An Overview of Childhood Sexual Abuse

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Childhood sexual abuse is one of the most stigmatized issues in society and is recognized as a violation of basic human rights and a serious public health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines child sexual abuse as “any completed or attempted (noncompleted) sexual act, sexual contact with, or exploitation (i.e., noncontact sexual interaction) of a child by a caregiver.”

The prevalence of childhood sexual abuse can be difficult to accurately measure since it is underreported. Acknowledging a personal history of abuse takes enormous courage. Nonetheless, this first step is necessary in order to begin the journey towards healing. With enough time, the right tools, and proper support, it is possible to move forward in a healthy way beyond the trauma of childhood abuse.

If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor. If you are a victim of sexual assault, you can reach the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Childhood Abuse Statistics

The American Psychological Association shares heartbreaking statistics on the risk factors for abuse. Although victims are never to blame, some situations are associated with a higher likelihood of abuse, including:

  • Parents or caregivers who witnessed violence as children, or who struggle with substance abuse currently, may end up perpetuating a cycle of abuse.
  • Single-parent homes, or families living in poverty with limited social supports, may be more vulnerable to sexual predators.
  • Infants and toddlers are at higher risk of maltreatment, while children between ages 7 and 13 are at the highest risk of childhood sexual abuse.

People from all walks of life are potential victims of abuse. Any time a predator sees an open opportunity, there is a risk of abuse. With sexual, verbal, or physical abuse, the perpetrators often exhibit a pattern of behavior called grooming. This is a strategy of "mixing positive behaviors with elements of abuse." Grooming intends to desensitize victims to the natural defenses against abusive behavior. Feelings of shame, secrecy, guilt, and confusion associated with abuse can make it difficult for victims to recognize the behavior while it's happening.

Effects of Sexual Abuse

Mentally blocking out memories of past trauma is a psychological defense known as dissociation. Because they are so emotionally painful, recollections of abuse are often buried deep. Difficulty recalling childhood memories may be an indicator of past exposure to trauma. Therapy can help survivors develop a better sense of clarity about the things that happened during childhood.

If you suspect something may have happened to you as a child but you aren't quite sure, seeking treatment can help you to gain a better understanding.

For adults, the consequences of childhood sexual abuse can manifest in various ways. Abuse in childhood is disproportionately linked to future substance use, depression, domestic violence, and suicidal thoughts later in life. Sex addiction and sexual anorexia are also more likely in victims of abuse. In some individuals, food addiction and other eating disorders may also be triggered by sexual abuse.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also a common side-effect of childhood sexual abuse. PTSD may then lead to family and relationship issues in adulthood. Despite these barriers, there is help available to overcome the many challenges that survivors face.

Getting Help

If you struggle with dissociation, addiction, unhealthy sexual habits, PTSD, or complicated food issues, therapy can help you identify the underlying causes, including a possible history of abuse. Talking to your doctor about a treatment plan may include a referral to a mental health specialist.

Trauma-focused treatments for childhood sexual abuse may include the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). To help manage the related consequences, like depression or addiction, medication may also be recommended.

A Word From Verywell

With the right tools and support, recovery from childhood trauma is possible. Sexual abuse at any age is a very confusing and isolating experience. Victims of abuse are not responsible for the actions of their abusers. Everyone deserves to live a life of freedom and recovery after a painful past. As an adult, coming to terms with our personal histories can prompt the pursuit of treatment and help us discover a brighter future for ourselves.

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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Murray LK, Nguyen A, Cohen JA. Child sexual abuse. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2014;23(2):321-37. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.003

  2. Child sexual abuse statistics. National Center for Victims of Crime. Published 2011.

  3. Understanding dissociation. Help for Adult Victims of Child Abuse. Published 2014.

  4. Understanding and preventing child abuse and neglect. American Psychological Association. Published 2019.

Additional Reading
  • Samsel, M. Grooming. Abuse and Relationships. Copyright 2008-2018.