Childhood Sex Abuse Of Girls: Implications For Adulthood

During my years of psychotherapy practice I met many female patients who reported being molested when they were small children.

In most cases these psychotherapy patients reported similar types of memories of the molestation:
1. Were molested multiple times over many years,

2. Kept the information secret even as adults.

3. Reported that the perpetrator was either an adult family member or a close family friend.

4. Reported that there was no violence or threat during the molestation.

5. Remembered that the molestation did not necessarily involve full vaginal penetration but remembered their genitals being rubbed under their clothes and penetration with fingers.

6. Remembered some feeling of pleasure while the abuse was happening.

7. Many times the sex abuse began as early as age five.

8. Many but not all of these people came from homes dominated by domestic violence and abuse, alcoholism and divorce.

Many of these now adult women also shared similar types of problems and difficulties in their personal lives that brought them to treatment. Interestingly, the memories of the abuse was not the catalyst for seeking psychotherapy. Here are some of the shared problems and reasons for seeking therapy:

1. Long histories of unhappy and conflicted relationships with men that ended in failure.

2. These histories often included being with men who were abusive although they were reported to be "great lovers sexually."

3. Deep feelings of depression with suicidal ideation often set off by a recent failed relationship.

4. Within the context of an intimate relationship they often displayed sudden outbursts of anger and rage.

5. Amazingly, they reported feelings of guilt in connection with the abuse primarily because of the memory of genital pleasure.

6. Few of these women really believed they were able to control the events in their lives.

7. Many were shocked to learn, in psychotherapy, that they have every right to feel angry at the perpetrator. In one of these cases the woman sheepishly stated that she was happy to hear the he died. Learning that those feelings and thoughts were perfectly all right came as a great relief.

8. Many of these women reported sexual difficulties. These difficulties ranged from not being able to achieve orgasm to engaging in casual sex with strangers while exposing themselves to sexually transmitted diseases and personal harm.

What is truly insidious about the sexual abuse of children is that they are strongly motivated to want to please adults whose care they depend on. In the cases where the pedophile is a member of the family or a close family friend, children are very vulnerable. They want to feel loved, accepted and approved of. The pedophile exploits this vulnerability without any regard to the harm they are doing.

The fact that this type of sexual abuse is non violent greatly complicates the mental health of the individual as she enters adolescence and adulthood. The fact that the perpetrator was a family member or friend and there was no violence, contributes to the confusion and guilt felt by so many of these survivors.

The reasons why these women experience interpersonal difficulties is due to the fact that their trust was violated at a very young age. Family instability and drug addiction did not compensate for the sexual abuse.

I do not know the actual statistics of sexual abuse committed against girls and women. However, generally speaking, the numbers are horrifyingly high. As a psychotherapist, father of two daughters and a member of civilization, this topic troubles and worries me greatly.

If you are a survivor of child abuse of any kind, help is available. In addition to psychotherapy, there are self help groups for women who experienced the same or similar traumas.

Your comments on this crucial issue are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

  • Cathy

    I was wondering yesterday after reading a post on the forum if sexual abuse has to involve, well, the actual sexual organs. I don't think it does. I think that an adult doing the touching, actually, I know for fact that an adult can themselves get sexually aroused/get off by touching other parts of a child's body (especially gropping around the breasts of little girls) or an adult's body or a pet's body - probably any warm body - yuck! And, the person receiving the touch feels dirty and sometimes the parents are the offending people, other relatives (know this one for a fact), the optometrist (I know this one for a fact), a storekeeper (I know this one for a fact) and just probably anyone a child comes in contact with. Even a child who knows nothing of "sex" can feel the dirty touch. My husband's mother had him rub menthol pain stuff on her back when she just had the front of herself covered - one sick momma - when he was a teen during that sexually peaking time and he said he hated it but still, you know, the sexually peaking time. I have a friend that just adopted 3 of the most beautiful kids you could imagine and they have all been sexually abused by the parents and I am so happy that he and his wife have these children - I think it will help break the cycle of abuse that can just continue through the generations. I know a lot of families have the "funny" uncle - my husband had one - my most beloved dog bite the man good and they just accepted him as "that is just the way he is". I don't understand this behavior and am so sorry that it happens and the evil doers make the children think that they asked for it or deserved it. I had the opportunity to inprocess 2 pedophiles and meet them and look through their files - 1 had abused his own teen children for years and then when the kids had a teen party he went after some kids at the party and went to prison (I was actually outprocessing him and he was bragging about going back home to his wife - he would get a "greeting" from me if I were the wife) and the other was a man, he with his wife as a lookout at the playground, was going to prison for molesting 2 little girls in the park - to sit next to them and be polite (I got stuck with them because the supervisor considered me to be the only one cool headed enough to process them.) I think the percentage of children being molested in a sexual way whether actually touching of the sexual organs or touching with sexual thoughts in the mind of the person doing it - dirty touch (and this does cause harm too, trust me on that) - is probably so common anymore (I live in incest USA) that.........................

