Childhood Abuse and Sexual Assault Later In Life

Unfortunately, for many who experience abuse during childhood, their victimization doesn't end there. Much research has shown that childhood abuse survivors face an increased risk of revictimization as adults. Although the responsibility of revictimization experiences, such as sexual assault, rest solely with perpetrators, it is important to understand the relationship between surviving childhood abuse and adult maltreatment in order to effectively protect and treat survivors.

Revictimization is defined as being victimized at two different life stages (e.g., Adolescence and adulthood) or during the same life stage but by different perpetrators (e.g., By an uncle and then a boyfriend). Studies show a connection between childhood maltreatment and maltreatment later in childhood, sexual assault in adolescence/adulthood, as well as dating or intimate partner violence in adolescence/adulthood. A particularly strong link has been shown between sexual abuse in childhood and later sexual violence, with one study stating that two out of three women who are sexually abused as children will be sexually revictimized at some point later in life.

  • In a sample of female Navy recruits, 55.4% of recruits who reported experiences with childhood sexual abuse also reported subsequent rape, whereas 20.2% of those who indicated no experiences with childhood abuse reported rape

  • In the same study of Navy recruits, women with a history of childhood sexual abuse were 4.70 times more likely to experience rape later in life. The percent of women raped was the highest for those who had experienced combined sexual and physical abuse during childhood

  • In a 1986 study of 930 women, 65% of women who had experienced sexual abuse by a family member during childhood were also victims of rape or attempted rape after the age of 14. This significantly differs from the 35% of women without a childhood history of abuse who had also experienced rape or attempted rape

  • A 1992 study of a college student sample concluded that 72.3% of women who had experienced sexual abuse, defined by 13 behaviours ranging from exhibitionism to intercourse prior to age 16, were revictimized as adults

The statistics above show a clear relationship between childhood abuse and sexual assault revictimization, but why is that? How do childhood experiences of abuse distinctly predispose many to be similarly exploited later in life? Factors that increase one's vulnerability to be revictimized can be generally grouped into two categories:

  1. Those that make individuals more vulnerable to the initial and subsequent victimizations. These include conditions such as poverty, neighbourhood violence, gender inequality, family mental health and substance use issues

  2. Those that are a result of the initial, childhood experience(s) of abuse. These include factors like emotional dysregulation, post-traumatic syndromes, relational disruption, and poor self-esteem

The majority of research and hypotheses focus on the second group of factors, and argue that experiences like childhood abuse disrupt one's psychological and psychosocial development, their ability to recognize risk, and their expectations of adult relationships. Psychological distress from childhood abuse, such as PTSD or self-blame, has been shown to increase the risk of revictimization as perpetrators often take advantage of victims whose numbing or self-blame decreases their ability to recognize risk or resist. During numbing brought about by PTSD, one’s memory of past traumatic events and the associated responses such as fear and anxiety are significantly dissociated from their conscious awareness. This often results in someone in a threatening situation being seemingly unaware of the imminent danger, and as such, unable to respond, resist, and/or reach out for help.

Psychological distress can also cause many survivors to adapt maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance abuse or sexual promiscuity. Having experienced childhood sexual abuse is also specifically connected to worse psychological functioning, aggressive behaviour, interpersonal problems, educational difficulties, and/or increased use of alcohol and other drugs. These are all factors that often increase one’s risk of being exploited in adulthood.

Unfortunately, many survivors of childhood abuse were victimized by their family members, and this frequently results in relational disruptions and difficulties with self-image and identity. Children who are abused by family members are not as exposed to supportive relationships that allow them to develop healthy and safe judgments of others. They may often feel drawn towards what they know later in life, which are hostile-dependent and abusive relationships. Furthermore, they may experience traumatic bonding, which suggests that prolonged experience with abuse often prompts individuals to form emotional bonds with their abusers and to others like them later in life.

Childhood abuse can also significantly affect one’s self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. Those who are victimized as children often do not receive positive reinforcement and validation growing up and may then view themselves as weak and powerless. They may see themselves as responsible for the abuse they experienced and as such, do not regard themselves as worthy of esteem and respect. Perpetrators often capitalize on survivors’ feelings of defencelessness to then revictimize them.

What Can Be Done?

It is important that those working with survivors of childhood abuse are aware of the diverse factors affecting revictimization. Those such as therapists can help survivors work through the negative effects of childhood abuse in order to reduce their risk of being victimized later in life. Therapists must recognize the specific vulnerability that abuse survivors face and subsequently, can work to help survivors implement interventions that may protect them from further exploitation by predatory perpetrators. An understanding of the context of repeat victimization incidents, including adult sexual violence, should also be made a priority when designing responses and treatments for sexual assault victims with multiple lifetime traumas.

It must be recognized that although many survivors of childhood abuse experience repeated maltreatment in adulthood, it is not their fault. Work to prevent revictimization should by no means victim-blame or imply that experiences like sexual assault could be avoided, but rather, should focus on reducing the increased risk that childhood abuse survivors face due to the terrible and unjust circumstances they were left to endure during their formative years. The increased vulnerability of childhood abuse survivors does not absolve the perpetrators of their culpability. Rather, it further indicates their intention to exploit and hurt another.

"An understanding that people with histories of early abuse are intensely vulnerable to subsequent revictimization should in fact only serve to underscore the responsibility of a perpetrator who intentionally inflicts harm on another." (James A. Chu, The Revictimization of Adult Women With Histories of Childhood Abuse)

Written By: Prish