Why Childhood Sexual Abuse Can Lead to Substance Abuse in Adults

Childhood sexual abuse is a tragedy nobody should have to endure. Even more troubling is that the effects of such a horrible event can span a lifetime. Understanding how childhood sexual abuse can impact adulthood is important in gaining insight into addiction.

What Is Childhood Sexual Abuse?

The term “childhood sexual abuse” can be used to describe any lewd or sexual act performed on or by someone under the age of eighteen. It’s important to distinguish teenagers can experience sexual acts that do not qualify as sexual abuse, such as consensual contact with a chosen partner. However, any act that was unwanted, unwarranted or performed by a family member or adult is likely considered childhood sexual abuse. It is most common that individuals who were victims or childhood sexual abuse knew the perpetrator personally, as a relative, friend, neighbor or community member.

Sometimes, children are aware of the sexual abuse and do reach out to others to get help. Other times, however, children may be threatened not to tell, fearful or do not understand that what they are experiencing is sexual abuse. In either case, the act is considered abusive and can cause lifelong problems for the victim. If you or someone you know is experiencing childhood sexual abuse, please call your local Child Protective Services hotline or local police for immediate help.

The Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Effects of childhood sexual abuse are tricky in that they can look different for just about everybody. The media often focuses on the immediate effects of childhood sexual abuse, but they do not talk about how the effects can span decades.

Long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse can include many symptoms and disorders. It is believed that victims of childhood sexual abuse may develop symptoms as pervasive and wide-ranging as people afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), one of the most complicated disorders to treat. Other long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse can include depression, anxiety, love addiction, sex addiction, thrill-seeking, low self-esteem, social withdrawal and substance abuse.

Substance Abuse and Child Sexual Abuse

Substance abuse in adults and child sexual abuse have been found to have a positive correlation. That is, individuals who have experienced childhood sexual abuse may be more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder as an adult than individuals who weren’t victims of abuse.

Individuals who are former victims of childhood sexual abuse are considered to be at increased risk of addiction for several reasons. Some of the reasons victims of childhood sexual abuse may begin abusing drugs or alcohol include:

  • Current lack of coping skills
  • To cope with repression or guilt
  • Self-medication for mental or physical consequences of abuse
  • To fit in socially and reduce feelings of loneliness
  • Rebel against authority or adults
  • Self-destruction or self-harm
  • Escape current circumstances
  • Boost confidence

All of these reasons may contribute to the increased risk of addiction among childhood abuse survivors. These conditions can be considered comorbid disorders, as childhood sexual abuse has so many long-term effects on victims. Individuals suffering with addiction and past sexual abuse should consider professional treatment to gain control and confidence of their life — perhaps even gaining that control and confidence for the first time.

Photo via