    Dr. Dombeck's Note: Sexual abuse does not require penetration. There are multiple definitions of course as to what constitutes sexual abuse, but the one I'd go with is broad: Any sexually motivated or suggestive overatures (including penetration, but also simple touch or even speech) made by an adult towards a minor child is abusive. If the adult is "getting off" in some manner through the interaction with the child, it is an abusive interaction.

  • Cathy

    I noticed that you responded to the individual on the forum to which I was referring. Also, don't forget little boys and older boys - they should not be left out.

  • Anonymous-1

    I want to first thank you for writing the informative semi-essay about childhood sex abuse of girls. I am trying to figure out how to get help? I have abuse incidents in my past that often trouble my thoughts and emotions. I think I am depressed but am not sure how to go about getting medication? Im 25 and tired of feeling dejected.


  • leona

    Thank you for writing about this Allan. Here in Australia the statistics indicate that 1 in 4 females and 1 in 10 males have experienced some kind of sexual abuse as a minor.

    I think one of the understated forms of abuse is the 'creepy' older relative or family friend. It is in the way they look at you, hold you too long, give 'sloppy" kisses too close on on the mouth, rub their hand too high on the leg or too low on the back or tummy...and so on.

    This was my experience (and the experience of my sister and cousins).

    So while this may not impact so severely on our futures as adults we are left with trust issues, and most importantly a sense of being left unprotected by the adults in our lives. We all saw our parents, aunties and uncles protect the social structure of the family at the expense of the children - so even after being told about our feelings there was "just keep away from him" rather than an out and out making public of their behaviour.

    For me as a child I was still left feeling unprotected. I knew my parents believed me but they chose to make me responsible for taking care of myself, stopping the perpertrator and for protecting their needs for "no fuss in the family". In other words the child, the victim, becomes the rescuer and parent to their parents. That has implications relationally forever.

    This is because we make a set of beliefs around these traumatic and formative events. How many of us end up being rescuers and carers because we had to put others first in the midst of trauma? How many of us hold back just a little in relationships because we have learned that "people will put their own emotional safety before the needs of the vulnerable".

    Those are two core beliefs I developed and am now working with in therapy. But they have coloured my life.

    So, my point is that this kind of abuse and trauma is also about the breakdown in trust and protection not just with the perpertrator but with the victims carers, whoever they might be, and broader social network in which they have to continue to live (at least while they are minors) and continue to have relations with (if they are family).

  • Anonymous-2

    I just want to thank you for all the information everthing i read it helpd me a lot.I also had abuses in the past and this helpd me thanks again.

  • Tarah

    Thank you for publishing this document. As I am currently going through a trial against my former step father in regards to his sexual indecency and sexual assault against me as a young child.

    What has been most difficult through out my life has been knowing that I participated in these events, looked forward to them with anticipation and longing. I truly enjoyed my abuse physically and emotionally. The man who did these things to me played on my insecurities stemming from my parents recent divorce, he treated me like a queen, spoiled me and I trusted him explicitly. I still struggle with most of the emotional scars of abuse and yet in all my years of trying to heal I have not found many people who had no memory of fear, or being controlled, or pain, or threats etc. etc.

    I simply didn't tell because I liked it and somehow I knew if I told anyone it would stop.

    I still feel shame and guilt, but all I need to do to remind me that I was not at fault is to look at my own young daughters and know that there is no way they could ever "make" a man do the things he did to me. They are innocent as was I.

    My body betrayed me as a young girl. It has taken me and is still a struggle to understand that it had nothing to do with me as a person. The body responds to stimulus, that's it. And when you couple that stimulus with feelings of love and trust and affection with someone who is supposed to love and protect you.... well it was like being in the perfect relationship, minus the fact he was a man and I was a child and it was all about his pleasure.

    I have a lot of anger. I know it takes time.

    But thank you again for your publication. It helps to know that at least someone understands why I could have liked it.

  • Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

    Hi Tarah and Others,

    Please understand that the feelings of guilt and self recrimination that you experience as a result of the sexual abuse you suffered are, sadly, very common. But, remember that, yes, your body betrayed you, not by your choice but by the way in which our bodies work. For example, some women who have been raped reported that they experienced orgasm and were shocked by this. It was not by choice but by the way the human nervous system works: a kind of automatic pilot type of thing.

