Childhood Sexual Abuse

Written by Joyce Plyler, M.Ed.   

To the person who has endured and survived it, childhood sexual abuse is devastating; its ramifications are far-reaching. Sexual abuse leaves deep and lasting emotional, psychological and spiritual scars. As one survivor said, “There is not one part of my life which the abuse has not affected, not one.” It has affected her ability to trust men, women and God — resulting in a mistrust of all relationships. Often clients wonder where their parents were when the abuse was going on, asking, “Why didn’t they protect me?” Often the next question is, “Why didn’t God protect me?”

Current data show that the abuser is usually someone well known by the victim: a babysitter, parent, grandparent, neighbor, sibling, relative or teacher.

Once a person is out of denial and realizes the impact that the abuse has had on his or her life, the anger can be very intense. It seems that whether the abuse is detected early in childhood or much later in life, the feelings, attitudes and behaviors tend to be very similar in nature. No matter what age one might be, the cycle of grief includes denial, anger, bargaining and depression. The loss is that of childhood innocence, in many ways, childhood itself. The abuser is a thief who steals innocence, and robs the victim of the opportunity to progress normally through childhood. This often leaves a person fixated in a child-like state.

What can be expected if someone is abused in early childhood? Much of the current research shows that if a child is sexually abused in the pre-verbal stage, multiple personalities might develop as a means of coping with the trauma of the abuse, especially if the abuse is severe. If the abuse occurs after the child is verbal and if there have not been threats from the perpetrator, the child may be able to tell someone close to them about it. Frequently, the child feels shame and a sense of responsibility for the sexual abuse. Often, an individual represses or denies the abuse until in their late 20's or 30's when faced with sexuality in new and different ways, due to dating and marriage.

Clients who have been sexually abused are often characterized by the following patterns:

°    As children they might be extremely shy and inhibited or very precocious about sexual things.

°    As adolescents, they tend to be very promiscuous, have multiple sexual partners and often have more than one abortion.

°    As young adults, women tend to sexually shut down, men may tend more toward obsession. Both men and women are likely to experience sexual dysfunction resulting in marriage relationships that are unhealthy and difficult, if not impossible. Often the victims of abuse go through several relationships without realizing why they have such difficulty maintaining them. In my practice I have found that many men and women who have had homosexual encounters have been sexually abused as children.

Dr. Allender in his book, The Wounded Heart, describes the elaborate defense mechanism which women and men erect in order to live with the scars and shame of sexual abuse. He states that a girl might develop the Tough Girl, Good Girl or Party Girl facade. The Tough Girl builds walls that are often impenetrable, while the Good Girl is generally compliant, always trying to please. The Party Girl lures men and leaves them, never really committing herself to permanent relationships.

According to Allender, the defense mechanisms of the male are very similar to those of the female. The corollary to the tough Girl is the Macho Man, the Good Girl is the Wimp, and the Party Girl is the Don Juan.

Indications of Sexual Abuse

Physical Symptoms:

  • reverting to bed wetting
  • loss of appetite
  • vaginal or anal infections
  • rectal or vaginal bleeding
  • swelling of the mouth or genitals,

Psychological Symptoms:

  • unexplained anger
  • withdrawal
  • fears of: being alone,  adults,  a particular place or person
  • extreme shyness
  • low self worth
  • feelings of shame
  • guilt
  • thoughts of suicide
  • night terrors

Behavioral Symptoms

  • running away
  • failing in school
  • precocious sexual attitudes and behavior

Research shows that recovery for the sexually abused person requires long-term therapy, generally about two years. Post traumatic stress disorder is the clinical diagnosis for most individuals who have been sexually abused.

Allender, Dan B. (1990). The wounded heart. Colorado Springs: NavPress.