The Effects of Coercive Sexual Environments on the Mental Health of Adults and Youth in Washington, DC, Public Housing

The Effects of Coercive Sexual Environments on the Mental Health of Adults and Youth in Washington, DC, Public Housing
Susan J. Popkin, Janine Zweig, Nan Astone, Reed Jordan (Urban Institute), Chantal Hailey (New York University), Leah Gordon (Oregon Health & Science University), Jay Silverman (University of California, San Diego School of Medicine)
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Popkin and colleagues examined the relationship between coercive sexual environments (CSEs) and poor mental health outcomes for adults and youth living in public housing in Washington, DC. A sample of 134 adults and 79 youth were surveyed, and additional data was included from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development‘s Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing (MTO) and Housing Opportunities and Services Together (MOST). Surveys, accompanied by computer-assisted telephone interviewing, were conducted in 2013 at the Washington, DC, Benning Terrace public housing development. The three hypotheses tested were (1) the association between CSEs and poor mental health, (2) this link persists despite neighborhood quality, and (3) CSEs have a greater effect on adolescent girls than boys. The variables for mental health were measured in adults as anxiety, worry, and depression and in youth as short-term anxiety, long-term anxiety, and worry. The neighborhood measures included exposure to violence, youth victimization, exposure to neighborhood social disorder, and perceptions of trust and engagement. Individual measures were age, union status, and employment. Contrary to the initial hypothesis, CSEs do not adversely affect adolescent girls more than boys. However, the study illustrates that CSEs and mental health are most closely related to social disorder in the neighborhood, and results point to community-level targeted interventions to improve conditions.

 Key findings:

  • Ninety-seven percent of the adult survey respondents were unmarried, low-income African American women with an average age of 40. The youth respondents were on average 15 years old.
  • Of the youth survey respondents, 86.1 percent saw someone shoot or stab another person, and 79.7 percent had heard gunshots at least once.
  • On average, adult respondents perceived one or more coercive sexual actions (e.g., rape, men or boys hurting women or girls, neighborhood exposure to transactional sex and sexual advances) as a problem. On average, youth were exposed to at least one coercive sexual action in the past year.
  • The perception of CSEs resulted in increased anxiety, worry, and depression in adults and increased short-term anxiety and worry in youth.
  • CSEs did not have more negative effects on mental health for girls over boys.
  • CSE perception and mental health is more closely related to social disorder than any other neighborhood quality.
  • The study’s limitations were that it was cross-sectional, the small sample size, all respondents were from one public housing development and were predominantly women, and other factors such as excluding gender minorities.