The Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Childhood Sexual Abuse Lasts Into Adulthood, Touching Every Aspect Of A Victim’s Life

Childhood sexual abuse has a lasting impact on a victim's physical and psychological health. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, severe and repeated trauma during youth may have enduring effects on both neurobiological and psychological development. The abuse alters stress responsivity and alters adult behavior patterns. This results in these individuals experiencing a greatly increased risk of mood, anxiety, and personality disorders throughout adult life.

Melissa Hall and Joshua Hall, authored a paper entitled The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Counseling Implications (2011). It states that childhood sexual abuse is correlated with higher levels of depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, and eating disorders. It also finds that somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual problems, and relationship problems are common.

Many of these problems last into adulthood and may result in the victim’s inability to form meaningful relationships. And to perform well at work, set boundaries or say “no,” have a healthy sex life, sleep peacefully, or relax. The guilt and shame a victim experiences is sometimes enough to drive that person to self-injure, or even attempt suicide.

Children who are sexually abused are affected at every stage of their development for their entire lives. They're not lost causes, their lives aren't over. They're not ruined because they've been sexually abused. But they will face challenges every step of the way in their lives and they will need the help and the resources to deal with those challenges. When a child is sexually abused by a person who is in a position of trust and authority, someone that they felt protected by, they lose their ability to trust their entire lives and relationships. All of the relationships that we form throughout our lives are based on trust. Sexual abuse affects a child at every stage of their development, whether it's their first date, going to the prom, deciding whether or not to get married or to have children of their own. And if they do decide to have children and it's time to bring that little boy or that little girl to school, can they trust that that school or that organization will keep their child safe and that what happened to them will never happen to their little girl or boy?

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Another psychological disorder, PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is also linked to childhood sexual abuse. The term was first used during the Vietnam War, to diagnose veterans whose wartime experiences left them with significant psychological scarring. Today, the medical community acknowledges that any sufficiently traumatic or terrifying experience—including sexual abuse—can result in PTSD. Common symptoms of PTSD and sex abuse include anxiety, “flashbacks” or vivid memories of the traumatic event, nightmares, and sleeping problems. In extreme cases, sufferers of PTSD will intentionally harm themselves or commit suicide.

Brain Damage

Childhood sexual abuse can also cause permanent brain damage in sex abuse victims. A study published in American Nurse Today (authored by Dr. Debra Rose Wilson and Mariesa R. Severson) stated that early childhood trauma actually alters the structure of the brain. Severson and Wilson reported that women who experienced childhood sexual abuse had abnormally low brain volume. Furthermore, the functionality and structure of the hippocampus differed between women who had been abused as children and women who hadn’t. The hippocampus is the part of the brain which governs memory and learning.

The brain’s basic wiring in several other areas, such as the amygdala and the prefontal cortex, was also unusual in women who had experienced childhood sex abuse. Severson and Wilson stated that the “sustained, pervasive stress response” which results from childhood sex abuse has a profound and long-lasting effect on the functioning of the immune system. As a result, the earlier, more pervasive, and more intense the abuse was, the more long-term damage a child’s brain (particularly a female’s) was likely to incur over time.


According to Hall and Hall, some victims of childhood sex abuse will even go as far as dissociate themselves or repress memories to protect their minds and emotions from further harm. Even as adults, victims will use dissociative behavior whenever they feel themselves to be in danger. From a psychological standpoint, “dissociate” means to separate or disconnect from something.

A childhood sexual abuse survivor undergoing a dissociative episode will most likely experience disorientation, confusion, anxiety, flashbacks of the abuse, bad dreams, sleeping problems, and emotional dysfunction—the inability to feel. Some psychologists believe that, out of a need to forget or repress their past trauma, adult childhood sex abuse victims may unintentionally give themselves amnesia. This causes them to forget key parts of their childhood, perhaps replacing them with less stressful and traumatic memories. The tactic of repressing thoughts and memories in order to cope with pain and trauma is well understood by psychiatrists.

Other Medical Problems

Aside from brain damage and altered brain chemistry, childhood sexual abuse has also been linked to a number of other physical problems. According to Hall and Hall, the stress of having survived a traumatic event such as childhood sexual abuse may lead to a lifetime of health problems. One study cited by Hall and Hall held that female victims of childhood sexual abuse had a tendency to report a considerably higher number of medical complaints than other women. Pelvic pain was the most common of those complaints. Also reported were problems with the digestive system, recurrent headaches, and trouble swallowing.

A Lifetime of Consequences childhood sexual abuse impact

The effects of childhood sexual abuse on the psyche are still being studied. However, it's easy to see that childhood sex abuse has a wide effect on the minds and bodies of survivors into adulthood. The consequences of childhood sexual abuse touch every aspect of victims’ lives. From their romantic and interpersonal relationships to their eating habits to their ability to do their jobs. And even their physical health. The negative effects of the abuse are intensified if the victim was especially young at the time of the abuse. Or if the abuse is protracted or pronounced.

Get the Legal Help You Deserve

If you are a sexual abuse victim, come forward before the law says that it is too late. You may be entitled to fair compensation from your attacker and the negligent institutions enabling your abuser’s actions. As we’ve seen, victims of childhood sexual abuse suffer a lifetime of physical and psychological problems from being abused. It takes time, patience, and money to treat properly. Don't bear the financial burden of trauma that someone else is responsible for. Call the law firm of Cerri, Boskovich & Allard. We have proven experience in litigating childhood sexual abuse cases. We have the financial resources required to fight for you, and you don’t pay a penny unless we win. Give us a call today at (408) 289-1417.

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