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Study: Men more traumatized than women by military sex harassment

Women are more often sexually harassed in the military, but men who experience it have more psychological problems

When it comes to sexual harassment in the military, men may experience more psychological problems and have more difficulties on the job during the aftermath than women do, according to a new study.

Researchers combed through results of a 2002 Department of Defense survey in which nearly 18,000 military members — both male and female — were asked about their “most significant sexual harassment experience” from the past year. Then they rated that experience on a scale of 0 to 4 in terms of how frightening or threatening it was. They were also asked how the harassment affected their mood and their ability to do their job.

Among the 6,304 respondents who said they had experienced sexual harassment that made them feel very frightened or threatened, the male soldiers displayed signs of being significantly more affected than women in terms of psychological distress and work performance.

It was a result that surprised researchers.

“We expected that the relationships would be stronger for women,” said Isis Settles, a psychology professor at Michigan State University and lead author of the study. “The surprise was that men were more upset and debilitated after experiencing frightening sexual harassment than women.”

Even though 72 percent of the sexual harassment incidents deemed to be frightening by the victim happened to women, the researchers found that the men were more likely to report psychological stress, problems with their roles at work and dissatisfaction with their jobs as a result, according to the study, which was published Friday in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (PDF).

Settles and her team suspect it’s because women may have anticipated that they would be harassed in a male-dominated environment, and had already developed coping mechanisms.

“Women are more likely to have experienced sexual harassment in the past, so they may already have developed coping strategies to draw on,” she said. “But for men, this kind of sexual harassment may be violating their expectations.”

As a result, men are left unprepared to handle it.

Studies show that sexual harassment happens more often in male-dominated environments like the military — anywhere from 34 to 78 percent of women and between 6 and 38 percent of men in the armed forces say it’s happened to them (PDF). 

Theories abound as to why that is. One prevailing idea is that it's based on the strong norms for both masculinity and femininity in the military. Harassment, Settles explains, “is a tool that’s used for power and dominance over individuals,” for pushing them to conform to those norms. “Or they could be sexually harassed because it’s a message that you’re not welcome,” she said. “It’s something about not conforming to the particular norms and expectations of the setting.”

And while many studies of sexual harassment tend to look at its effect on a combination of emotions, Settles said she chose to focus on events that caused fear because they might be a stronger reflection of how people are affected by the harassment, or how they choose to behave during the aftermath.

For example, previous studies have shown that women who felt “demoralized” by sexual harassment were more likely to join class action lawsuits

“Fear is obviously a much stronger emotion than feeling annoyed or bothered by sexual harassment,” she said.

Settles’ previous research has examined whether members of the military who had been sexually harassed considered it to be “bothersome” or “frightening,” and found that frightening sexual harassment significantly increased the psychological distress they felt.

That may seem like an obvious outcome, but her team’s finding that male soldiers were more strongly psychologically affected by sexual harassment was unexpected.

However, Settles emphasized that just because women soldiers were less traumatized or negatively affected by harassment than male soldiers doesn't mean it wasn’t a problem for the women. “More women in our study were victims of sexual harassment, and they reported more frightening sexual harassment,” she said.

Settles said the results show the need for the military to keep working at curbing sexual harassment among its personnel. “It’s obviously something that they’re concerned about and aware of,” she said, “but these results just underscore that."

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