Psychological and Emotional Reactions
Sexual abuse can be devastating for a child and often causes feelings of betrayal, powerlessness, fear, anger, self-blame, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy and relationships later in life (Valente, 2005). Children who hide their sexual abuse often experience shame and guilt and fear the loss of affection from family and friends (Seymour et al., 2000). They also feel frustrated about not being able to stop the abuse.
Whether or not they tell someone about their sexual abuse, many victims experience psychological symptoms such as depression, increased anxiety, nervousness, emotional problems, and personality and intimacy disorders. Similar to reactions of rape victims, depression is the most prevalent emotional symptom, which may be higher in victims who are abused repeatedly (Cheasty et al., 2002). Guilt is usually severe, and many children blame themselves for the sexual abuse (Valente, 2005). Victims of sexual abuse are also more likely than nonabused children to commit suicide (Valente, 2005).
Victims may also try to cut themselves off from a painful or unbearable memory, which can lead to what psychiatrists refer to as a dissociative disorder. In its extreme form, dissociative disorder may result in dissociative personality disorder (DPD), in which a person maintains two or more distinct personalities. Although it has long been a controversial issue in psychology (McNally, 2003), there is research to support the claim that some abuse victims are unable to remember past abuse. In one study of incest victims, 64% were found to partially repress their abuse, whereas 28% severely repressed it (Herman & Schatzow, 1987). Some experts claim that although the memories are classified as bad, disgusting, and confusing, many times they are not “traumatic.” Because of this, the memories are simply forgotten, and not repressed (McNally et al., 2004; McNally et al., 2005). This issue continues to be controversial even though many victims of sexual abuse often report an inability to remember details or the entirety of the abuse.
Women who were sexually abused as children have higher rates of personality disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder than those who experienced sexual abuse later in life (McLean & Gallop, 2003). Antisocial behavior and promiscuous sexual behavior are also related to a history of childhood sexual behavior (Valente, 2005). The most devastating emotional effects occur when the sexual abuse is done by someone the victim trusts. In a study of the effects of sexual abuse by relatives, friends, or strangers, it was found that the stronger the emotional bond and trust between the victim and the assailant, the more distress the victim experienced (Feinauer, 1989).