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with Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse: 21 Challenges

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is defined as any sexual encounter that occurs between a child and an older person (as children cannot legally consent to sexual acts). Sexual abuse types can vary including but not limited to, touching, penetration, exposure to pornographic images, and sexually inappropriate language. It also includes non-contact cases, like “flashing”, allowing a child to view nudity for the purpose of self-gratification or child pornography.

When abuse occurs at a very early age it can be difficult for children to understand what is happening to them or find the words to describe what is happening to them. This can create feelings of confusion, fear. and sadness. Some children suffer in silence, never disclosing the abuse to anyone, including family members and other trusted adults. Children that suffer in silence often transition into adults that are more likely to struggle with issues of trust, have difficulty establishing and sustaining relationships, utilize maladaptive coping skills (drugs, alcohol), struggle with weight issues, low self-esteem, exhibit hoarding behaviors, struggle with mental health issues, or have negative experiences with the legal system. Accepting powerlessness and acknowledging the abuse that occurred in childhood can be difficult for many adult survivors. However, for many adult survivors, reclaiming and naming emotions without judgement or blaming themselves is a powerful first step in the healing process.

Sexual abuse/trauma can occur at any age and to any gender, but it’s important to remember that you are not alone, there is help available. While many survivors may feel scared, angry, embarrassed, hopeless, or ashamed, remember that you are not to blame for what happened. Although, we do not have the power to change the past, we do have the power to change our life narrative, leading to increased hope and opportunities for the future. By accepting what cannot be changed, recognizing abuse occurred, and identifying triggers, survivors can begin to heal. Failing to recognize triggers can lead to “flashes”, symptom re-emergence, and negative feelings, leading to wounds that do not have the opportunity to heal.

Unfortunately, many of us only view child sexual abuse in the present without consideration for the latent effects of the abuse. Without appropriate intervention and treatment, survivors often struggle with issues that transcend into adulthood. Survivors of sexual abuse may experience difficulty in establishing interpersonal relationships. Symptoms correlated with childhood sexual abuse may hinder the development and growth of relationships. Common relationship challenges that survivors may experience are difficulties with trust, fear of intimacy, fear of being different or weird, difficulty establishing interpersonal boundaries, passive behaviors, and getting involved in abusive relationships As adults, some survivors may feel repulsed by sex, while others become hypersexual and sexually reckless. During sexual intimacy, many survivors experience flashbacks, which are vivid memories of the abuse that make sex difficult, or sometimes impossible. Flashbacks can happen any time, but typically occur during lovemaking, even if the sex is tender, loving, and completely consensual. It is not uncommon for some survivors to struggle with craving physical closeness, yet, freezing or fleeing. These reactions are all aspects of dissociation.

Latent Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse Can Include:

• Flashes (vivid images of the abuse)
• Repression
• Somatic concerns (chronic headaches/migraines, etc.)
• Low self-esteem
• Maladaptive coping skills
• Eating Disorders
• Substance abuse/Alcohol issues
• Depression
• Anxiety
• Shame
• Guilt
• Dissociative Patterns
• Self-blame
• Sexual challenges
• Trust issues
• Difficulty establishing/maintaining relationships
• Body image issues (feeling dirty, unworthy)
• Challenges with memory and cognition
• Disruptions in sleep
• Self-injurious behaviors
• Re-victimization

The silence surrounding sexual abuse can be nearly as damaging as the assaults themselves. One voice typically is not loud enough to make a powerful sound, however, a chorus can create a rumble that echoes throughout the ears of those who hear it.  That being said, it is important to acknowledge the abuse, recognize your triggers, and process your feelings. Individual therapy and support groups can be helpful to manage triggers and resolve negative feelings. You can take control of your life, you are not alone, the blame does not lie with you, you are not invisible, support is available.

Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse: 21 Challenges

Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

My name is Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, BCPC I have a PhD in forensic Psychology specializing in familial dysfunctions and traumatic experience. I work with individuals and families struggling with familial dysfunctions, trauma, rape, and incest. I also have a masters in Marriage, Couples, & Family therapy. I am a certified relationship specialist with American Psychotherapy Association (#15221). I have more than 15 years in the field of mental health, relationships, and behavioral sciences.

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APA Reference
Bates-Duford, T. (2019). Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse: 21 Challenges. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Dec 2019
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