Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Survivors’ Sexual Behaviours. Psychological Functioning & Cognitive Development

Excerpts from a research report written By: Camila Ruiz Tacha, Previous Placement Student, The Gatehouse, 2019 

Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is a prevalent issue in society, in which 8% to 31% of girls and 3% to 17% of boys have been sexually abused (Cited in Vrolijk-Bosschaart, Verlinden, Langendam, De Smet, Teeuw, Brilleslijper-Kater, and Lindauer, 2018). “Sexual abuse occurs when a person uses his/her power over a child and involves the child in any sexual act” (Rimer, & Prager, 2016). Experiencing this type of trauma during childhood can have devastating effects on a child, as traumatic experiences can alter the functioning of the brain (Rimer, & Prager, 2016). Thus, it is important to further explore the impact that sexual abuse can have on the growth and development of a child. It is important to note the traumatic outcomes that child sexual abuse has on a child’s sexual behavior, psychological functioning, and cognitive development.

Sexual Behaviours

Child sexual abuse impacts the way in which a child sexually behaves in accordance with their age. Child victims of sexual abuse may portray sexual behaviours in two ways; displaying sexual behaviours that are uncommon at their age and engaging in risky sexual behaviour later in adolescence or in adulthood.

One of the most obvious signs in that a child has been sexually abused is when they began to exhibit sexual behaviours that are out of the norm (Latzman & Latzman 2015). To further understand how CAS impacts a child’s sexual behaviour, it is critical to further explore what abnormal sexual behaviours consist of. Children 5 – 12 years old who have been sexually abused tend to force their friends into sexual activity, draw sexualized images, re-enact adult sexual activities, sexualize all relationships and have unusual sexual knowledge (Rimer & Prager, 2016). Normal sexual behaviour for this age group, on the other hand, comprises of curiosity in sexuality (Rimer & Prager, 2016). An example of this could be asking questions like “where do babies come from?” As well, it could be wanting to learn the names of body parts (Rimer & Prager, 2016). This interest in sexuality is considered age-appropriate and normal coming from a child. Evidently, the way in which a child sexually behaves is truly impacted by being sexually abused as a child’s perceptions and preconceived ideas on what is sexually appropriate at their age is based on their experiences.

Furthermore, children who have been sexually abused may partake in risky sexual behaviours in adolescence or adulthood (Latzman, and Latzman, 2015). Seeing as children who are sexually abused have a misconception on what healthy sexual relationships look like, due to what they have experienced, it is more likely that they engage in risky sexual behaviours that can negatively affect them in the future. According to van Roode, Dickson, Herbison, & amp; Paul, (2009), risky sexual behaviour is exhibited through early onset consensual sexual activity, unprotected intercourse, and having multiple sexual partners. These behaviours can lead to unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Consequently, child victims of sexual abuse may not understand the repercussions for their sexual behaviours as a result of what they have been exposed to in their childhood. Therefore, child sexual abuse greatly affects how the victim sexually behaves not only as a child but later on in adolescence and adulthood.

Psychological Functioning

Moreover, child sexual abuse also influences a child’s psychological functioning. Psychological functioning refers to an individual’s capability in achieving goals within themselves and includes behaviour, emotion, social skills, and overall mental health (Preedy, & Watson, 2010). Being a victim of child sexual abuse can result in long-term psychological effects that can carry into adulthood (Güven, Dalgiç, & Erkol, 2018). Ultimately, a child’s mental health and self-esteem is greatly impacted after being exposed to sexual abuse. Mental health illnesses can arise following such a traumatic experience. Some of those illnesses include depression, eating disorders, anxiety, fear, and PTSD (most common) (Güven, Dalgiç, & Erkol, 2018). Unfortunately, these mental health illnesses can impact social functioning, and interfere with daily tasks. Additionally, seeing how stigmatized mental health is, may interfere with the child’s ability to seek help.

Self-esteem is also another factor that is greatly altered at the experience of sexual abuse. Especially in childhood, a child’s self-esteem is critical, as it resonates with self-perception (Güven, Dalgiç, & Erkol, 2018). According to Roberto Maniglio, (2009), sexual abuse lowers self-esteem and in the long term, puts children and youth at risk for depression and suicidal ideation. Due to the self-perception being altered after being sexually abused, it is critical to recognize how a child’s self-esteem can be impacted, and how it can be transitioned into adolescence and adulthood.

It is critical to understand that the psychological factors being affected can impact an individual’s relationships with themselves, peers, and family members.

Cognitive Development

The cognitive development of a child can also be affected if when they have been sexually abused. To further understand the implications of sexual abuse on cognitive development, it is critical to explore what defines it. In Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive growth, school-aged children are at the concrete operational stage, where children are able to organize ideas and think logically (Steinberg, Bornstein, Vandell, & Rook, 2011). Cognitive development involves changes in intellectual abilities such as memory, thinking, reasoning, language, problem-solving, and decision-making (Steinberg, Bornstein, Vandell, & Rook, 2011). Unfortunately, when children are sexually abused, their intellectual abilities can be affected. Research has shown that those who have experienced child sexual abuse have a decrease in school performance, and their communication skills are jeopardized (Güven, Dalgiç, and Erkol,  2018).

Furthermore, in a study done on school-aged girls by Daignault & Hébert (2009), it was reported that those who had experienced sexual abuse were affected in their vocabulary and knowledge and required additional academic services. Evidently, sexual abuse impacts a child’s cognitive development. Considering that in school-aged children their cognitive skills are still developing, having an impediment in academics can be a serious hardship. In relation to Piaget’s stages of cognitive growth, children who have trouble with their intellectual abilities may not be able to move from the concrete operational stage.


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