The Consequences and Effects of Sexual Abuse on Children
Sexual abuse effects on children and youth can be evident in emotional, physical and behavioural ways. These effects can be just as devastating whether there was only one occurrence or there were repeated occurrences. Sexual abuse cannot be compared, because each abuse experience is unique.
Children are vulnerable to sexual abuse because of their age, size and innocence. When a child or youth is molested, she/he learns that adults cannot be trusted for care and protection: well-being is disregarded, and there is a lack of support and protection. These lead to grief, depression, extreme dependency, inability to judge trustworthiness in others, mistrust, anger and hostility. And as if all that isn’t enough, children’s bodies often respond to the sexual abuse, bringing on shame and guilt.
Points to consider
- Children/youth are unable to protect themselves and stop the abuse.
- Children/youth are susceptible to force.
- Children/youth are susceptible to the use of trickery by offenders.
- Often times, children/youth have no control over their own bodies.
- All too often, children/youth are unable to make others believe them.
The above factors lead to
- A sense of inadequacy
- The need to control situations and others
- A perception of self as victim
- Identification with the aggressor
Factors That Influence Sexual Abuse Effects
- Miraculously, not all children or youth molestation victims display signs that something is wrong.
- Fact: Between 21% and 36% of sexually abused children will display few or no symptoms (Oates, O’Toole, Lynch, Stern & Cooney, 1994(1))
- Why do some victims display a multitude of emotional and behavioural effects, while others display few or none? In spite of few or no outward symptoms, child and youth victims do suffer emotionally. These emotional effects come in varying degrees, depending on the following six factors:
- The nature of the relationship between the victim and the offender
- The closer the emotional relationship, the greater the emotional trauma.
- The age of the child when the abuse began and the duration of the sexual relationship
- An ongoing sexual relationship with repeated contacts is generally more traumatic and usually produces more sexual abuse effects than a single contact.
- The type of sexual activity the victim is exposed to
- Sexual acts involving strictly non-contact sexual abuse appears less traumatic than sexual acts that involve contact. It is important to note, however, that trauma and the sexual abuse effects are still very real when any type of sexual abuse occurs.
- For an excellent discussion written by Colette Dowling, M.S.W. about sexual abuse in school girls, check out www.womens-wellbeing-and-mental-health.com. Colette is an internationally renown lecturer and author of eight books, including her best-seller The Cinderella Complex, which has been in print for 25 years.
- The degree of physical aggression directed at the victim
- Violence adds to the trauma of the abuse. Being physically abused, having a mother who is mentally ill, not having someone to confide in, and being socially isolated are significant predictors for childhood sexual abuse (Fleming, Mullen & Bammer, 1997(2)).
- The response the victim receives when she/he discloses the abuse
- Healing is apparent when a disclosure is met with compassion and is followed with effective intervention; if the victim is met with skepticism and accusations, anger, or no response at all when she/he discloses, the sexual abuse effects are compounded.
The availability of a supportive person in the victim’s life
A caring, loving, nurturing, and listening person in the victim’s life lessens the trauma; a lack of a supportive person intensifies the abuse and leaves the victim feeling even more lonely, helpless, and unworthy.
Emotional and Physical Sexual Abuse Effects – Molested children suffer many losses, including:
- Self-esteem and self-worth
- Childhood, including the opportunity to play and learn
- The opportunity for normal growth and development
- Control over his/her body
- Normal loving and nurturing
- Safety and security
Behavioural Sexual Abuse Effects –
- Nightmares, phobias, and regressive behaviours such as thumb-sucking and bed-wetting
- Learning problems
- Clinging and smothering
- Insecurity, which put the child at risk for further abuse and exploitation
- Psychosomatic complaints such as stomach-aches and headaches
- Precocious sexual activity–a young child knows more than they should about sexual activity; child may exhibit seductive behaviour
- 1. Fact: 17% of abused children exhibit age inappropriate sexual behaviour (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.28 (3)).
- 2. Fact: Of the sexual abuse effects exhibited, sexualized behaviour is the most consistent indicator of sexual abuse (Cavanagh Johnson et. al., 1995, pp.50-51 (4)).
With young children, a preoccupation with sexual organs of self, parents and others–often this shows itself in language and art
Aggression and bullying behaviours
3. Fact: 14% of abused children exhibit behaviour problems (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.28 (5)).
sudden changes in eating and/or sleeping habits
depression and anxiety
4. Fact: 29% of abuse children exhibit depression or anxiety (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.28 (6)).
