Harassment and stress: addressing a threat to population health

PHS 795 Student Laura Bunke draws connections from current events to principles of population health. In response to an article commenting on France’s consideration of enacting fines for catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment, she writes:

After Trump’s campaign and election and the Harvey Weinstein, many women have been speaking up about sexual harassment. It feels that this has been a head line in some way for the past 6 months with more women coming forward and speaking out. The #MeToo and, #BalanceTonPorc (#Expose Your Pig). in France, this past two weeks has highlighted how many women are affected and show people that it happens to so many they personally know. The outcry has been criticized by some saying women don’t owe any one their story or that this is better handled in court. I think we are at a turning point and the fact that social media gave so many women a chance to identify and speak out is healthy and helpful to the cause.

There are several articles surrounding this topic in the US, but I picked this one from France because they are actually taken action to change the culture. This article states that there are proposals under ‘discussions to fine men for aggressive catcalling or lecherous behavior toward women in public, to extend the statute of limitations in cases of sexual assault involving minors and to create a new age ceiling under which minors cannot legally consent to a sexual relationship.’

If our countries took sexual harassment more seriously and changed the culture of how women are treated, I believe the mental and physical health of half of our population would be better. We talked in class about how internalized stress can affect a person’s health in so many ways. We thought of this mostly with racial and SES disparities, but I think we could apply it to gender disparities as well. Many women carry the burden of remembering an unwanted sexual advance and having their guard up to defend themselves from another. How did we let this be our culture for so long? And now that we are here, how do we change our policies, laws, and conversations to protect women and change the actions of men?


5 thoughts on “Harassment and stress: addressing a threat to population health

  1. The article that Laura introduced illuminates a tension that is present across issues in public health: the tension between interventions that fix symptoms of a problem, and those that address the root causes of an issue. France’s proposed tax would be an intervention that addresses the symptoms, catcalling, of a deeply rooted societal problem, disrespect for women and/or other groups. So, although this tax may discourage people from certain behaviors and it might even create an environment in which people are less likely to learn bad behaviors, it will not directly create an environment that teaches people respectful behaviors.

    Our lecture on life course illustrated that this issue is present in other realms of public health. Research on life course shows that there are critical periods early in life during which certain types of exposures can have long lasting impacts. With this knowledge, public health initiatives that aim to improve health and scholastic achievement would be most effective if they target early life years. However, targeting public health interventions at only those life years could exclude individuals that are older, like teens, who are existing in a broken system and need support to overcome obstacles from their early years. In order to be fair, limited public health funds must be divided to fund programs that alleviate symptoms as well as those that address root causes. Initiatives to help symptoms, like this tax, might be slightly easier to create. However, even though it is challenging, we must advocate for resources to be allocated to fix persistent, systemic issues because otherwise we will be constantly battling symptoms.


  2. Laura, that’s a fascinating (and controversial) approach to deterring assault and harassment and a really relevant topic nowadays, to be sure. I agree with Sam that these policy interventions may sadly be a bit detached from the root causes of assault, as well.

    To tie in another appropriate case study on the topic: like a few other European countries mentioned within the article above, Singapore decided to make this interpersonal issue one of public concern and a legal matter (section 354 of their Penal Code) by incorporating caning or jailtime into the punishment, in addition to fines. This definition of offense even includes vulgar comments made to another individual, intended to – you guessed it – outrage their sense of modesty or decency. Unfortunately, according to mid-year 2017 crime statistics from the Singapore Police Force, claims involving Outrage of Modesty (OM) are on the rise once again – up nearly 10% from the beginning of the year. (https://www.police.gov.sg/news-and-publications/statistics?year=2017) So, yes, what does that say about whether they’re effective at targeting the negative behaviors these policies are intended to curb?

