Sexual abuse – what’s the damage?

It’s a daily occurrence on the news these days – another sexual abuse case. But what of the victims?

Photo ©iStockphoto/enieni

Photo ©iStockphoto/enieni

We know that kids can be resilient, but what other factors influence the harm caused? What do we know about the impact of sexual abuse on the children themselves?

What makes the bad even worse?

Researchers call them moderator variables – the things that can influence how something is experienced by the victim. In the case of abuse, the moderator variables are those aspects of the perpetrator, the victim or the kind of abuse that can effect the impact?

CAVEAT: Every victim is different. The combination of victim and perpetrator is also unique…

But there are some general things that can be said about what effects the degree of harm caused.

  • Relationship to the offender – where there is a subjectively important relationship between the child and the abuser, these children tend to fair worse in their adjustment following the abuse. Trauma is more likely to be acute where the abuse involves a violation of the trust between child and abuser. None of the evidence indicates more traumatic outcomes from being abused by strangers.
  • Sexual acts involved – penetration has consistently been associated with more trauma than other types of abuse. This applies to adolescent and adult victims, as well as to children.
  • Duration & frequency of abuse – children abused over a prolonged period are more likely to show problems in adjustment than those subject to one-off episodic abuse or those suffering shorter term abusive histories. This also relates to the frequency of abuse.

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  • Degree of force used – this makes surprisingly little difference in the amount of trauma suffered by child victims. Increased force and perceived negative impact are related in adult victims.
  • Victim age – very young children (under 6) are less affected than older ones. Though there is little difference in the amount of negative impact for children abused during the 6 to 16 age range.
  • Offender age – the greater the difference in age between the offender and the victim, the greater the negative impact of the abuse. This also applies to adult victims.

How does this help us?…

Good question.

Notwithstanding the vagaries of statistical research, it’s helpful to know the kinds of things that (generally) may indicate a greater or lesser degree of harm.

This shouldn’t limit our disclosure expectations from children and young people who are victims. Neither should it give us permission to see problems where there may not be any.

But it does mean we enter the fray with useful knowledge that can help prepare us for what may come out. It can also help us to give young people permission to share their experiences through the use of intelligent questioning…

Final thought…

Every child is different. Results from broad research studies can help with general principles but may well not apply to individuals.

In all our dealings with abused young people, we need to continue to deal with the child in front of us, centring or practice around their specific needs.

  • What does your experience tell you about what impacts degree of harm victims suffer?
  • How can we use such knowledge in the therapeutic context?

Please add your views in the comments section below, or by clicking here.

Related previous posts…

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

Source article for the above material:

Hanson, R.K. (1990) “The Psychological Impact of Sexual Assault on Women & Children: A Review  Annals of Sex Research, 3, 187-232 (an old study, but still brilliant!)

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  • arild

    Lyta Here.

    I don’t expect you to necessarily agree with me on this, but you are leaving out at least three things which I from my subjective point of view, feel should be mentioned.

    Not because I want to justify Child-Adult Sexual encounters, but because I think we are doing people a great disservice if we inadvertently add to the harm by mishandling the situation.

    To wit, first of all, there is a difference between sexual abuse, and sexual contact.
    Yes, lots of minors have been the initiating party in an age-disparate relationship, and its doing them no favor to attempt to convince them that they have been victims of exploitation – it merely makes them feel that there must be something wrong, or even immoral or perverted, with themselves and their interest in forming sexual relationships with others.

    And let us not forget the Rind-controversy here.

    Second, how the environment around the child / minor reacts, also plays a part.
    Shunning people, guiltying them, or even looking down upon them, is not a wise move.
    Perhaps the worst, most unfair and cruel example is how children of simply CP-consumers, have been treated by the local community as pariahs.

    Third, age of consent laws completely ignore individual differences in development – some young adults are in no way, shape or form ready to form sexual relationships, because of low self-esteem, little emotional independence, immaturity in social contexts, and not the least a lack of financial support or a family network.

    Whilst others, have zero problems initiating sexual contact and relating to others, and can walk away from a relationship turned sour, in a heartbeat.

    All of these things adds up to one thing, and that is that current AoC-laws in and of themselves, are inadequate to protect people from abuse, and is alse really only intended to uphold sexual morals in the society by punishing people for being, well, simply human.

    Again, I am not for abolishing such laws, but especially for Romeo & Juliet – types of exception, a lack of sexual education and especially information about what consent is and how to obtain and respect it, leads to a lot of abusive behaviour and exploitation which really should be handled better.

    That is all Jonny, take it or leave it. 🙂

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Lyta, Thanks for commenting and my apologies for the tardy reply; busy busy :0)

      I think we’re probably on the same page here; if I’ve understood you correctly. Basically the over-simplification of sexual encounters brings another set of problems with it. Not least the idea that’s it’s a binary issue – abusive or not…

      The difficulty with a blog post of this length is that one can’t properly address all the nuances of a range of situations and behaviours, across a range of children’s ages and between those children and older people of equally differing ages.

      Clearly some sexual encounters – or “contacts” as you call them, may well not be damaging at all. Certainly this can be the case at the thin end of the experimental behaviour wedge. Equally where an older young person (either legally a minor or on the cusp) who may be relatively or even very mature may have sexual contact with a young adult (legally an adult) who is less mature or even vulnerable. Again, in citing such examples one is left feeling more acutely about what is left out! But you get the idea.

      To call the younger person in this or similar situations a “victim”, purely on that premise, would be misleading, possibly. Without a thorough assessment of each situation (which isn’t practically possible in real life) we just don’t know. In this respect I agree with your comment completely.

      Adults’ reaction to perceived abuse – their over-statement of it, labelling of it, assumptions of blame and any number of other reactive mistakes – are really unhelplful. Indeed they can be damaging. They can be damaging for the child who doesn’t feel abused by a sexual contact (rather than abuse; again, many caveats come to mind!), we could call this “victimising?” But also, reactions by adults and ill-informed professionals can cause problems by “guiltyfying” someone without abusive intent. Add to this the fact that the subjective reactions/responses of each party may not even be directly related to or be as a result of the contact that happens, and you have a thoroughly complex and very nuanced set of possibilities.

      The law around consent is a whole other issue. Without this turning into a book (!), the law can cause a number of problems not dissimilar to those already cited. It is also very culturally driven and, dare I say it, part of that is about socio-economic class, as well – at least in Britain.

      Wow – that was a swim in the deep end. I’m grateful for your thoughtfulness, Lyta; very stimulating!

      Cheers, J.