes.

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Bendixen, M., Daveronis, J. & Kennair, L.E.O. The effects of non-physical peer sexual harassment on high school students’ psychological well-being in Norway: consistent and stable findings across studies. Int J Public Health 63, 3–11 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-017-1049-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-017-1049-3

Keywords

  • Well-being
  • Peer sexual harassment
  • Emerging adults
  • Gender
  • Sexual and ethnic minorities