A 45-year longitudinal study recently published in Development and Psychopathology determined that individuals who have survived childhood sexual abuse (CSA) are more likely to experience various mental disorders, suicidal tendencies, health risks, poor oral health, and sexually transmitted diseases. They also face difficulties with relationships, financial decision-making, and are more likely to exhibit antisocial behavior. This was true even after considering other factors like gender, socioeconomic status, household dysfunction, other adverse childhood experiences, and adult sexual assault.
These problems persist into adulthood and are associated with CSA severity. While the risk for a specific problem is not very high, the cumulative effect of these problems over time can have significant consequences, according to the authors of the new study.
Historically, examining the long-term consequences of CSA has been challenging. Study author Hayley Guiney and colleagues acknowledge several reasons for this. Firstly, most studies have concentrated on a limited number of specific outcomes. Secondly, most studies have relied on participants who have already sought help in a clinical setting. Finally, CSA is not always defined the same way and how outcomes are measured can vary greatly.
In order to address these concerns, this study aimed to provide extensive evidence on the long-term outcomes related to CSA by tracking 937 participants from birth and evaluating their physical, mental, sexual, interpersonal, economic, and antisocial outcomes multiple times over 20 years from young adulthood to midlife. The data used in the study is from a population-based birth cohort study known as the Dunedin Study, which observed a group of people born in New Zealand from the early 1970s until they reached 45.
The findings revealed that those who reported CSA were more likely to face problems in various domains throughout their adult life, including physical, mental, sexual, interpersonal, economic, and antisocial domains. The results were consistent regardless of the definition of CSA, and the effect sizes were moderate to small, which increased with the severity of the abuse. However, the study also found that some of the links between CSA and outcomes may be better explained by other adversities that may coincide.
The collected data did not establish significant associations between CSA and sexual problems, risky sexual behavior, a lack of intimate relationships, or difficulties in parenting. Despite this, there is still a chance that future longitudinal studies may uncover more specific links between CSA and sexual outcomes or later parenting. The study highlights the ongoing detrimental impact of CSA on different areas of life and the importance of interventions to address the physical, mental, and social consequences of CSA.
The study’s credibility is improved due to its high retention rate, consistent measures used throughout adulthood, and various definitions of CSA to showcase consistent outcomes. However, the study does have its limitations, including its dependence on retrospectively reported CSA and its small sample sizes in the exposed groups. Nevertheless, the results suggest that CSA has long-lasting and negative impacts on various aspects of life, even in adulthood.
The research findings on the long-term consequences of child sexual abuse (CSA) have significant implications for policy and practice. The evidence suggests that CSA can cause ongoing issues in various areas of life, not just related to mental health, that can persist into adulthood. This knowledge can assist organizations in creating support systems for CSA survivors. It also emphasizes the importance of early interventions to avoid unfavorable outcomes and improve overall adult welfare. However, additional research is necessary to comprehend the complex causal mechanisms that lead to negative consequences in adulthood and formulate effective policies and interventions to aid survivors and reduce the health and well-being burden associated with CSA.
The study, “Childhood sexual abuse and pervasive problems across multiple life domains: Findings from a five-decade study“, was authored by Hayley Guiney, Avshalom Caspi, Antony Ambler, Jay Belsky, Jesse Kokaua, Jonathan Broadbent, Kirsten Cheyne, Nigel Dickson, Robert J. Hancox, HonaLee Harrington, Sean Hogan, Sandhya Ramrakha, Antoinette Righarts, W. Murray Thomson, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton.