When growing up, many of us probably had a fairytale perspective of what love as well as what our sexual experiences would be like. As we grow old and become more educated, we learn that love as well as sex may have a dark side. According to chapter nine of Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach, Arnett (2017) says that two of the problems that arise in sexual interactions are sexual harassment as well as sexual coercion.
Sexual harassment includes a wide range of sexual behaviors related to sexuality such as name-calling, jokes, unwanted touching, or sexual contact. Sexual coercion is an act of sexual aggression in which a person is forced by a romantic partner, date, or acquaintance to have sexual relations against their will. Arnett (2017) goes as far as to assert that rates of sexual harassment in adolescence are strikingly high with about 20% of boys and 25% to 75% of girls reporting that they have been harassed. Studies also show that one-third of boys and nearly half of girls report sexual coercion (281-282). In this paper, I would like to focus on the mental health effects of sexual misconduct and discrimination and how it is paired with the functional areas of Title IX and health and counseling at colleges and universities.
According to Mental Health America (2017), sexual assault can have a variety of short- and long-term effects on a victim’s mental health. Sexual assault can cause depression, contemplation of suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, eating disorders, as well as substance abuse (i.e. alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and other major drugs). Many survivors of sexual assault and misconduct report having experiences such as flashbacks, being in shock, experiencing confusion, as well as feeling guilt. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2018) says that there are physical, psychological, and social consequences that stem from sexual assault. Sexual assault survivors can face both immediate and chronic psychological consequences which include withdrawal, shame, nervousness, self-blame/low self- esteem, diminished interest/avoidance of sex, distrust of others and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as emotional detachment sleep disturbances, and mental replay of the assault. Some of the social consequences include strained relationships with family, friends, and intimate partners, less emotional support from friends and family, less frequent contact with friends and relatives, lower likelihood of marriage, and isolation or ostracism from family or community. According to Schwitzer et al. (2018), mental health needs have the potential to interfere with a young person’s educational success and high levels of psychological distress during the college years, personal problems, and problematic behavioral health issues have all been associated with declines in academic performance.
According to Arnett (2017), Erik Erikson’s theory of human development asserts that each period of life is characterized by a distinctive development crisis or issue. According to McLeod (2018), in Erikson’s theory there are eight stages; (1) Trust vs. Mistrust ( Infancy- 18 months), (2) Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt (18 months- 3 years), (3) Initiative vs. Guilt (3-5 years), (4) Industry vs. Inferiority (5- 13 years), (5) Identity vs. Role Confusion (13-21 years), (6) Intimacy vs. Isolation (21-39 years), (7) Generativity vs. Stagnation (40-65 years), and (8) Ego Integrity vs. Despair (65+). Erikson believed that personality developed in a predetermined order and that each stage builds upon the previous. In this theory, if an individual successfully completes a stage then they have acquired a basic virtue as well as healthy personality characteristics; however, if they do not successfully complete a stage, it can affect how they go through other stages and can result in unhealthy personality characteristics and a poor sense of self (McLeod, 2018).
In adolescence, the crisis is identity versus identity confusion. This is where adolescents (ages 11-18) may either follow the healthy path where they establish a clear and definite sense of who they are and how they fit into the world around them, or they follow the unhealthy alternative of failing to form a stable and secure identity. The key areas in which identity is formed are love, work and ideology (Erikson, 1968). According to Erikson, if you are not able to establish commitment in these areas then that is identity confusion. Erikson says that two identities are involved in the identity vs. role confusion stage- the sexual and occupational. According to Bee (1992), the adolescent should have a reintegrated sense of self by the end of this stage and they should also be aware of their appropriated sex role while also experiencing changes in body image.
It is estimated that one in three women and one in seven men during their college years will face sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault (Warshaw, 1994). This means that we are bound to have survivors of sexual assault or misconduct on our campus. Many times the identity of these individuals is hidden by the shame, self-doubt, fear, guilt or societal blame that they feel. Sometimes it may be hard for them to develop who they are because of society’s feelings towards them. Sometimes they are pitied but sometimes society casts blame on these individuals as they think that they must have done something to make this happen to them (i.e. wore inappropriate clothes, flirted too much with the accused, or did not make it clear that they did not want to have sex). Many survivors may withdraw from going places or connecting with others because of their fear. In a college environment, that can prevent these young adults from meeting new people, networking, and attending events to gain more knowledge or finding the things that interest them.
I know for me, I learned that I wanted to be a student affairs administrator because of the clubs and organizations I was a part of during my undergraduate experience as well as the events I attended. For someone who was a victim of sexual assault or misconduct, they may not have these opportunities for interaction and exploration because of the fear they experience. With what was done to them, survivors may have a hard time establishing their sex roles or seeing their identity outside of being a survivor. We have to think about college students who were sexually abused before college or at a young age. Infants who are sexually abused have difficulty developing trust and this affects their ability to relate to people. Preschool age children who are abused may become inhibited and unable to act in a natural manner or in a relaxed way. School age children are likely to struggle with feelings of inferiority. For adolescents, the crucial task is developing identity but they are likely to struggle with role confusion after being thrust in sexual pattern roles for which they are not ready. These behaviors can then follow them to college and affect their overall adjustment and future.
I believe that sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexual misconduct/discrimination can affect the sixth stage of Erikson’s theory which is Intimacy versus Isolation. During this stage, which is a central crisis of young adulthood, there is a focus on creating intimate, loving relationships and sharing ourselves ultimately with other people. In this stage we explore making a long-term commitment to people other than our family members. The alternative is becoming isolated as a consequence of being unable to form enduring intimate relationships. This means that a young adult unites their newly formed identity with another person (Arnett, 2017). Seeing that sexual assault involves unwanted sexual contact and inappropriate exposure, survivors of sexual abuse can have difficulty with intimate relationships. There could then be discomfort with being touched, difficulty in trusting someone, feeling distress, shame or guilt about a sexual.