Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience an array of overwhelming and intense feelings. These may include feelings of fear, guilt, and shame. Abusers have been known to tell children that it is the fault of the child that they are abused, shifting the blame away from the abuser, where it belongs, and placing it on the child. Along with this, abusers may threaten or bribe the child into not speaking up; convincing the child that he or she will never be believed.i The reaction of a survivor’s friends and family to the disclosure of the abuse also has the potential to trigger immense feelings of guilt, same and distrust, particularly if those individuals denied that the abuse was taking place, or chose to ignore it.

While each individual’s experiences and reactions are unique, there are some responses to child sexual abuse that are common to many survivors:—i

  • Low self-esteem or self-hatred
  • Survivors may suffer from depression
  • Guilt, shame and blame
    • Survivors may feel guilt or shame because they made no direct attempt to stop the abuse or because they experienced physical pleasure
  • Sleep disturbances / dblue ribbonisorders
    • Survivors may have trouble sleeping because of the trauma, anxiety or may directly be related to the experience they had as a child; children may be sexually abused in their own beds.
  • Lack of trust for anyone
    • Many survivors were betrayed by the very people they are dependent upon (family, teachers etc.) who cared for them, who insisted they loved them even while abusing them; learning to trust can be extremely difficult under these circumstances.
    • 93% of victims under the age of 18 know their attacker.—-ii
  • Revictimization
    • Many survivors as adults find themselves in abusive, dangerous situations or relationships.
    • Woman who were sexually assaulted before the age of 18 [are] twice as likely to report being raped as adults.—-iii
  • Flashbacks
    • Many survivors re-experience the sexual abuse as if it were occurring at that moment, usually accompanied by visual images of the abuse. These flashes of images are often triggered by an event, action, or even a smell that is reminiscent of the sexual abuse of the abuser.
  • Dissociation
    • Many survivors go through a process where the mind distances itself from the experience because it is too much for the psyche to process at the time. This loss of connection with thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of identity, is a coping mechanism and may affect aspects of a survivor’s functioning.
  • Sexuality / Intimacy
    • Many survivors have to deal with the fact that their first sexual encounter was a result of abuse. Such memories may interfere with the survivor’s ability to engage in sexual relationships, which may bring about feelings of fright, frustration, or being ashamed.

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often adopt coping mechanisms (or survival strategies) to guards against feelings of terror and helplessness that they may have felt as a child. These past feelings can still have influence over the life and present behavior of an adult survivor. Here are some common coping mechanismsi:

  • Grieving / Mourning
    • Many things were — childhood experiences, trust, innocence, relationships with family members. The survivor may feel a deep sadness, jealousy, anger or longing for something never had.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
    • The abuse of substances can act as an escape from the intense waves of feelings, the terror and helplessness.
  • Disordered Eating / Eating Disorders
    • Compulsive control of food intake can be a way of taking back control over the body that was denied during the abuse.
  • Self-injury
    • There are many ways survivors have coped with the feelings that can cause emotional or physical injury on the self. Burning or cutting are some ways for a survivor to relieve intense anxiety, triggered by memories of the abuse


In most instances, the survivor never discussed the abuse with others while it was occurring. In fact, many survivors do not remember the abuse until years after it has occurred, and may never be able to clearly recall it. Usually, after being triggered by a memory, this individual learns how, as an adult, to deal with the effects of the abuse.

It is important to speak with someone, whether it be a friend or counselor, about the abuse and past and current feelings.

Community health centers, mental health clinics and family service centers may have counselors who have worked with survivors before. They may also be able to refer you to a self-help group.

If you are an adult dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse, please remember that you are not responsible for the abuse and that you are not alone. You can overcome the effects the abuse may have on your life. Please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the Online Hotline. It’s never too late to get help.

i—Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Dr. Carol Boulware, MFT, Ph.D. 2006.

ii—-U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement. 2000.

iiiExtent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimization: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs: National Institute of Justice. 2006.