Refusal to change clothes in front of others
Obsessively good behaviour
Obsessed with cleanliness
5. Fact: 13% of abused children exhibit negative peer involvement (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.28 (7)).
Unwillingness to participate in social activities
6. Fact: 85% of runaways in Toronto have been sexually abused(Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending, 2000 (8)).
Truancy / long absence from school
7. Fact: 10% of abused children have irregular school attendance (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.28 (9)).
Long absence from participation in extracurricular activities
Dissociation–a child’s existence is dependent on his/her ability to separate from the pain, which, in the most repulsive cases, may result in multiple personalities
Risky behaviours such as firestarting, stealing and other delinquencies
Alcohol and drug abuse
8. Fact: According to the Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending (2000 (10)), sexual abuse effects on children with a history of molestation reflect that they are seven times more likely to become drug/alcohol dependent
9. Fact: In a sexual abuse effects study of 938 adolescents admitted to residential, therapeutic communities for the treatment of substance abuse and related disorders, 64% of the girls and 24% of the boys reported histories of sexual abuse (Hawke, Jainchill, & DeLeon, 2000, pp.35-47(11)).
Self-harm, including cutting and burning
10. Fact: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the sexual abuse effects that plague sexually abused children and adult survivors of child abuse. Symptoms experienced are similar to those experienced by Vietnam veterans and may include sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression, which negatively impact on their daily psychosocial functioning and for which many seek professional help (Wiehe, 1998, p.50 (12)).
Preoccupation with sex
Compulsive and aggressive sexual behaviours
Self-destructive sexual behaviour and prostitution
11. Fact: 98% of female street youth in British Columbia reported being victims of physical or sexual abuse as compared to 32% of female youths in schools. 59% of male street youth reported being victims of physical or sexual abuse as compared to 15% of male youth in schools (Beauvais et al., 2001, p.62 (13)).
In adulthood, sexual dysfunction–avoidance of or phobic reactions to sexual intimacy
Becomes the abuser
12. Fact: Studies done by Haywood, Kravitz, Wasyliw, Goldberg and Cavanaugh in 1996 reflect some disturbing sexual abuse effects. The study found that the odds of becoming a child molester were 5.43 times greater for adult male victims of childhood sexual abuse than for adult male non-victims (Lee, Jackson, Pattison, & Ward, 2002, p.88 (14)).
Attempted and completed suicide
13. Fact: Children with a history of sexual molestation are ten times more likely to attempt suicide (Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending, 2000 (15)).
Sexual abuse effects on the child or youth are connected to the child/youth’s life before, during and after the sexual contact. We must understand that the effects apply every bit as much to the disclosure and intervention as it does to the abuse itself. Sexual abuse effects continue long after the abuse stops.
(1) Oates, K., O’Toole, B., Lynch, D., Stern, A., & Cooney, G. (1994). Stability and change in outcomes for sexually abused children. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 33(7), 945-953.
(2) Fleming, J., Mullen, P., & Bammer, G. (1997). A study of potential risk factors for sexual abuse in childhood. Child Abuse & Neglect, 21(1), 49-58.
(3) Trocme, N., & Wolfe, D. (2001). Child maltreatment in Canada: Canadian incidence study of reported child abuse and neglect: Selected results. Ottawa: National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Health Canada.
(4) Cavanagh Johnson, T. & Friend, C. (1995). Assessing young children’s sexual behaviours in the context of child sexual abuse evaluations, In T. Ney (Eds.), True and False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: Assessment and Case Management (pp.49-72). New York: Brunner/Mazel.
(5), (6), (7) Trocme, N., & Wolfe, D. (2001). Child maltreatment in Canada: Canadian incidence study of reported child abuse and neglect: Selected results. Ottawa: National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Health Canada.
(8) Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending. (2000). Working together for children: Protection and prevention data needs for timely intervention. Paper presented in Toronto, Ontario.
(9) Trocme, N., & Wolfe, D. (2001). Child maltreatment in Canada: Canadian incidence study of reported child abuse and neglect: Selected results. Ottawa: National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Health Canada.
(10) Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending. (2000). Working together for children: Protection and prevention data needs for timely intervention. Paper presented in Toronto, Ontario.
