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Child Abuse

Effects of Sexual Abuse

03/03/2006

Question:

Girl sexually abused at age 7 to 11 what will happen to her when she grows up?

Answer:

The most correct answer to the question of what will happen to any individual victim of sexual abuse is "no one knows." Every act of abuse, every abuser and every victim is different. Some victims of abuse seem barely affected by their victimization while others struggle with serious problems for years. Some people who have never been abused nonetheless go on to develop all the problems associated with those who have. No one can see the future of one person.

Sexual abuse has been linked to poor medical, psychiatric, social and even economic outcomes. One study that surveyed more than 10,000 people found a dramatic increase in a diverse range of outcomes among people who reported adverse events in childhood such as sexual or physical abuse. Outcomes associated with an increase in childhood trauma ranged from risk-taking behavior such as smoking and drug use, through psychiatric and medical problems to subsequent victimization (Felitti et al. 1998).

Several studies have examined the factors which influence the severity of subsequent outcomes from abuse (Putnam 2003). The relationship of the abuser to the victim has been shown to be a strong predictor of future problems. Among other things, a supportive and fostering family or care environment has been associated with better outcomes for victims. While several predictors of poor outcome cannot be controlled (perpetrator relationship, age at victimization, type of victimization) we are not helpless. A supportive and safe environment and appropriate medical and psychiatric attention can improve outcomes.

FELITTI, V. J., R. F. ANDA, D. NORDENBERG, et al. (1998). "Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study." Am J Prev Med 14(4): 245-58.

PUTNAM, F. W. (2003). "Ten-year research update review: child sexual abuse." J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 42(3): 269-78.

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Response by:

Robert Shapiro, MD
Professor of Clinical Pediatrics
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati