Sexual Abuse: Effects and Recovery



Sexual abuse may cause devastating long-term effects on the individual. For children, especially, the ability to learn slows down. The survivor may become emotionally numb. They live in a state of trauma similar to soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. 


When a human is afraid or under stress, the body becomes tense; it focuses on how to escape; it freezes.  The brain’s learning areas shut down and anger and fear dominate their emotions. Therefore, the abused person will have trouble forming healthy relationships in their society and within their own families. And, sadly, often the abused person grows to be an abusive parent. Studies from the field of psychology provide information about the effects that sexual violence may have on the individual, often leading to one or more of these effects.


Having difficulty with concentration


Learning difficulties, memory loss, or mental illness


Running away from home


Prostitution or deformed sexual desire


Impaired relationships and trust


Self-abusive behavior


Poor parenting skills


Emotionally numbness and disassociation


Overwhelmed with the memories, images, and feelings of the rape


Experiencing nightmares and flashbacks


Sleep disorders


Irritability and anger


Lack of empathy and unable to have loving feelings


Low self-esteem and depression


Hypervigilance and easily startled


More likely to abuse alcohol and drugs





Children who have these experiences are at greater risk for adverse impacts on brain development and problems with aggression, but they are not doomed to poor outcomes. With help, rape victims make progress toward recovery. This is most effective in the first three months after the rape. This progress toward recovery can happen if the survivor receives strong and patient support from caring people in a safe environment, and if the survivor has counseling to help them understand that this violence is a societal problem, not an individual problem. 


In many social circles, the power differences between male and female are minimal. However, in many social circles, those differences in power lead men to think that the woman has little value and abuse is expected. Working with other women to stop these societal abuses and to protect other women is a strong therapeutic activity.


Psychological needs that are especially important to trauma survivors.

  • Frame of reference:  The need to develop an understanding of sexual violence and your place in this global atrocity. The abused woman comes to understand the causes of sexual violence, and how this violence is evident in every country. She is not alone, and she is not in any way responsible for the abuse. She must eventually draw upon her inner strength to be a survivor rather than a victim.
  • Safety: The need to feel safe and reasonably invulnerable to harm. The woman must be in a safe and understanding family-style setting, and her abuser will not come near to her.
  • Trust/dependency: The need to believe in the word or promise of another and to depend upon others. Caring adults and friends know about the abuse and are working with the woman to overcome the pain that the abuse caused.
  • Esteem and Intimacy: The need to be valuable, to be valued by others, and to value others. The need to feel connected to others through individual relationships; and the need to belong to a larger community. The woman comes to understand that she is still an important part of her home and community. She is not measured by or defined by the violence. She is a survivor, not a victim.
  • Independence and Power: The need to direct or exert control over others. Relationships in the home should provide many opportunities and choices to the survivor. The abuse was a very painful and very controlling experience. She needs freedom and control over her own behavior and rewards.


Developing Child at Harvard University

McCann and Pearlman’s (1990) Psychology, Trauma, and the Adult Survivor

Resnick, Patricia A. (2001) Stress and Trauma