(11) Hawke, J., Jainchill, N., & DeLeon, G. (2000). School professionals’ attributions of blame for child sexual abuse. Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse, 9(3), 35-47.
(12) Wiehe, V. (1998). Understanding family violence: Treating and preventing partner, child, sibling and elder abuse. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.
(13) Beauvais, C., McKay, L., & Seddon, A. (2001). A literature review on youth and citizenship. Canadian Policy Research Network Discussion Paper No. CPRN/02., 50.
(14) Lee, J., Jackson, H., Pattison, P., & Ward, T. (2002, January 26). Developmental risk factors for sexual offending. Child Abuse and Neglect, 26(1), 73-92.
(15) Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending. (2000). Working together for children: Protection and prevention data needs for timely intervention. Paper presented in Toronto, Ontario.
Consequences of Child Sexual Abuse
(Source: Prevent Child Abuse America, www.preventchildabuse.org
- The physical signs of child sexual abuse are often inconspicuous since most perpetrators avoid physically harming their victims so they can repeat the activities over time. Because of this dynamic and the fact that children generally disclose long after the last contact, few children will have diagnostic findings. Child sexual abuse can be very different from rape where force and restraint are used and signs of injury are generally present. (1)
- When children are injured as a result of sexual contact they may present with vaginal or rectal bleeding, genital pain, itching, swelling, or discharge; difficulty with bowel movements, painful urinating, recurring complaints of stomach-aches and/or headaches. Few children present with extra-genital trauma to the breasts, buttocks, lower abdomen or extremities. (2) Children can contract sexually transmitted diseases or become pregnant as a result of sexual abuse. (3)
- Behavioural and emotional consequences/warning signs include extreme changes in behaviour (loss of appetite, eating disorder, withdrawal, aggressiveness); disturbed sleep patterns or a sudden fear of the dark; regression to infantile behaviour; multiple personality disorders; and delinquent behaviour or a fall of grades in school. (4) Additional indicators may include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, heightened startle response, poor concentration, and hyper vigilance, and in some cases the child may appear depressed, withdrawn, or lethargic. (5) Children will commonly respond to their victimization with sexualized behaviours and/or age inappropriate knowledge of sexual activities. (6)
- Long-term consequences of sexual abuse include a chronic self-perception of helplessness, hopelessness, depression, impaired trust, self-blame, self-destructive behaviour, and low self-esteem. (7)
- Other long-term consequences of child sexual abuse include:
- Increased likelihood of teen pregnancy: In one study, men who were sexually abused at aged 10 or younger were 80 percent more likely than non-abused men to later impregnate a teenage girl.(8)
- Increased likelihood of homelessness: A study of homeless people found that many of them, especially homeless women, reported serious family problems or a history of sexual or physical abuse as children that predisposed them to homelessness as an adult. (9)
- Increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse: Research indicates that repeated sexual abuse causes physical changes that may lead to drug and alcohol abuse later in life. (10)
(1)Finkel, M.A., Giardino, A.P. (2001). Medical Evaluation of Child Sexual Abuse: A Practical Guide,Sage Publications: Newbury Park, Ca].
(3) Prevent Child Abuse America. (1999). Fact Sheet: Child Sexual Abuse. Available online at:
Ryther Child Center. (2002). Recognizing Sexual Abuse of Children: A Guide for Parents andCaregivers. Available online at www.ryther.org/resources.htm
(5) Whitman, B. (2002). Psychological and psychitaric issues. In A.P Giardino & E.R. Giardino (Eds.),Recognition of Child Abuse by the Mandated Reporter, Third Edition. St. Louis: G.W. Medical Publishing.
(7)Massachusetts Citizens for Children. (April, 2001). A State Call to Action: Working to End ChildAbuse and Neglect in Massachusetts.
(9) Bassuk, E. L. & Rosenberg, L. (1989). Why does family homelessness occur? A case control study.American Journal of Public Health, 78: 783-788.
(10) Harrison, P.A., et al. (1989). Differential drug use patterns among sexually abused adolescent girls in treatment for chemical dependency. The International Journal of Addictions, 24 (6): 499-514.Groenveld, J. & Shain, M. (1989). Drug Use among Victims of Physical and Sexual Abuse: A
Preliminary Report. Addiction Research Foundation. Miller, B.A., et al. (1987). The role of childhood sexual abuse in the development of alcoholism in women. Violence and Victims, 2 (3): 157-172.