Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) affects adults in a wide range of ways. For those who have been able to tell a trusted adult about the abuse at the time it happened and for whom the abuse was then stopped and appropriate support given, damage may be minimal. However, for those who have had to keep it a secret, and/or have suffered prolonged abuse over many years-and whose nurturing environment was lacking during childhood – the consequences may range from debilitating emotional difficulties to severe mental health problems.
People are motivated to come to SEREN because they are suffering from some distressing symptoms, e.g. isolation, depression, heightened anxiety, intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, self-harm, low self-esteem, relationship difficulties and sexual problems or uncontrollable anger, to name but a few.
Here we list the common effects of CSA and there are links to other useful sites.
In their book ‘Breaking Free’, Caroline Ainscough and Kay Toon list the following as some of the possible effects of sexual abuse. People who were abused as children may suffer some, many, all or none of these. Most will have experienced some at least:
Fears, anxiety, phobias, nightmares, sleep problems, depression, shame, guilt, lack of self-confidence, feeling different from others, feeling self-conscious, feeling unable to take action or change situation, feeling dirty, excessive cleaning or washing, suicidal thoughts, self-harming, blackouts, creating different identities, eating disorders, not interested in sex, fear of sex, avoiding specific sexual activities, feeling unable to say “No” or being obsessed with sex, aggressive sexual behaviour, flashbacks, confusion about sexual orientation and identity, unable to get close to people, relationship problems, unable to love or show affection to children, alcohol problems, drug problems, being re-victimised, criminal involvement, needing to be in control, bullying, abusing others, clinging and being extremely dependent, anger, hostility, problems communicating, distrusting people, working too hard, difficulty in being able to judge people’s trustworthiness, physical problems.
With help and support it is possible to become free of the negative effects of sexual abuse.
The number and range of effects of childhood sexual abuse can seem overwhelming. SEREN has found that findings from the research work of Finklehor and others very helpful in understanding how sexual abuse can fundamentally affect a person’s life. Finklehor concluded that the effects of CSA can be categorised into four traumagenics:
• Sexual Traumatisation
She/he may feel different from other children. They must usually be secretive, which may lead to social phobia and isolation The child knows something is wrong and blames him or herself rather than others. The abuser will oft en encourage the child to feel that the abuse is his or her fault and sometimes he or she will feel a ‘bad’ person, leading to guilt, shame and lowered self-esteem and depression in adulthood.
The abuser often makes the child feel responsible for keeping the abuse a secret. Sometimes the child also feels responsible for keeping the family together and the burden of this responsibility interferes with experiencing a normal childhood
Children feel betrayed because they are dependent upon adults for nurturing and protection and the abuser is someone they should be able to love and trust. T ey may also feel betrayed by a non-off ending parent whom they feel has failed to protect them. Fear of betrayal may lead to mistrust of others and withdrawal from intimate relationships, or clingy, jealous or dependent relationships. There may be difficulties in judging the trustworthiness of others, leading to vulnerability to further abuse and exploitation.
Sadness. Children may feel grief due to a sense of loss, especially if the perpetrator was loved and trusted by the child. Depression, anger and hostility may also follow.
Children in this situation often feel that they have no control over their own lives or even over their own bodies. They feel that they have no choices available to them, which can lead to vulnerability to further victimisation.
Feeling powerless may also result in a need to control, manifesting in symptoms such as eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, aggression and violence.
Fear. The offender may swear the child to secrecy and say that if they tell, something bad will happen. Sexual abuse is usually accompanied by coercion, bribery or threats. The child is afraid to tell because of possible consequences, e.g. punishment, blame, abandonment or not being believed. Repeated experiences of fear in childhood may manifest in adulthood as heightened anxiety, including catastrophising, panic attacks, nightmares, or flashbacks.
Fear of sex. Children usually feel frightened, confused or distressed, and may also experience physical pain when they are sexually abused. Sex becomes associated with bad feelings that can continue into adulthood causing dislike and avoidance of sex, touch or intimacy. There may be difficulties in becoming aroused or reaching an orgasm. There may be experiences of flashbacks during sex.
Promiscuity. Many people abused in childhood have learnt to separate their feelings from their sexual activities. Sex becomes meaningless – it doesn’t matter. They may also be unable to say no to sexual advances
Finkelhor.D. Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research. (1984 Free Press, New York)
Herman, J. Trauma and Recovery. From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. (1992 Pandora)
Rothschild, B. The Body Remembers. The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment.(2000 W.W.Norton and Company Inc.)
Ainscough and Toon. Breaking Free Help For Survivors Of Child Sexual Abuse. (1993 Sheldon Press)
For additional information about the effects of sexual abuse see: