Sexual Abuse affects every person differently. The impact it has on a victim depends on a variety of factors- such as the individual’s personality, the nature of the abuse itself, the identity of the abuser, and how long it persisted. For some survivors of sexual abuse, they are able to go on to lead productive lives without suffering from too much distress. For others, the trauma of sexual abuse stays with them into adulthood, and can be devastating. The effects can become cyclical, chronic, debilitating, and sometimes fatal.
Effects on Children
(Reprinted with permission from the American Psychiatric Association)
Children and adolescents who have been sexually abused can suffer a range of psychological and behavioral problems, from mild to severe, in both the short and long term. These problems typically include depression, anxiety, guilt, fear, sexual dysfunction, withdrawal, and acting out. Depending on the severity of the incident, victims of sexual abuse may also develop fear and anxiety regarding the opposite sex or sexual issues and may display inappropriate sexual behavior. However, the strongest indication that a child has been sexually abused is inappropriate sexual knowledge, sexual interest, and sexual acting out by that child.
The initial or short-term effects of abuse usually occur within 2 years of the termination of the abuse. These effects vary depending upon the circumstances of the abuse and the child’s developmental stage but may include regressive behaviors (such as a return to thumb-sucking or bed-wetting), sleep disturbances, eating problems, behavior and/or performance problems at school, and nonparticipation in school and social activities.
From RAINN-Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience an array of overwhelming and intense feelings. These may include feelings of fear, guilt, and shame. Abusers have been known to tell children that it is the fault of the child that they are abused, shifting the blame away from the abuser, where it belongs, and placing it on the child. Along with this, abusers may threaten or bribe the child into not speaking up; convincing the child that he or she will never be believed.i The reaction of a survivor’s friends and family to the disclosure of the abuse also has the potential to trigger immense feelings of guilt, shame and distrust, particularly if those individuals denied that the abuse was taking place, or chose to ignore it.
While each individual’s experiences and reactions are unique, there are some responses to child sexual abuse that are common to many survivors:i
- Low self-esteem or self-hatred
- Survivors may suffer from depression
- Guilt, shame and blame
- Survivors may feel guilt or shame because they made no direct attempt to stop the abuse or because they experienced physical pleasure
- Sleep disturbances / disorders
- Survivors may have trouble sleeping because of the trauma, or anxiety may directly be related to the experience they had as a child; children may have been sexually abused in their own beds.
- Lack of trust for anyone
- Many survivors were betrayed by the very people they are dependent upon (family, teachers etc.) who cared for them, who insisted they loved them even while abusing them; learning to trust can be extremely difficult under these circumstances.
- 93% of victims under the age of 18 know their attacker.ii
- Many survivors as adults find themselves in abusive, dangerous situations or relationships.
- Woman who were sexually assaulted before the age of 18 [are] twice as likely to report being raped as adults.iii
- Many survivors re-experience the sexual abuse as if it were occurring at that moment, usually accompanied by visual images of the abuse. These flashes of images are often triggered by an event, action, or even a smell that is reminiscent of the sexual abuse of the abuser.
- Many survivors go through a process where the mind distances itself from the experience because it is too much for the psyche to process at the time. This loss of connection with thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of identity, is a coping mechanism and may affect aspects of a survivor’s functioning.
- Sexuality / Intimacy
- Many survivors have to deal with the fact that their first sexual encounter was a result of abuse. Such memories may interfere with the survivor’s ability to engage in sexual relationships, which may bring about feelings of fright, frustration, or being ashamed.
Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often adopt coping mechanisms (or survival strategies) to guard against feelings of terror and helplessness that they may have felt as a child. These past feelings can still have influence over the life and present behavior of an adult survivor. Here are some common coping mechanismsi:
- Grieving / Mourning
- Many things were lost — childhood experiences, trust, innocence, relationships with family members. The survivor may feel a deep sadness, jealousy, anger or longing for something they never had.
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- The abuse of substances can act as an escape from the intense waves of feelings, the terror and helplessness.
- Disordered Eating / Eating Disorders
- Compulsive control of food intake can be a way of taking back control over the body that was denied during the abuse.
- There are many ways survivors have coped with the feelings that can cause emotional or physical injury on the self. Burning or cutting are some ways for a survivor to relieve intense anxiety, triggered by memories of the abuse
In most instances, the survivor never discussed the abuse with others while it was occurring. In fact, many survivors do not remember the abuse until years after it has occurred, and may never be able to clearly recall it. Usually, after being triggered by a memory, this individual learns how, as an adult, to deal with the effects of the abuse.
It is important to speak with someone, whether it be a friend or counselor, about the abuse and past and current feelings.
Community health centers, mental health clinics and family service centers may have counselors who have worked with survivors before. They may also be able to refer you to a self-help group.
If you are an adult dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse, please remember that you are not responsible for the abuse and that you are not alone. You can overcome the effects the abuse may have on your life. Please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the Online Hotline. It’s never too late to get help.
iAdult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Dr. Carol Boulware, MFT, Ph.D. 2006. http://www.psychotherapist.net/adultsurvivors.html
iiU.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement. 2000.
iiiExtent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimization: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs: National Institute of Justice. 2006. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij
For more resources for help & healing, visit our Crisis Hotlines & National Resources page.