Somatic Psychology

Bridging the mind-body gap

Trauma: Childhood Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Susanne Babbel, PHD LMFT, Trauma: Childhood Sexual Abuse
There are various types of traumatic events that can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Sexual abuse is a particularly sinister type of trauma because of the shame it instills in the victim. With childhood sexual abuse, victims are often too young to know how to express what is happening and seek out help. When not properly treated, this can result in a lifetime of PTSD, depression and anxiety.

The trauma that results from sexual abuse is a syndrome that affects not just the victim and their family, but all of our society. Because sexual abuse, molestation and rape are such shame-filled concepts, our culture tends to suppress information about them.

According to childtrauma.org, in the U.S. one out of three females and one out of five males have been victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18 years. And according to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (AAETS), 30% of all male children are molested in some way, compared to 40% of females.

Some of the most startling statistics unearthed during research into sexual abuse are that children are three times as likely to be victims of rape than adults, and stranger abuse constitutes by far the minority of cases. It is more likely for a child to experience sexual abuse at the hands of a family member or another supposedly trustworthy adult.

Sexual abuse is a truly democratic issue. It affects children and adults across ethnic, socioeconomic, educational, religious, and regional lines.

Susanne Babbel, PHD LMFT, Trauma: Childhood Sexual Abuse
Exactly what constitutes “sexual abuse”?
The Incest Survivors Resource Network states that "the erotic use of a child, whether physically or emotionally, is sexual exploitation in the fullest meaning of the term, even if no bodily contact is ever made." It’s important to notice this clause about “no sexual contact.” Often, victims of sexual abuse will try to downplay their experience by saying that it “wasn’t that bad.” It’s vital to recognize that abuse comes in many shapes, colors and sizes and that all abuse is bad.

Outcomes of sexual abuse
By far the most common effect of sexual abuse is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Symptoms can extend far into adulthood and can include withdrawn behavior, reenactment of the traumatic event, avoidance of circumstances that remind one of the event, and physiological hyper-reactivity.

Another legacy of sexual abuse is that children abused at any early age often become hyper-sexualized or sexually reactive. Issues with promiscuity and poor self-esteem are unfortunately common reactions to early sexual abuse.

Substance abuse is a common outcome of sexual abuse. In fact, according to the AAETS, “specialists in the addiction field (alcohol, drugs and eating disorders) estimate that up to 90 percent of their patients have a known history of some form of abuse.” 

Specific symptoms of sexual abuse:
(citation, the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress)

  • Withdrawal and mistrust of adults
  • Suicidality
  • Difficulty relating to others except in sexual or seductive ways
  • Unusual interest in or avoidance of all things sexual or physical
  • Sleep problems, nightmares, fears of going to bed
  • Frequent accidents or self-injurious behaviors
  • Refusal to go to school, or to the doctor, or home
  • Secretiveness or unusual aggressiveness
  • Sexual components to drawings and games
  • Neurotic reactions (obsessions, compulsiveness, phobias)
  • Habit disorders (biting, rocking)
  • Unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
  • Prostitution
  • Forcing sexual acts on other children
  • Extreme fear of being touched
  • Unwillingness to submit to physical examination

Studies have shown that children who experience sexual abuse tend to recover quicker and with better results if they have a supportive, caring adult (ideally a parent) consistently in their life.

It’s crucial for every victim of sexual abuse to seek counseling to decrease or to prevent PTSD symptoms. Since 35% of child sexual abusers (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11731348) were once abused (higher in males), counseling might also help to reduce the possibility of a victim repeating the abusive pattern.

 

Susanne Babbel, Ph.D., M.F.T., is a psychologist specializing in trauma and depression.

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