Adult Manifestations of Childhood Sexual Abuse
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While childhood sexual abuse (CSA) continues to be a major public health problem, an equally severe and silent epidemic are the estimated 39 million adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States who continue to exhibit aftereffects of CSA that predispose them to adverse psychosocial outcomes throughout their adolescent and adult life.
Early childhood traumas such as sexual abuse can have lifelong effects throughout adulthood, and the cost to society is high. Ninety percent of cases go unreported and untreated, as the symptoms of CSA are often misdiagnosed and unappreciated.
This article attempts to provide clinicians with awareness of the neurodevelopmental effects of CSA, the adult clinical symptoms, and the adverse psychosocial outcomes of CSA. It will also present tools to help identify the aftereffects of CSA in adulthood and provide mandated reporting protocols.
Sexual abuse is defined as any sexual activity that a child cannot comprehend or consent to. It includes acts such as fondling, oral-genital contact, and genital and anal intercourse, as well as exhibitionism, voyeurism, and exposure to pornography. A central characteristic of any abuse is the dominant position of an adult that allows him or her to force or coerce a child into sexual activity. Researchers have determined that child sexual abuse victims come from all cultural, racial, and economic groups. The lack of a universal definition of CSA contributes to the complexity of data collection and estimates.
Incidence and Prevalence
Currently, CSA prevalence in the U.S. is not known, but estimates vary from 12% to 40%. Incidence studies suggest that while on average 5.5 children per 10,000 enrolled in day care are sexually abused, a greater number of children (8.9 children per 10,000) are sexually abused in their home. Further CSA studies suggest that 53% of the abuse occurs in the home, 57% report the perpetrator was a family member, and 65% report repeated abuse. Overall, studies show that 1 in 3 females, and 1 in 6 males have experienced childhood sexual abuse by the age of 18.
While nearly 90,000 cases of child sexual abuse are reported each year in the U.S., between 88%-90% of CSA cases are estimated to be unreported and interestingly, between 21%-49% of CSA victims appear asymptomatic following victimization. The lack of disclosing a history of sexual abuse contributes to the lifelong effects of the abuse.
Neurodevelopmental Damage of CSA
Controlled studies have shown that adult survivors of child sexual abuse (ASCSA) are more likely to exhibit adverse psychopathologies in adulthood, and neuroimaging studies confirm that exposure to sexual abuse in childhood alters the neurobiology and neurostructures in the brain, leading to scarring, an abnormal neurohormonal response to future stressors, and predisposes the victim to a lifetime of negative consequences.
Neurological damage from sexual abuse alters early brain development, increasing the risk for psychopathology in adolescence and adulthood (Table 1). The hippocampus, responsible for new learning and memory, plays a critical role in recording emotions that are attached to a stressful event such as sexual abuse. The hippocampus is known to be very sensitive to stress. During stress, high levels of glucocorticoids are released, and over time (as observed among CSA victims, including those re-victimized) elevated levels of glucocorticoids damage neurons in the CA3 region of the hippocampus and lead to atrophy. While the hippocampus has been shown to regenerate neurons, stress inhibits neurogenesis.
Abnormalities of the hippocampus have been shown to be associated with pathological fear, mood imbalances, and anxiety reactions in trauma-related disorders (also hallmarks among ASCSA).
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have demonstrated a 12% left hippocampal volume size reduction among adults who have been sexually abused in childhood as compared to healthy controls (Figure 1). Similar reductions are exhibited among subjects with trauma-spectrum disorders such as depression, dissociation, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder. In addition, the amygdala, responsible for emotional and fear regulation, is affected by early sexual trauma, resulting in similar psychopathologies.
Studies suggest sexually traumatized children are also less able to utilize both brain hemispheres to process experiences. The corpus callosum, a longitudinal fissure that connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres, is shown to be abnormal in sexually abused children. Generally, the left side of the brain processes positive emotions and logical thinking, and the right processes negative emotions such as fear. When the corpus callosum is not operating properly these processes are unable to function at the same time, thus supporting theories why many abused individuals divide people into “all good” or “all bad” and exhibit mood swings, as observed in borderline patients.
Adult Manifestations of CSA
There is no adopted definition to identify the symptoms exhibited among ASCSA; however, evidence-based research has confirmed long-term effects of CSA in adolescence and into adulthood. Later in their lives, many ASCSA, whether reported or not, exhibit psychopathology, acting-out behaviors (social dysfunction), relationship problems (interpersonally), somatic symptoms, and sexual disorders.
