Sexual Harassment and Alcohol Use

Sexual Harassment and Alcohol Use

Narratives depicting sexual harassment lawsuits have proliferated in the U.S. media ever since the U.S. population eagerly followed the sexual harassment accusations leveled at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his Senate Confirmation Hearing in 1991 (Mayer and Abramson, 1994). This case is still referred to whenever sexual harassment is discussed in the media. A corresponding increase in research on sexual harassment and its mental health ramifications has also occurred.

From a legal perspective, sexual harassment represents a form of sex discrimination characterized by "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" that affects the terms, conditions or employment decisions related to an individual's job (quid pro quo harassment) or creates an "intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment" (hostile environment harassment) (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1980).

Overall prevalence rates of sexual harassment in employed samples have generally ranged from about 30% to 70% for women (Richman et al., 1999; Schneider, 1982; U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 1988) and about 27% to 50% for men (Richman et al., 1999; Waldo et al., 1998). Most importantly, sexual harassment is not a purely female problem, and its prevalence differs depending on other social statuses, such as occupation, race/ethnicity or sexual orientation (Nawyn et al., 2000; Richman et al., 1999).

To date, numerous studies have linked the experience of sexual harassment with varied psychological distress outcomes including depression, anxiety, irritability, loss of self-esteem, and a sense of helplessness and vulnerability (Charney and Russell, 1994). It is only recently that researchers shifted their attention to the impact of harassment experiences on increased and problematic drinking patterns.

Our own research has encompassed a five-phase longitudinal survey of a cohort of university workers in four occupational categories: faculty, graduate student/medical resident workers, secretarial/clerical workers and service/maintenance workers. Mailed questionnaires at each phase have addressed experiences of sexual harassment (as well as generalized abusive experiences at work), varied patterns of drinking and use of other substances, and moderating (e.g., social supports, coping behaviors) and mediating (e.g., psychological distress) factors. We have also conducted in-depth interviews with a small subsample of the survey population. We have shown that experiences of sexual harassment are associated with frequency of drinking, escapist motivations for drinking, heavy episodic drinking, drinking to intoxication, and use of prescription drugs (e.g., sedatives, antidepressants) and cigarettes (Richman et al., 1999). Moreover, sexual harassment that continues over time is predictive of increased quantity of alcohol consumption, controlling for prior drinking patterns (Rospenda et al., 2000). This is particularly problematic given that, when it occurs, sexual harassment tends to be chronic in nature.


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