Impacts & effects of sexual abuse

The sexual abuse of any child has the potential to impact upon any part of their identity and turn their life upside down. Effects may be physical, psychological and emotional and often influence a person’s behaviour in a way that may lead them to be judged or criticised by others. Not all effects are easy to observe or understand.

Many survivors try to hide the way they feel as they are concerned about how people will respond. Some effects can exist for a short period of time whilst others may endure for years. The important thing for parents, carers and supporters to do is to keep an open mind to the possibilities, not judge victims or survivors for the way that abuse makes them feel and act - and try to find appropriate ways to help and support them.

Cambodian research (and that carried out in other countries in relation to effects) shows many similarities in how boys and men are affected. Based on our research, some of the most common effects are listed below but it is important to remember that each person is unique and through building safe and trusting relationships, we can find out more about them as an individual and help them recover.

Hold on to hope!

It is also very important to remember that despite some of the effects of abuse listed below, survivors of abuse are also very creative and courageous, they have many strengths and the capacity to heal. Often they just need the safe spaces, the right person and opportunities to do that.

Some common effects include:

Experiences of loss, including:

  • Feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Loss of childhood, including the opportunity to play and learn
  • Loss of the opportunity for normal growth and development
  • Problems with intimacy
  • Loss of control over his body
  • Loss of normal loving and nurturing relationships
  • Loss of safety and security

Some of the Physical and Behavioural Effects boys and men may experience:

  • Anal and penile injuries
  • A range of health problems
  • Confusion about sex and gender identity
  • Confusion about safe and unsafe situations, people and places
  • Increased vulnerability to sexual and other forms of abuse
  • Nightmares
  • Suicidal thoughts and acts
  • Self harming behaviour (e.g. cutting the skin)
  • Use of drugs or alcohol as a coping strategy
  • Risk taking behaviours are common in boys (e.g. stealing, fire starting, drug use)
  • Bed wetting or soiling
  • Learning  and school problems
  • Clinging and smothering behaviour
  • Insecurity, which put the child at risk for further abuse and exploitation
  • Psychosomatic complaints such as stomachaches and headaches
  • Precocious and/or harmful sexual activity - a young child knows more than they should about sexual activity and may exhibit seductive or harmful sexual behaviour
  • Behaviour problems and difficulties expressing and/or controlling emotions
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Aggression, bullying of others and anti social behaviour
  • Anger
  • Problems concentrating on school or work
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Fear of normal activities (such as taking a shower, going to the toilet)
  • Running away from home
  • Problems eating and sleeping
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness    
  • In adulthood, sexual dysfunction - avoidance of, or phobic reactions to sexual intimacy.
  • Dissociation - a child's existence is dependent on his/her ability to separate from the pain, which, in the most serious cases, can result in multiple personalities
  • PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can affect sexually abused children and adult survivors of child abuse. Symptoms experienced are similar to those experienced by Vietnam veterans and may include sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression, which negatively impact on their daily psychosocial functioning and for which many seek professional help.
  • Becoming trapped in unhealthy and sexually exploited situations
  • Sexual abuse effects on the child or youth are connected to their life before, during and after the sexual contact and often continue long after the abuse stops.

The responses of other people are often unhelpful:

Many of the boys and young men explain that the way they are treated by others – parents, carers, friends, and authority figures etc. also has the capacity to affect them in a negative way and add to their problems. As some of the boys described:

"Boys can’t cry out. If we cry, they say we are weak, but they don’t know how much hurt we have."

"Other people scold us that we are bad children, so I ran away from home. I cannot eat or sleep … I want to hide this issue and keep it a secret forever."

"We’ve never been offered help by anyone; no one believes us. I still remember how it affected my life … I thought it could never happen to boys … I used to try to tell other people but they didn’t believe me."

"The police asked about these things in a normal way—they did not think that I was ashamed … My picture was in the newspaper; they only covered my eyes a bit and the people who live near me recognised me … I escaped for a year from the place where I lived because I was so embarrassed … They did not think of me at all—the police, journalists or my neighbours."

"My mother and grandmother blamed me … My mum beat me, they cried and were afraid I would go to jail … There was lots of crying and I ran away from home …"

"Some children are so broken-hearted about the abuse that they feel like committing suicide; others may want to control or beat others or sniff glue. When boys tell their difficult issue to others, it can help them forget their sadness, but if they tell someone who tells everybody in the village, the boys may run away or commit suicide."

The unique First Step training curriculum and workshops explore these issues in much greater detail and help us understand how to help boys and young men in an appropriate way. The training also includes exploration of factors that influence the severity of effects, some comparison with females and opportunities for learners to discuss how working with boys can influence their own thoughts, feelings and behavior.


Details of our training opportunities are contained on the Learning, Education and Support page of this web site or you may contact our office on the telephone number and email address provided.


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