    As many of you have noted in your own posts, regarding the complexity of public health study and confounding factors, it’s hard to tell right off the bat what could be contributing to this recent increase in incidents. Even so, I can’t help but wonder whether these rates indicate that such laws have been effective, by and large over the decades, at reducing sexual assault within this booming city-state since they were first enacted. (Surely, there has to have been some study done on this law’s overall effectiveness! A superficial sweep I attempted didn’t yield any relevant results on the topic.)

    As a whole, though, for whatever it’s worth, the Singaporean government appears to stand by its particular penal code: “It is not flawless in that perfectly proper prosecutions may sometimes fail because of unexpected frailties in the evidential links. Our system is, however, an eminently credible, pragmatic *and effective* one that tempers idealism with a healthy dose of realism. The rules are clear and precise, and neither the Prosecution nor the Defence can or should complain if they fail by them. By rigorously demanding and upholding exacting standards from both the Prosecution and the Defence alike, the courts are able to ensure that public confidence in our legal system does not falter.” (https://www.singaporelaw.sg/sglaw/laws-of-singapore/case-law/free-law/high-court-judgments/14257-akd-v-public-prosecutor-2010-sghc-233)

    They similarly seem to suggest that this system, at the very least, creates an air of cultural expectations with regard to acceptable behaviors. To bring it all back around… I would emphasize Sam’s point that “although this tax may discourage people from certain behaviors and it might even create an environment in which people are less likely to learn bad behaviors, it will not directly create an environment that teaches people respectful behaviors.” It’s likely a band-aid fix, in my opinion.


  3. This article just reminds me how UW Madison handles sexual assault/harassment. It happens, there is an anonymous site to submit any crimes/assaults and whether that is followed through or not is really not known to me. As Laura mentioned, internalized stress (even trauma), affects the mental and physical health of victims of sexual assault, men or women. Victims are often assaulted by someone they know. Due to trauma, it may take a while for victims to come to realization that they have been sexually assaulted, therefore further silences their stories. It is also silenced by others who do not believe it would have happened to a victim or going to court about this and losing because they do not have enough evidence to prove their assault. In my opinion, the hashtags are to spread awareness of how common this happens and how often we are so fast to silence victims and act like it has never happened. To go off of Laura’s question of “how did we let this be our culture for so long” could be due to mainly having those in positions (men) who have never had sexual assault happen to them, therefore cannot relate the the realities of victims who have. My question is, who are in these positions to make decisions for victims of sexual assault?


  4. I found this article and these comments fascinating and important. I agree with Sam that the systemic harassment problem cannot be solved through a tax, but yet I can’t help but argue that it is a start. The #metoo campaign, the Weinstein and Trump problem, and all the many instances of violence against women (recognizing that there are also cases of violence against men or non-binary persons, but for the purpose of this argument I’ll stick to the theme) that so often go unseen and unpunished, I relished the idea of a direct reprimand for catcalling. At least this type of aggressive behavior and the proposals to discourage it are being discussed in France and Singapore. Unfortunately, I think the U.S. will fall far behind when it comes to enacting policy that counteracts harassment, but perhaps these other countries can set the gold standard for others to follow.

    Like many others who have commented on this blog, I absolutely agree that population health can be messy. I also agree that a more upstream, life course approach would best fix the systematic problem of harassment and discrimination (along with general lack of respect), and the toll it takes on our health. But instead of throwing our hands in the air or claiming that this type of behavior is “locker room talk”, I believe we can look to other countries’ policies and start somewhere. As Dr. Mullahy discussed in his lecture, it is sometimes best practice to frame health behavior and discussions with the “compared to what” idea. Taxation for catcalling may not be the best or most effective approach for reduction of harassment and violence (and the subsequent poor health that can accompany it), but compared to what? Compared to doing nothing, I think it is a good start.


  5. It’s a really fascinating topic. The mention about gender disparities is really interesting to think about, which we never think while thinking about health disparities. It definitely is something to put more focus on. There is so much stigma on whether to discuss about sexual harassment with someone or not. I am sure, a lot of women don’t discuss what they go through with anyone and affect their physical and mental health severely.


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