Cat-calling and Mental Health

It would be difficult to find anyone who hasn’t at least heard about, if not watched, the now viral New York street harassment video (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here).

It summarises an all too familiar experience that most women have faced at least once in their lives – and I mean MOST – as a staggering 98% of women surveyed in 2008 reported that they had experienced cat-calling and harassment.  The video has caused an intense internet debate; as well as the majority outcry condemning the behaviour of the cat-callers and demands to change this all-too-common occurrence, there have also been more negative responses including the defence of the men involved and violent threats directed towards the subject of the video.

While a lot of the debate has centred on the acceptability and frequency of these behaviours, and how it can best be tackled, less attention has been given to the psychological effects of experiencing cat-calling and sexual harassment, and their impact on mental health.

So I did some digging. 

While there is a wealth of scientific literature investigating the effects of sexual harassment at home or in the workplace on mental health, the investigation of the effects of street harassment or cat-calling (referred to in these studies as ‘stranger harassment’) is a relatively new development. This came as a surprise to me, as there are studies that date as far back as 1978 that found that women felt unsafe in a variety of social contexts, and a Canadian study in 2000 identified that stranger harassment greatly reduced feelings of safety to a larger degree than harassment by known acquaintances. To put more simply, harassment by strangers makes women feel even less safe and more scared than harassment by a known individual at work or at home.

Sexual harassment has been associated with nausea, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression. However, the literature focuses on two main components that may affect mental health:

  1. Stress

Arguably the main risk of stranger harassment to mental health is its effect as a chronic stressor  – a stressor can be any environmental or external event  that causes stress to an individual, which becomes chronic when it is experienced on multiple occasions over time. For example, an individual may receive one cat-call on their walk to work. In isolation, this could be an unpleasant and mildly stressful event, or may not have any bearing on that person’s day. However,  should that experience of a mild stressor occur every day for months or years, then it becomes a chronic source of stress that can negatively impact mental health.

How does stress affect mental health?

One of the most studied outcomes of chronic stress is depression (which is also one of the reported outcomes of harassment). In fact, a popular mouse model of depression is called the ‘Chronic Unexpected Stress’ (CUS) model, which is created by exposing mice to…well…chronic unexpected stress. This includes social stress, (such as overcrowding or isolation) and predatory stress (the scent or presence of a predator). This is such a popular model for depression, because chronic psychological stress effectively and predictively causes anxiety and depression-like behaviours in these mice.

Predatory stress increased inflammation in several brain areas in these mice – inflammation is the body’s response to threat, and in the short term protects cells from harm. However if inflammation is present for a long time, it can start to cause damage. Increased inflammation in the brain has been found in, and may exacerbate Alzheimer’s disease and depression.  Studies in humans have also identified damage to the structure and communication networks of the brain as a result of chronic stress, which can have a negative effect on learning, memory and mood.

So it isn’t really such a leap to imagine that the fear or threat felt following harassment, and the powerlessness over its occurrence could become a chronic stressor. It can also arguably be equated with the ‘predatory stress’ used in mice.  In a study that focused on the workplace, an association between harassment and poor mental health was identified. Specifically, individuals who experienced sexual harassment early on in their careers were more likely to be depressed later in life. This was the case for both men and women.

  1. Objectification

Objectification is a societal issue that reaches beyond just cat-calling, but its role in stranger harassment has been investigated. The theory of self-objectification in the psychological literature says that when a person is sexually harassed by a stranger, they feel objectified. This causes ‘self-surveillance,’ or for them to view themselves as the stranger views them. This is usually as a sexualised object, with their worth determined by how they feel they are viewed by others. In other words, they are ‘self-objectifying themselves. This self-objectification has been found to have multiple negative effects on mental health, and has been associated with increased prevalence of eating disorders, depression and substance abuse.

However science hasn’t always been able to carry out this kind of study without bias and sexism.

Several studies that I have come across appear to lay responsibility of the effects of harassment on mental health and well-being on the women who have been targeted, rather than on the individuals who commit the harassment. After associating harassment and self-objectification with negative mental health and psychological consequences, it has been recommended that women should be educated in better coping strategies so that they become more resilient to the inevitable objectifying experiences as a way to prevent mental health problems. It is this attitude – that cat-calling/street harassment/stranger harassment is a ‘normal’ experience that should just be put up with – which has allowed it to remain a prevalent and distressing problem in society.

Despite cat-calling and street harassment having been identified as an issue for at least the past 14 years, there has been no reduction in the number of women experiencing it, and there has been very little attention given to the serious effects these experiences may have on mental health. The scientific community has not escaped without bias in this area, although it has identified the association between harassment, stress and depression, and recognised that there may be a substantial psychological effect of frequent harassment. As the role of harassment on mental health gains more attention, scientists are beginning to investigate more thoroughly; including the negative effects witnessing sexism has on bystanders  and some investigation into why some men do it.

There is still a long way to go – both scientifically and socially. But with cat-calling and harassment carrying such strong risks to mental health, perhaps they should be considered as a psychological assault.

For more information about cat-calling and harassment, and how it is being tackled, visit:

http://www.stopstreetharassment.org

http://www.ihollaback.org

The Biocheminist

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