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Violence against women

Sexual assault
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Child sexual abuse/incest
Learn how to spot child sexual abuse and how to report it.

Child sexual abuse/incest

The effects of child sexual abuse/incest

The information in this article is adapted from Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, a publication prepared by Thomas R. Wilen for the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence. This publication is copyright © Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2002.

Everyone is unique and the effects of child sexual abuse and incest vary from one person to another. The consequences of sexual abuse can impact on every aspect of a survivor's life — emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual. Consequences may include self-injurious behaviors, suicidal ideation, alcohol or substance abuse, fear of intimacy, low self-esteem, anger or aggression, anxiety or depression, nightmares and sleep disturbances, eating disorders, ulcers, headaches, or a deviant, dysfunctional or non-existent sexuality.

Effects may take different forms at different stages of a survivor's life and recovery. Occasionally, the effects of having been sexually abused can remain guarded or "hidden away" — repression and dissociation are protective mechanisms often used by survivors to keep the memory of their abuse out of their consciousness. Although on the surface, these coping mechanisms may appear to shield survivors, over the long term, they may prove harmful because they keep survivors from dealing with their pain and trauma — pain and hurt that can resurface again or be triggered by significant life events.

Research suggests that there are more similarities than differences between male and female survivors of child sexual abuse. However, there are several differences that deserve mention. This article outlines the effects of child sexual abuse and incest and also identifies the similarities and differences between male and female survivors. In comparing the experiences of male and female survivors, it's important to avoid using "more" or "less," since the experience of being abused cannot be quantified and should not be the subject of value judgments.

While the terms victim and survivor are used throughout this article, Women's Web acknowledges that these terms may fail to acknowledge aspects of a person's life that are healthy and productive — it is certainly not our intention to do so. On the contrary, Women's Web acknowledges that many individuals who have been sexually abused as children are not only surviving, but flourishing — sexual abuse, although unfortunate, is never the fault of the abused person, nor should it ever be considered the core of their identity.

Predominantly male concerns Predominantly female concerns

Boys are more often abused by teachers, coaches, and babysitters.

As a result of child sexual abuse at the hand of a male offender, males struggle with their sexual identity and fears of homosexuality. Men who experienced child sexual abuse find it harder to define their gender roles.

Both male victims and their parents are more likely to try to minimize the impact of the sexual abuse.

Male survivors are more likely to abuse drugs.

Boys are more likely to be sodomized than girls.

Men are more likely to experience anger and rage in the early stages of recovery, whereas their feelings of grief tend to surface later in the healing process. Men have more struggles with feelings of powerlessness, and the chances of active and violent revenge fantasies are greater.

Far fewer men than women consider their early childhood sexual experiences to be sexual abuse. Gender socialization, different physiological responses of the sexes, and culturally determined expressions of sexuality may cause boys to be neutral or positive about their sexual experiences, but the long-term effects (e.g. on self-esteem) are negative.

Male survivors carry a stigma because male victims may often feel responsible when things go wrong; this is a belief perpetuated by societal expectations that males ought to be in control of their sexual encounters and able to take care of themselves.

There is a greater chance that the abuse will take place in the home and be perpetrated by somebody related to the victim.

Female survivors are at greater risk for abusing alcohol.

Female survivors are at greater risk of being re-victimized as teenagers and young adults.

They are more likely to receive support when dealing with their recovery issues.

Compared with men, women tend to deal with their sadness and depression in the early stages of recovery, whereas their anger seems to surface later in the healing process.

Women appear to have greater difficulty in recalling specific details connected to the abusive situation.

Among victims of child sexual abuse, girls are fondled more often than boys.

Female survivors often carry more stigma than male survivors; female survivors are often blamed in whole or in part for their abuse. Others' responses to a female's abuse and their judgments can become an intrinsic part of the woman's own beliefs about what happened to her; they can have a serious impact on her self-image.


Similarities between male and female survivors

Boys and girls are more likely to be abused by someone they know, and the offender is most often a heterosexual male. The abuser often holds a position of power over the victim and is in a position of trust.

Some survivors may struggle with depression, low self-esteem, self-blame, dissatisfaction with life, anxiety, dissociation, difficulties in relationships, a tendency to be either domineering or submissive, an inability to trust oneself and others, problems defining healthy sexuality, self-destructive behaviors including suicidal ideation, difficulty dealing with anger, stress-related illnesses, addictions, eating disorders, and acting out sexually.

Those who experience child sexual abuse also often report a history of childhood physical abuse.

Survivors often carry the burden of stigma and think of themselves as being different from others. They may often see themselves as being permanently harmed or sullied.

Homophobia has a silencing effect on homosexual victims. Gay and lesbian victims not only fear disclosing their abuse, but they also fear having to "out" themselves when they tell about their abuse.

Many abusers wonder whether they will abuse others as a result of having been abused.

Many factors can impact a survivor's response to his/her abuse, including:

  • being believed
  • personal resources
  • availability of emotional support
  • access to financial resources to pay for treatment
  • time between abuse and the start of treatment or psychotherapy
  • cultural/ethnicity factors
  • current or chronic life stressors
  • age and maturity of the victim
  • response of family members or significant others
  • prior knowledge about sex and sexuality
  • the degree to which the victim felt he/she had some control over what happened
  • reframing his/her negative experiences in a positive way
  • access to supportive relationships with other adults or significant others
  • hope and an optimistic outlook on the future
  • being given skills to avoid future risky situations

Other factors thought to have some bearing on the survivor include:

  • type of abuse
  • relationship between the victim and the abuser
  • duration of the abuse
  • age difference between the victim and the abuser
  • use of violence or threats of harm
  • family functioning

Child sexual abuse/incest

Web resources

These are third-party resources and links will open a new browser window. As these are third-party resources, Women's Web claims no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the information provided.

Little Warriors
Little Warriors is a charitable organization with a national focus that educates adults about how to help prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. Little Warriors also provides information about the prevalence and frequency of child sexual abuse and information about healing and support resources.

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