This product was supported by grant number 2009-D1-BX-K023 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Protecting Yourself from Sexual Assault

Contrary to popular belief, most sexual assaults are planned. The assailant may not plan to sexually assault or rape a specific individual, but they usually do plan to assault someone. This plan may range from a specific plan to find someone to rape to a general intention of “scoring.” Although this fact can be disheartening, it also gives us an edge in protecting ourselves from sexual assault. Because assaults are usually planned, there are typical behaviors and patterns that you can be aware of and watch out for. This section will outline some of these typical patterns and suggest various things you can do to keep yourself safe. There are three areas to consider in thinking about personal safety – the environment, the assailant, and yourself.

Awareness: The Environment The environment consists of the people and things around you, as well as the place you are in, all of which can contribute to the level of safety or danger at any given moment.

  • The People around you can help keep you safe or increase the level of danger, depending on who they are and what your relationship with them is. If you are in a group of your friends, they are more likely to contribute to your safety. If you are among a group of the assailant’s friends, you may not be able to turn to them for help. If you are among strangers, it may be harder to tell. If you find yourself in a position where you are in danger of sexual assault, pay attention to the people around you – can you turn to them for help or are they increasing the level of danger?
  • The Things around you can also be used in your defense. Pens and pencils, keys, chairs, books, and other furniture can all be used as weapons. You can put large objects between you and the assailant; smaller objects can be used to hit or stab the assailant or to block strikes against you.
  • The Place that you are in will affect the level of danger and how you choose to defend yourself. Since most sexual assaults occur between people who know each other, they are more likely to happen indoors. The stereotype of the stranger in the bushes does happen, but is much more rare than sexual assault in your home, someone else’s home, at a party or a bar.
  • If you are in your home, you have an advantage in that you know the layout much better than the assailant. It will be easier for you to move around, to put furniture or doors between you, to get to the phone. You might try turning out the lights, because it will be easier for you to move around in the dark. In addition, common safety tips for preventing stranger assault in your home include strong locks on the doors and windows and secure entry into apartment buildings.
  • If you are in the assailant’s home, the advantage goes the other way. Generally speaking, it is better to avoid being alone with dates until you know them well enough to trust them, and to inform friends or family of your whereabouts and when you are likely to return. However, even long-term, trusted friends or partners commit sexual assault. If you feel you are in danger, look around for things you can use to defend yourself, be aware of the exits and the location of a telephone.
  • If you are at a party or a bar, the people around you are likely to be your best resource, particularly if they are friends of yours. Try not to be left alone with someone you don’t know or do not feel safe with.
  • If you are in a deserted area, look for a more populated or well-lit area that you can go to if you feel you are in danger.

The Assailant
Unfortunately, there are few obvious distinguishing characteristics of assailants that can be used to identify and avoid them – rapists can be of almost any group. However, there are some people who are more likely to commit sexual assault. General Characteristics

Men are considerably more likely to commit sexual assaults than are women.

  • The myth of the black rapist is exactly that – a myth. African-American men are no more likely to commit sexual assault than men of any other ethnic group. Most sexual assaults tend to be intraracial rather than interracial, and when it does occur across ethnic groups, it is usually the case of a white man assaulting a woman of color.
  • Men who hold strong beliefs in traditional gender roles are more likely to sexually assault a woman because they are less likely to believe that she has the right to say no or that she means it.
  • People who do not take “no” for an answer or listen to your opinion in smaller areas, such as where to eat dinner, who will drive, etc., are unlikely to do so in more important areas, such as when, where, how, and whether you will have sex.

Specific Characteristics
Along with these general aspects of a potential assailant, there are important specific factors to be aware of. First, pay attention to details that might help you in deciding the best way to handle the situation, examples include:

  • Is the assailant drunk or high? If he/she is intoxicated, he/she may be less likely to respond to either assertiveness or physical self-defense techniques.
  • Is the assailant someone you know? Sometimes, if you know the assailant, it may be easier to defuse the situation using verbal defense skills and assertiveness. However, using physical self-defense techniques may be necessary to use.
  • Is the assailant considerably bigger or stronger than you? If he/she is, it may be harder to defend yourself physically and you may need to rely more upon the two most important skills, running and yelling.

