The Ties that Bind: Lasting Effects of Sexual Abuse
There are many forms of sexual abuse. It can range from seduction by a relative to violent acts committed by a stranger. Maltz (2002) gives the following definition “sexual abuse occurs whenever one person dominates and exploits another by means of sexual activity or suggestion” (Maltz, 2002. p. 321). Sexual abuse has many long term lasting effects, often carrying over into adulthood.
Survivors may experience higher levels of depression, shame, self-blame, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual problems, and relationship problems.
Depression is the most common long-term symptom of sexual abuse amongst survivors. Survivors may have difficulty externalizing the abuse, thus leads to negative thinking about themselves. Often this negative thinking leads to feelings of worthlessness and avoidance of others due to feelings that they have nothing to offer in a relationship.
Survivors also experience feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame. When the sexual abuse was done by a trusted adult or someone they know, it may be hard to view the abuser in a negative light, thus leaving survivor to feel as if the abuse was ‘their fault’ and take personal responsibility. In actuality, IT IS NEVER THE SURVIVORS FAULT! Even if during the abuse the survivor reached a climax; it is the body’s natural response.
Body issues and eating disorders have also been cited as long-term effects of sexual abuse. This can be caused by the survivor having feelings of being dirty, ugly, dissatisfaction with body appearance, eating disorders, and obesity. Distress from the abuse may also cause somatic symptoms such as pelvic pain, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and difficulty swallowing.
Stress and anxiety are also often long-term effects of sexual abuse. Survivors often experience chronic anxiety, tension, panic attacks, and phobias. Certain smells, places, or items from the time of the abuse may often times cause the survivor to have what is called a flashback. This is when the certain smell, place, or item causes the survivor to have a sudden and disturbing vivid memory of an event in the past, typically as the result of psychological trauma. Sexual abuse can result in symptoms comparable to symptoms from war-related trauma.
Some survivors may have dissociated (gone away in their mind) to protect themselves from experiencing the sexual abuse. Often times as adults this coping mechanism continues when they feel unsafe or threatened. Dissociation for survivors may include feelings of confusion, feelings of disorientation, nightmares, and difficulty experiencing feelings. Denial and repression of the abuse is also a long-term effect of sexual abuse. Survivors often experience amnesia concerning parts of their childhood, negating the effects and impact of the abuse and feelings that they should forget about the abuse. Sexual abuse can cause enough trauma that the victim forgets or represses the experience as a coping mechanism.
Survivors of sexual abuse may also experience in establishing interpersonal relationships. Sexual abuse may hinder the development and growth of healthy relationships. Common relationship difficulties survivors may experience include difficulty establishing trust, fear of intimacy, fear of being different or weird, difficulty establishing interpersonal boundaries, passive behaviors (co-dependency), and getting involved in abusive relationships. The abuse is often initiated by someone the victim loves and trusts, which breaks trust and may result in the victim believing that people they love will hurt them.
The long-term effects of the abuse may also cause sexual difficulties. The survivor may experience avoiding, fearing, or lacking interest in sex; approaching sex as an obligation; experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust or guilt with touch; having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation; feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex; experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts or images; engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors; and difficulties establishing or maintaining intimate relationships.
Survivors often seek help with individual symptoms without addressing the abuse itself, usually because the abuse itself has been repressed, encouraged not to be talked about, or dismissed. It is vital that survivors’ process, uncover, and express their feelings surrounding the abuse. This helps them feel empowered, appropriately attribute responsibility, establish boundaries, and promotes self-efficiency and power.
If the survivor is in a long-term, committed relationship, it is important for their partner to also become educated about the long-term effects of the abuse and learn ways they can actively participate in the healing process.
Maltz, W. (2002). Treating the sexual intimacy concerns of sexual abuse survivors. Sexual and
Relationship Therapy, 17(4), 321-327.