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Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Victims of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to suffer difficulties across multiple aspects of their lives as adults, a University of Otago study has found.

Previous research has focused on mental health outcomes of childhood sexual abuse survivors, but this is the first time the impact has been shown over a long period, and across a wide range of outcomes – physical, mental, sexual, interpersonal, economic, and social.

The study, published in the Journal of Development and Psychopathology, analysed information from 937 Dunedin Study participants followed from birth to age 45.

Nineteen per cent of the cohort retrospectively reported, at age 26, suffering unwanted sexual contact before the age of 16.

Hayley Guiney image
Dr Hayley Guiney.

Lead author Dr Hayley Guiney, of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit, says, as a group, these survivors were 1.5 to 2 times more likely than their peers to persistently experience adverse outcomes in adulthood.

“These long-term difficulties included smoking and alcohol consumption, systemic inflammation, oral health, mental health, sexually transmitted diseases, personal relationships, finances, and antisocial behaviour,” she says.

Survivors were also between 2.5 and 4 times more likely than their peers to have attempted suicide in their lifetime, with the highest risk among those who experienced more severe abuse.

“While not all survivors experienced the same negative outcomes, we did find the chances of experiencing difficulties across multiple life domains increased with more severe types of abuse.

“When abuse survivors tell their own stories, they often talk about the impacts of childhood sexual abuse being felt across many different life domains in adulthood. Our research aligns with these personal testimonies, reflecting the considerable individual and societal burden of abuse.”

Dr Guiney believes it is important to understand how multi-faceted and long-lasting the impacts of childhood sexual abuse can be.

She hopes the research highlights the value in interventions designed to prevent abuse in the first place; early interventions to help survivors as much and as quickly as possible; and the inclusion of multiple domains of functioning into assessment and treatment.

“Intervening early and supporting survivors is likely to help them avoid the potential long-term effects of those negative experiences.

“However, it is important to remember that negative childhood experiences are not a person's destiny. A significant number of survivors do not continue to experience problems into adulthood.”

Publication details

Childhood sexual abuse and pervasive problems across multiple life domains: Findings from a five-decade study
Journal of Development and Psychopathology

For more information, contact:

Dr Hayley Guiney
Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit
Department of Psychology
University of Otago

Ellie Rowley
Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 278 8200

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