    Dr. Schwartz

  • Linda

    Thanks Allan for addressing women's trauma in one of your articels. I found it very informative and I see how I can relate very well to what you said. We all have different types of abuse but one thing we all have in common is the trauma. No one can ever minimize it and if it wasn't for repressed memories, I might not ever really have known the truth and how it has altered my life.

    I am also learning a great deal in my weekly women's trauma survivors group. If it wasnt for that I dont think I would have had the strength or the knowlege to pursue a new therapist and change to a "trauma" specialist or to learn to educate myself as much as I am doing now.

    Thanks, Linda

  • Jai

    starting around kindergarten i was exposed to sexual behaviour and participated in sex acts with an adult. this was not a relative of mine, rather the father of my friend, a boy from school the same age as myself. although initially the sexual behaviour was manipulated by the adult, it didnt take long for us to engage in sex acts with each other whenever we thought we would not get caught.

    i'm 30 now =( my relationships are a train wreck, and i have yet to summon the courage to seek help. in retrospect im aware there are likely adverse effects to the behaviour between a child and an adult. at the time i knew it was to be a secret. i would be excited -both with fear and sexual arousal- to spend time with my buddy's dad. i knew prior to being caught with my buddy, when by ourselves, we would be in trouble. but of all the things that could have caused me distress, it was the shame evoked in me by being 'caught' by other adults that i feel impacted me most of all. Fear of being caught never seemed to be enough to deter me completely (the thrill seemed to great to resist) i felt profound humiliation and shame whenever a sexual activity (and there were many) was discovered and punished. as illogical as it seems now, i hold little animosity towards the adult that initiated the sex, but a huge resentment towards the multiple adults (most unbeknownst to each other) that instilled the shame and imparted punishments for catching me in some sexual context. i believed i was perverse, dirty, tainted, in the eyes of anyone who knew about 'me'. interestingly, i dont ever recall any of these adults (including parents, teachers, aunts/uncles, friends parents) approaching my behaviour with concern or compassion. and even as an adult knowing that their reaction and response was not the offense, i feel like that is, in fact, what had the most impact on me.

    much of my behaviour and attractions still involves the added element of fear and getting caught, usually by having high-risk encounters. later, when the rush is gone, i still feel like that dirty, shameful, little kid. add to that the guilt that i: 1> dont begrudge the adult whom i actually engaged in sex acts with. 2> resent people who comparatively did nothing wrong 3> im not able to muster the quality of character to take the steps to help and change myself. i will live out my life devoid of real love and intimacy and mostly im ashamed, because i am the only one responsible for that.

  • Tory

    For the last seventeen years only five people in my life know the things I went though.

    I think the abuse started when I was six, right after CPS took me out of my mother's home and my sister and I lived with my grandparents. My older sister was in high school and my grandmother worked full time so I was left home with PawPaw a lot. I thought when he touched me it was normal. I didn't know what I was doing so I went along with it. I remember his hands were deformed so it hurt when he rubbed me but I never told anybody. Nobody knew until I was in seventh grade, I told my best friend. I thought it was my fault what was happeneing and I hated myself for a very long time. There were periods in my life where all I wanted to do was die so I didn't think about it. And I thought about it a lot, at least once a day for almost eight years. It became aware to me that my grandma, sister, and possibly my mother knew what was happeneing to me but never said anything. I was seven when they stopped leaving me alone with him.

    I currently have a boyfriend and the first time I was intamite with him, it was the strangest thing ever. I actually started crying. He thought he had hurt me but the truth was, I felt dirty for doing what I was doing. I broke down and told him everything that had happened. Since then things have gotten better. I'm still scared to do things with him because it brings back all those memories I've tried so hard to forget. I still think about it everyday and I'm not sure how to stop. I've told people thinking that would help, but it obviously hasn't. My grandpa died in July. I honestly hope he died thinking about all the things he did to me and to anybody else. (Be it my sister or mom.) Is it normal to feel this way?