Finally, you may want to pay attention to details about the assailant that will help you describe him/her to the police, if you choose to contact them. If you know the assailant, this is obviously easier, as you may be able to give the police his/her name, address, or phone number. If you do not know the assailant, however, you will have to pay attention to physical details. The rule for describing an assailant is to go from general to specific and to try to note those details that the assailant cannot easily change. For example, height and weight are not easily changed and are larger details. Then go on to note race or ethnicity, followed by eye and hair color. Any distinguishing characteristics, such as tattoos, scars, moles, odd facial characteristics, piercings, or unique jewelry are also useful. Clothing should be the one of the last characteristics to note, as it can be changed easily.

The third factor that will be present in an assault situation, and the only one you truly have control over, is yourself. It is important to remember that no one is to blame for a sexual assault except for the assailant – the survivor is never responsible for the assault. However, there are things that you can do to protect yourself and try to keep yourself safe. Unfortunately, there are no safety guarantees; you can only try to improve our chances of escaping an assault safely. Furthermore, if you do not take particular safety precautions, that does not mean that you deserved to be sexually assaulted. It is impossible to follow every safety tip all the time, and safety must be balanced with living a relatively free and unencumbered life. Given that, there are a number of areas in which awareness about yourself can help you to avoid or escape an assault. These include internal factors such as state of mind and level of intoxication, as well as external factors, such as how easily you can run in the clothes and shoes you are wearing. Other important factors include your verbal and physical self-defense skills, which will be further discussed below. When thinking about this third factor – yourself – there are two important areas to consider: Availability and Vulnerability.

  • Availability simply refers to how accessible you are to an assailant. For example, if you are in a room alone with a date or partner, you are available to him/her. If you are in a deserted parking lot, you are available.
  • Vulnerability has to do with more internal factors and how prepared you are to defend yourself. Vulnerability concerns physical, emotional, or mental disability and level of awareness.
  • Injured people are vulnerable because it may be harder for them to fight back.
  • Developmentally delayed individuals are vulnerable because they may lack the cognitive skills to defend themselves.
  • People who are depressed, sick, or preoccupied are often vulnerable because they are less likely to pay attention to the environment around them.
  • People who are drunk, high, or drugged (particularly with “rape drugs”, such as Rohypnol or GHB) are especially vulnerable because their judgment is impaired and they are not able to think clearly.
  • People wearing tight clothing, high-heeled shoes, or who are burdened with bags or packages are vulnerable because it is harder for them to run away.
  • Dates, spouses, and partners are also vulnerable because they generally do not expect their partner to attack them and are less likely to report the assault.

We are all vulnerable sometimes- everyone gets sick, has to walk to their car at night, or becomes preoccupied. The goal here is to try to minimize your availability and vulnerability as much as is reasonably possible.

Your feelings about sexual assault and self-defense
It is also helpful if you pay attention to your own feelings about sexual assault and self-defense. If you are worried that you will freeze up and not be able to defend yourself in an assault situation, you might find it helpful to take a self-defense course and learn some skills. If you are a survivor of a previous sexual assault or sexual abuse, it may be helpful for you to talk to someone about your experiences and how they have affected your life. If you do know some self-defense skills, are you prepared to use them? Are there things you feel you just cannot do, even in your own defense? If so, learn some different skills – don’t try to make yourself do something you’re not comfortable with.

Possible signs of an impending assault
Assailants, whether they are a stranger or someone you know, tend to “test the waters” before they actually begin the attack. A sign that you are being tested is when someone invades your personal space and keeps asking personal questions, even after you have asked him/her to leave you alone. They may try to touch you or get too close or ask questions or make comments that make you feel uncomfortable. Remember, if you feel unsafe, pay attention to your gut feelings. Don’t feel that you have to be nice or that you must be imagining things. If the person is truly innocent, they will understand. If they get offended when you ask them to leave you alone, to stop touching you or to move further away, then they are probably testing you. These are reasonable requests and reasonable people who are not trying to harm you will have no problem complying.