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Peer sexual harrassment : subtitle a social determinant of adolescent health? Dahinten, Virginia Susan

Abstract

The aim of this study was to expand our understanding of the experiences and health effects of school-based, peer sexual harassment among adolescents. The primary objective was to test a theoretical model of causal relationships between sexual harassment and psychological, physical, and behavioural health outcomes among female adolescents. A sub-objective was to examine the incidence and appraisal of peer sexual harassment by gender. The study employed a retrospective cross-sectional survey design. Data were obtained from male and female high school students in grades 9 through 11; participants were recruited from 12 schools in British Columbia and New Brunswick. Data from all respondents (N = 565) were used to describe the students' sexual harassment experiences, although investigation into the relationships between harassment and health was conducted only for the female respondents (n = 348). Structural equation modelling was used to test the proposed theoretical model. There were four major findings. First, sexual harassment was found to be pervasive among both male and female students in grades 9 through 11. However, female students experience a greater variety of harassment behaviours and more frequent harassment than male students, and they report being more upset by the harassment that they receive. Second, both male and female students report that, in general, gender harassment is more upsetting than unwanted sexual advances. Third, female students who experience more frequent and more upsetting sexual harassment also experience worse health outcomes. Sexual harassment was found to explain a good deal of the variance in negative health outcomes over and above the effects of other school-based stressors. Fourth, although female students are more likely to engage in behavioural coping responses as sexual harassment increases in frequency or degree of threat, these coping strategies do not necessarily mediate or reduce the harmful effects of sexual harassment. The results of this study suggest that we should be wary about trivializing the possible consequences of sexual harassment among adolescents, even though adults might perceive some of the incidents to be mundane experiences. The implications of these findings for school health programs and other preventive interventions are discussed.

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