Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse
As survivors speak out about childhood sexual abuse, our society becomes more open to hearing other people’s stories. Still, childhood sexual assault continues to occur in religious institutions, schools, athletics, and scouting. Mental health and medical professionals estimate that 8% to 20% of children experience sexual assault. Experiencing abuse can change how a person thinks, acts, and feels for the rest of their life.
What Is Childhood Sexual Abuse?
When an authority figure abuses their relationship with a child for sexual gratification, it is sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not limited to physical touching and includes a range of actions such as:
- Showing a child pornography,
- Engaging in exhibitionism,
- Taking pictures of a child to get sexual pleasure from them later,
- Asking a child to have sex or work as a prostitute, and
- Talking to a child in a sexual way in person, over the phone, or on the internet.
In the United States, as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys are sexually abused. Regardless of how common sexual abuse is, it is never the child’s fault.
Telling someone about the abuse is often an ongoing, incremental process rather than a one-time occurrence. Survivors commonly delay reporting, often into adulthood. The barriers to disclosure, such as the fear of not being believed, lack of trusted adults to tell, fear of social rejection, the power dynamics between child and perpetrator or child and an institution, and the trauma from the abuse, continue to have long-term effects that continue into adulthood.
What Are Common Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Adulthood?
Childhood sexual abuse affects a survivor’s mind, body, and social life into adulthood. The studies on the effects of childhood sexual abuse highlight the most common long-term impacts. . But just because a symptom or condition is common doesn’t mean it will happen to you. Each survivor’s experience is unique, and you may or may not experience some or all of the adverse effects.
Long-Term Effects on Mental Health
Childhood sexual abuse often involves the abuser forming a relationship with a child and manipulating the child’s trust for sexual gratification. Abusers may convince the child that sexual activities are normal or expected. Psychologists call this tactic gaslighting. Gaslighting causes the child to question what they know to be true. This manipulation results in self-doubt, depression, and anxiety, especially when a child believes the abuse is their fault. Emotions like guilt, shame, and self-blame impact a person’s self worth into adulthood, causing long-term conditions such as:
- Depression and anxiety,
- Negative self-esteem and self worth,
- Eating disorders,
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
- Dissociation, and
Regardless of the emotions or feelings involved at the time, sexual conduct between an adult and child is always harmful and wrong.
Long-Term Effects on Behavior and Social Life
Childhood sexual assault has lasting, negative effects on social development and relationships. Common psychosocial impacts of childhood sexual abuse include:
- Difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships—being used as an object to meet the needs of the abuser can make a person feel devalued and worthless, making it hard to have close relationships.
- Social challenges—survivors may have feelings of anger, shame, and despair, resulting in impulsiveness, aggression, delinquency, and hyperactivity.
- Substance abuse—people who have been sexually assaulted are 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana, 6 times more likely to use cocaine, and 10 times more likely to use other drugs.
- Challenges with healthy sexual relationships—survivors may associate sexual activity with violation and pain, causing disturbances to desire, arousal, and orgasm.
- Risky sexual behaviors—survivors are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors like unprotected sex, anonymous sex, sex with multiple partners, or sex work.
- Increased risk for suicide and self-injury—physical, sexual, and emotional abuse increased the risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts by 1.4 to 2.7 times in adulthood.
- Adult sexual re-victimization—child sexual abuse affects survivors’ development and decreases their sense of danger, creating an increased risk they will be targeted by abusers in the future.
- Sex offending—child sexual abuse survivors may think non-consensual sexual activity is normal.
The trauma and betrayal of childhood sexual assault severely impact a child’s development and understanding of the world.
Long-Term Physical Effects
As childhood sexual assault survivors age, they face long-term impacts caused by the psychological and psychosocial effects of abuse. Depression and other psychological problems survivors face can cause or increase the risk of developing chronic health conditions later in life such as:
- Autoimmune disease,
- Sleep disorders,
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
- Frequent headaches, and
- Heart disease.
Further, risky sexual behaviors associated with trauma can lead to physical injuries, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Females
RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) reports that 82% of all childhood sexual assault survivors are female. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 33% of female sexual abuse survivors show signs of a psychiatric disorder. They are also more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital and to use more health care services. Finally, girls are more likely to experience internalizing behaviors like depression and eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating.
Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Males
Boys have an arguably more difficult time with the impacts of childhood sexual assault. Society tells boys that they need to be “manly” and that they are gay if they receive pleasure from an assault. Thus, sexually abused males often experience confusion and distress about their sexuality and masculinity. They often do not view the incident as abuse. In addition to the symptoms listed above, men can often feel hostility and anger toward their abuser and social environment.
How Can a Lawsuit Help with the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse?
Statistics show the harms of childhood sexual assault are terrible and long-lasting. The legal system enables survivors to seek justice against the abuser and the organization that failed to keep them safe. Speaking publicly about your abuse can be overwhelming, but doing so serves two important purposes. First, you can find closure by taking action to expose the perpetrators. Second, sharing your story empowers others to speak out and helps end ongoing abuse. If you or your loved one experienced childhood sexual assault, contact our compassionate attorneys at Boucher LLP today to start your claim.