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OBJECTIVE: To assess differences between male and female medical students concerning their experiences of abuse during training in a large Canadian medical school. DESIGN: Voluntary, anonymous cross-sectional survey of first- and fourth-year medical students during February 1991. SETTING: University of Toronto School of Medicine. PARTICIPANTS: Of 396 first- and fourth-year students surveyed after one of their regular classes, 347 (117 women, 230 men) completed the questionnaire. INTERVENTION: A 165-item, multiple-choice questionnaire concerning experiences of verbal or emotional abuse, sexual harassment and physical abuse, completed within 30 minutes. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Differences between male and female respondents in abuse experiences before and during medical training, the relation between abuse before and during training, and the psychologic and behavioural effects of abuse during training. RESULTS: The experiences of the male and female respondents differed mainly in regard to sexual harassment: 42% (49/117) of the women and 11% (25/230) of the men reported sexual harassment before entering medical school (p < 0.0001); 46% (54/117) and 19% (43/230) respectively reported sexual harassment during medical training (p < 0.0001); and women who reported sexual harassment were the only respondents for whom a significant relation was found between abuse before and during training (p < 0.043). The women were more distressed than the men by all forms of abuse. A significant relation was shown between male students who reported experiencing abuse during medical training and mistreating patients (p < 0.0001). CONCLUSION: Female students' experiences of sexual harassment differed from those of their male counterparts. As well, the female students' reactions to and ways of coping with all types of abuse differed from those of the male students.