  • Denial Facts

    When I was a Young Girl about 5 years old a young boy touched me playing under the bed in my private part at times as a game. Later on kindergarden or first grade I remember being affectionate with an older kid around 12 years or 14 who had mental problems so i know now, and slept next to him not with him in he's bed, this was also another childcare place a apartement while my grandmother worked. When i moved to another country i was in 2 grade A family friend visited my gramother he was young around hes 20's or 25 he showed me he's Private area below he would visit alot but i honestly don't remember everything its glimpses if it happen constantly I dont know. When i was in 4 grade a family member came to live with us my Grandmother was helping him , he was kind and nice knew how to draw and was at the beginning like a loving father intill the day he also showed me he's private part we played games when no one would be there only once was it intimate for seconds and it was painful that i cried... after that i kept it a secret at times he would look for me or i would look for him I started getting scared when he wanted more to play with me then i wanting to play with him something felt wrong but i never said a word. I felt confused at times and other times that it was common to not tell the secret .Am 22 years now and dispite no having memories like other sexual abuse survivors I feel EVERYTHING like one simple problem that i could fix it feels like a big one am very negative at times feel like i can't fix things say anything like i cant breath I want to go to therapy in my country its taking some time the end of next month I am writing this page beacause i reached a point that everything in my life is not undertandable and i used to be wise and logical and inteligent person studied to be a nurse and very understanding even knowing this that happen to me, but... when i can't fix problems or am in stress my life gets out of control emotions get like bipolar either am calm let everything hit me and all okay sad inside me, very in silence or I start thinking that the world is my enemy and that nothing is real can u reply to me soon please and thank u.

  • stephanie

    You are not alone in your pain and grief. I am always watching over all of us. I'm sitting on my grandfather's lap and I'm watching the lavalamp begin to warm up. I can hear the football game, I hate football. I can smell the Christmas tree..look at my new teddy bear. If I do as I'm told I may join my family for the holiday goodies on the sideboard. They are only 10 feet away and haven't got a clue that his lap is so uncomfortable. I can't complete the act of lovemaking with my husband unless I remember his hand on my thigh, slipping under my panties .. and i want to hide from my husband when he desires me. As my daughter grows older I get very irritable and have a hard time leaving her anywhere as I'm afraid anything can happen to her.. as it happened to me.. right in front of the whole family at Christmas. I have been so ashamed that I didn't tell when I was repeatedly victimized throughout my life. I stayed away from men for the last 15 years now. I met someone I love very much and I all of the sudden can't orgasm without thinking of the horrible things that happened to me as a young child, a teen, an adult. I fear I'll push him away as I did my husband. :( Sadness. I want the hellish fantasies to go away.

  • Emma

    My earliest memory of being molested was when I was 6 years old. My mom had a cousin come live with us for awhile. Sometimes he would bribe me with candy to get me to his room but he never tried to touch me. One day he came home with a portable typewriter and a little table n chair. I heard him typing and went to investigate. There he was sitting in his robe, I asked if I could type so he sat me on his lap and let me type. The molestation began with his hand rubbing over my panties. I felt uncomfortable and tried to push his hand away. He whispered in my ear "This is how I love you and I promise I will never to hurt you". The next time he touched me under my panties while reminding me how much he loved me. As time passed, it escalated to masturbating me and oral sex. The molestation ended after 2 years when he moved out. The worst part was that I missed him and our time together. I know how screwed up that sounds and I have always felt guilty, because I knew it was wrong and did nothing to stop it. I was 8 years old! I have terrible relationships with men and don't trust them.

  • Sophia

    Emma, I read your letter and you should not have guilty feelings regarding your molestation. You were a child and your molester played on your innocence. I too had a very similar molester in my childhood. I was 5 years old and my parents had just divorced and my uncle came to help my mother with the bills and take care of the kids. I was the youngest of 4 and he would drop the others off at the movies while mom was at work. He kept me home with him and soon the molesting started. He would reward me each time with candy or ice cream. It started with touching, then fingering, then oral sex. My 5 year old body was feeling things I had never felt before. Then one day while he was performing oral sex, I moaned softly and he stopped abruptly, carried me upstairs to the bedroom, pulled off my panties, pulled out his erect penis and started to rub it outside my vagina. He tried penetration but it hurt too much so he would go back to oral sex, then try again. Eventually after a few tries and some baby oil, he succeeded in penetration. This went on for 5 years, no one knew anything, I never told because he told me if my mother found out she would turn him over to the police and I would be sent away to a school for disturbed girls. I was so scared and felt guilty for having sex with my uncle for 5 years and because I had enjoyed it. It stopped when my mother met my step-father and got married. My uncle moved out and left me with feelings of abandonment. I loved him and missed him terribly. I began masturbating at 10, became sexually active at 11 and by 13, I was drinking, smoking pot and sleeping around. No one could fill that void in me that my uncle left behind. I am now 39 years old and cannot reach an orgasm with a man. I know I need help but I am too ashamed to discuss this with anyone.