CSA survivor studies suggest that ASCSA use health care services more often than the general population, are shown to exhibit more somatic symptoms that do not respond to medical treatment, and present more severe and complex symptoms.The response to sexual abuse during childhood varies, and is largely dependent on 1) age at onset; 2) severity; 3) duration; 4) relationship to the perpetrator; 5) the child’s resiliency; and 6) stability of and support from the family.
Childhood survivors might initially seem unaffected by the trauma; however, by adolescence and adulthood, the consequences eventually become symptomatic, resulting in eating disorders, dissociation, phobias, obsessions, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, bulimia, obesity, post traumatic stress disorder, hallucinations, conduct disorder, substance abuse disorder, panic disorder, antisocial personality disorder, affective disorder, and impaired sense of self.
Behavioral Effects of CSA
Children are limited in their physical, cognitive, and emotional development and, thus, dependent upon adult and often sibling caregivers to provide love, trust, and support. Once a child is violated however, shame and stigma often follow, as well as fear that disclosing the abuse will result in re-victimization, loneliness and isolation, physical violence, and death. Poor coping skills are common among this cohort, such as substance abuse, tobacco use, overeating, addiction, lying/stealing, poor academic performance, expectation of early death, poor adherence to medical treatment, suicide, anger, prostitution, and increased risk of sex crimes.
Controlled studies identify an association between childhood sexual abuse and adult relationship problems. Adult manifestations of CSA increase the risk of intimate partner violence victimization and perpetration, rape after 18 years of age, low self-esteem, intimate relationship problems, divorce, interpersonal problems, victim-perpetrator cycle, superficial idealization of sexual relationships, and the inability to trust others.
Evidence illustrates that CSA also results in biophysical changes. ASCSA show a decreased threshold for pain. Other effects include a heightened sensitivity in the pelvic or abdominal region, various bowel symptoms, musculoskeletal disorders, back pain, severe headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disorders, asthma, and pseudocyesis.
Adult manifestations of CSA increase adolescent and adult risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, compulsive sexual behaviors, early sexual activity, extreme masturbation, sexual promiscuity, poor sexual adjustment, poor contraceptive practices, and teen pregnancy.
Functional amnesia (dissociative amnesia–dissociative disorders) can develop after severe trauma, such as child sexual trauma. This is especially true among children experiencing severe sexual trauma or in those aged 5 years or younger. Functional amnesia among CSA cases varies widely, from 19% to 88%. While theories about amnesia and delayed recall of CSA vary and may be controversial due to false memories, it is important to recognize that later in adolescence or adulthood, the victim may not recall the experience. Additionally, if the abuse occurred in middle childhood, ages 6-12, the victim may 1) develop false memories that the abuse ever occurred; 2) be in denial; or 3) be unaware that the type of experience was determined to be sexual abuse.
Role of the Clinician
The clinician plays an important role in caring for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Because the presenting symptoms can be somatic in nature, the role of CSA in the patient’s illness or presenting symptoms can be overlooked.
Despite never reporting the abuse, 85% of adult survivors of child sexual abuse favor physician screening. Directly asking patients about the occurrence of abuse has been shown to elicit more positive responses compared to self-reporting, 29% versus 7% respectively. Further, especially among adolescent patients, it is important to remember that early disclosure of sexual abuse by the victim is critical to reducing the effects of CSA and to helping reduce psychological distress later in life. Symptoms of ASCSA can vary greatly and, in fact, the patient can be asymptomatic.
Evidence-based research suggests that many interventions can be useful in this population. For example, coping-skill interventions seem to help diminish or prevent post traumatic stress disorder and related adult aftereffects of CSA. Physicians can use the SAVE universal screening tool (Table-2) for childhood sexual abuse in adulthood, developed by the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. This useful tool screens patients for sexual violence.
Physicians should also be familiar with their own hospital, clinic, or HMO policies and procedures regarding sexual violence reporting, as well as the use of specific reporting forms. The California Medical Training Center develops instructional materials and conducts training in clinical forensic medicine techniques for physician and other health care professionals, social workers, and related reporters.
James M. DeCarli, MPH, MPA, CHES
Injury and Violence Prevention Program
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health