Sexual abuse in childhood contributes to a number of problems later in life, and research shows that human development is affected by abuse in a number of detrimental ways. Among the problems are the fact that those abused as children tend to become abusers themselves. Various psychological problems also derive from sexual abuse in childhood.
Sexual abuse is defined in terms of a variety of actions involving contact and noncontact maltreatment. Contact abuse is sexual contact with a youngster, with examples including molestation with genital contact, fondling, intercourse, oral or anal sex, and object intrusion. Noncontact abuse includes coercing the child to watch pornographic films or pictures, to observe sexual intercourse, to perform sexual activities, and to witness sexual exhibitionism (Lowenthal, 1996).
Such abuse is bad enough on its face, but it may have long-term consequences, some of which will only show up years later.
For instance, recent research on college-age women who had been sexually abused before age eighteen shows that these women tend to have less secure and trusting relationships with their partners and lower levels of interpersonal functioning and social adjustment than college women who were not abused. This study by Cornell University also suggests that women who were sexually abused as children show more signs of posttraumatic stress disorder than other women their age, especially if they had less secure and responsive relationships with their mothers or primary caregivers during childhood. Margaret Freerick, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and her adviser, Jeffrey Haugaard, associate professor, state,
In other words, our findings suggest that how sexual abuse affects overall mental health in later life depends on the quality of the abused girl's childhood attachment . . . Girls with a secure, responsive relationship in childhood with their...