Abstract: From Microaggressions to Sexual Assault: Understanding Frequency and Relationship to Mental and Behavioral Health Among Undergraduate Women (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

From Microaggressions to Sexual Assault: Understanding Frequency and Relationship to Mental and Behavioral Health Among Undergraduate Women

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Liberty Ballroom O, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Rachel Gartner, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Background and Purpose: Sexual violence is a pervasive social welfare problem impacting women’s social, physical, economic, and emotional well-being. Undergraduate women consistently report higher rates of sexual violence during their college careers than the general student population. A substantial gap in the current campus sexual violence literature is its exclusion of chronic gender-based slights and invalidations known as gender microaggressions, which have been theorized to function as environmental antecedents to sexual violence while also impacting mental and behavioral health. Gender microaggressions are defined as intentional and unintentional slights, insults, and invalidations based on gender. Presently, we lack basic information on the frequency and impact of gender microaggressions on college campuses. To address these gaps, this study aims to (1) identify past year frequencies of gender microaggressions, sexual harassment, and sexual assault for undergraduate women and (2) identify association between gender microaggressions and mental and behavioral health above and beyond sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Methods: Undergraduate women from a West coast research university participated in a cross-sectional online survey (N=220). Eligibility criteria were: 18-25 y/o, self-identification as a woman, current undergraduate enrollment at [blinded], and Fall 2017-Spring 2018 enrollment. Participants responded to a demographic questionnaire and scales for gender microaggressions (validated for current study), depression, stress, posttraumatic stress, school avoidance, and alcohol use. Frequency of (1) any past year experience of gender microaggressions and (2) any daily gender microaggressions in the past year was examined. In addition, frequency of any reported sexual harassment in the past year and any reported sexual assault in the past year was calculated. Multiple linear or logistic regression was used to examine the relationship between gender microaggressions and depression, stress, posttraumatic stress, school avoidance, and unhealthy alcohol use. Sexual harassment and sexual assault were controlled for in all models. Demographic variables with significant bivariate relationships with independent or dependent variables were included as control variables.

Results: Nearly all participants reported at least one gender microaggressions experience in the past academic year (99.6%, n=219) and the majority reported daily or almost daily experiences (54.1%, n=119). Sexual harassment was also experienced by most of the sample (87.3%, n=192), with sexual assault experienced less frequently (37.7%, n=83). Gender microaggressions had a significant positive relationship to depression (β=0.19, p<.001), stress (β=0.92, p<.001), posttraumatic stress (Adjusted Odds Ratio [AOR]=2.27, p<.01), school avoidance (β=1.50, p<.001) and unhealthy alcohol use (AOR=1.52, p<.05) when controlling for sexual harassment, sexual assault, and relevant demographic variables.

Conclusion: This study found that gender microaggressions were nearly universal, with most undergraduate women experiencing them daily. While less pervasive, sexual harassment was also reported by most of the sample and sexual assault reported in more than one third. These findings are a first step in raising awareness regarding gender microaggressions ubiquity. Gender microaggressions were significantly associated with adverse mental and behavioral health outcomes above and beyond sexual harassment and sexual assault, suggesting these chronic stressors warrant further study and may be an important target for primary prevention efforts aimed at creating more gender inclusive campuses.