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Recognizing Adult Symptoms of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Aug 26, 2022
Last updated Apr 22, 2024
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Childhood sex abuse is an unnerving problem in America, with research showing that child protective services substantiate a child sex abuse claim every nine minutes. It is not uncommon for a child who is being sexually abused to not process that what is happening is abuse, especially in situations where the child was groomed before the abuse took place. The repressed memories and trauma of childhood sexual abuse may manifest as adult symptoms of childhood sexual abuse in the form of mental, physical, sexual, and interpersonal difficulties, to no fault of the child.

Key Takeaways

  • Childhood sexual abuse affects victims differently and trauma or repressed memories may resurface many years later
  • Adults survivors of sexual abuse may experience mental, physical, sexual, and interpersonal manifestations of past abuse
  • Holding the abuser accountable through a sex abuse lawsuit can assist the survivor with the healing process

What Constitutes Child Sexual Abuse?

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), child sex abuse can be defined as any sexual activity that involves a minor, as a child cannot consent to any form of sexual behavior. Childhood sex abuse is often physical but can also be mental and emotional. Examples of child sex abuse include:

  • Exposing oneself to a minor
  • Fondling or any sexual touching
  • Masturbation in the presence of a minor or forcing a minor to masturbate
  • Intercourse of any kind
  • Inappropriate phone calls, text messages, or online messages
  • Creating, owning, or sharing child pornography

Adult Manifestations of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Childhood sex abuse affects each survivor differently, but the trauma from being sexually abused as a child may take a toll on the survivor’s mental and physical health, relationships, and more for years to come. Some victims of childhood sexual abuse may subconsciously repress memories of the abuse, which may resurface in adulthood as negative feelings or anxiety. Childhood sex abuse survivors who experienced repeated acts of sex abuse, physical violence, threats, and incest are more likely to suffer from more pronounced symptoms in their everyday life as an adult.

Interpersonal Relationships

  • Fear of intimacy or attachment
  • Difficulty establishing boundaries with others
  • Unhealthy attachment styles
  • Prone to revictimization
  • Avoidant or ambivalent coping mechanisms
  • Prone to social introversion and alienation


  • Intense feelings of guilt or shame
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Memory loss
  • Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating

Physical Symptoms

  • Body image issues
  • Eating disorders, including bulimia and anorexia
  • More likely to live an inactive lifestyle
  • Chronic pain, especially in the abdomen and pelvic area
  • Lower pain threshold

Sexual Symptoms

  • Avoiding or fearing sex or intimacy
  • Disinterest in sex or intimacy
  • Thinking of sex as an obligation
  • Experiencing negative feelings when touched
  • Difficulty becoming aroused
  • Intrusive or disturbing thoughts about sex
  • Compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors
  • Difficulty establishing or maintaining intimate relationships

Uncovering Repressed Memories of Abuse

While not having memories of parts of childhood is normal, memory loss and memory repression is a common coping mechanism for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Sex abuse survivors may experience repressed memories due to severe emotional distress, physical trauma, or because they did not understand they were being sexually abused as a child. Repressed memories may reemerge in adulthood as feelings of disgust or repulsion, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts.

In most instances, survivors of child sex abuse will remember at least part of the awful things that happened. If you have experienced any of the aforementioned symptoms and think that you may have repressed memories of being sexually abused as a child, finding a trusted mental health practitioner is the best way to unlock repressed memories due to child sex abuse. A therapist may be able to help you understand the adult symptoms of childhood sexual abuse that you may be experiencing and can help safely access past trauma in a controlled environment through talk therapy, age regression, hypnosis, and other methods.

Childhood Sexual Abuse Statistics

  • According to the CDC, about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
  • In 2015, the total lifetime economic burden of childhood sexual abuse in the US was estimated to be at least $9.3 billion, according to the CDC.
  • According to RAINN, 93% of childhood sexual abuse survivors personally know their abuser.

Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse

Working with a therapist to unpack the trauma of child sex abuse can help the survivor begin the healing process and mitigate adult symptoms of childhood sexual abuse. In response to allegations of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee compiled a list of stages sex abuse survivors commonly go through in order to heal:

  • Making the decision to heal
  • The emergency stage
  • Remembering the abuse
  • Acknowledging it happened
  • Breaking the silence
  • Understanding that it was not your fault
  • Connecting with your inner child
  • Grieving the abuse
  • Anger
  • Confronting your abuser
  • Forgiving yourself
  • Resolving your inner conflicts

After beginning the healing process, survivors of childhood sexual abuse may choose to file a civil lawsuit against their abuser and any third parties that enabled the abuse. A childhood sex abuse lawsuit can allow the survivor to hold their abuser accountable and seek monetary compensation for the trauma that they endured and the long-term consequences the abuse caused.

New York Adult Survivors Act

Beginning November 24, 2022, the New York Adult Survivors Act gives adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse a one-year window to file a lawsuit against their abuser regardless of when the abuse took place. In addition to suing the perpetrator, the survivor can also sue the abuser’s employer if applicable, or any official with oversight responsibilities who was negligent in stopping the abuses or who attempted to cover up the abuse.

How a Sex Abuse Lawyer Can Help You

If you are considering taking legal action against your abuser, it may be in your best interest to consult with a qualified and compassionate sex abuse lawyer who can help to guide you through the legal process. An experienced sex assault lawyer can help you by:

  • Evaluating the value of your case and fighting for appropriate compensation
  • Determining all of the parties that may be liable
  • Negotiating on your behalf so you do not have to directly deal with your abuser
  • Protecting your rights and privacy and advocating on your behalf

Resources for Sexual Abuse Survivors

  • RAINN: RAINN, or the Rape, Abuses & Incest National Network, is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE).
  • NSVRC: NSVRC (The National Sexual Violence Resource Center) is a lead nonprofit that translates research regarding sexual violence into solutions and best practices to create lasting change.
  • Joyful Heart Foundation: Created by Mariska Hargitay in 2004, Joyful Heart Foundation is a national organization committed to changing the way the public responds to sexual assault and domestic violence through advocacy and education.

Speak With a Childhood Sex Abuse Lawyer

Childhood sexual assault is a revolting and devastating crime that can affect all aspects of the survivor’s life for decades after the abuse occurred. While the damage can not be undone from the perpetrator’s acts, financial compensation can help the survivor access the medical and mental health resources needed in order to heal. If you or a loved one were sexually abused as a child or are experiencing repressed memory symptoms, contact Edwards Henderson today to speak with a compassionate childhood sex abuse lawyer. Our law firm offers free and confidential legal consultations.

Article Sources

  1. RAINN: Children and Teens: Statistics
  2. CDC Fast Facts: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse
  3. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
  4. National Sexual Violence Resource Center
  5. Joyful Heart Foundation

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