Research & Articles: Child Sexual Abuse

Child Sexual Abuse: A Core Social Problem

by Ken Wooden with Rosemary Webb and Jennifer Mitchell

A litany of health and social problems threatens the potential of millions of American children and youth: drug/alcohol/tobacco abuse, depression, suicide, school drop-out, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, homelessness, runaways, prostitution, welfare, divorce, violent crime and so forth – and can be definitively linked to childhood sexual abuse.

While we struggle to combat these persistent health and social ills, they continue to take a heavy toll in terms of human potential and financial resources. The public health factor alone is staggering. The economic toll, in terms of diminished productivity, public assistance, incarceration/probation costs and the like is astronomical. The emotional toll to individuals, families, and society as a whole is simply too vast to imagine.

The common denominator that puts children and youth at greater risk for most of these personal challenges is childhood sexual abuse. Though these crimes of indescribable betrayal frequently remain cloaked in silence, they are visited repeatedly in the minds of victims. The aftermath of such trauma can no longer be disputed.

A flood of documentation confirms that sexual abuse leaves its victims profoundly vulnerable to a host of personal challenges. In fact, every major social issue affecting the education, personal relationships, addictive behavior and mental/physical health of Americans today all-too-often shares the common denominator of childhood sexual abuse.

Not surprisingly, most of us find the thought of childhood sexual abuse extremely disturbing. Sadly, that aversion has caused generations of Americans to skirt this social epidemic rather than address it head-on. Only by putting the spotlight on childhood sexual abuse can we begin to bring illumination and resolve to these widespread crimes.

Surely a nation founded on democratic doctrine and upheld as a beacon of hope to the world, a people that can invent the global Internet and repair the Hubble Space Telescope midspace – surely such a nation can live up to its moral obligation to protect children as well.

By striving to prevent the sexual exploitation of America's children and youth, we can also prevent a legion of related social problems that rob our county and its people of their full potential. Lest we forget: Children make up only 30% of our population, but a full 100% of our future as a nation. They depend on us to protect them. Let's not let them down.

Poor School Performance/Drop Out

Victimized children had IQs 13 points below the general average of 100 and severely depressed reading abilities.

The National Institute for Justice, 1991. Cathy Spatz Widom


"Childhood sexual abuse may be a hidden but powerful reason why girls start smoking," says Dr. Figueroa-Moseley. "Smoking may be a way to cope with the stress of abuse."

While overall smoking rates have declined significantly over recent decades, smoking rates for teens and adult women recently have increased.

  • Women who were sexually abused as children were 3.8 times more likely to be current smokers than women who didn't report abuse.
  • Women who were sexually abused as children were twice as likely as those not abused to have ever smoked cigarettes.
  • Women reporting childhood sexual abuse were 2.1 times more likely than women not reporting abuse to start smoking by age 14.

Journal of Addictive Behaviors, Feb, 2004. Colmar DeVon Figueroa-Moseley, Ph.D., Director of Mayo Clinic’s Office of Diversity and Clinical Research and lead investigator in the study on possible connections between sexual abuse and smoking.

Smoking is strongly associated with adverse childhood experiences (i.e. sexual, emotional or physical abuse; battered mother; parental separation or divorce; growing up with a substance-abusing, mentally ill or incarcerated household member.) Primary prevention of adverse childhood experiences and improved treatment of exposed children could reduce smoking among both adolescents and adults.

JAMA, 1999;282:1652-1658. American Medical Association

Drug & Alcohol Abuse

Sexually victimized children appear to be at a threefold risk for substance abuse.

Childhood Sexual Abuse: Impact on a Community's Mental Health Status 1992, K. D. Scott

Men who have been sexually abused have higher rates of psychological problems, alcohol misuse and self-destructive behavior than men who have not been abused.

The British Medical Journal, Royal Free and University College Medical School 1999, Prof. Michael King

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

33% of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) patients reported a childhood history of sexual abuse, compared to nearly 11% of study participants without CFS.

Center for Disease Control and Atlanta’s Emory University, 2009


Abused or neglected children are 67 times more likely to be arrested between ages 9-12 than those who aren't.

The Child Welfare League

Approximately 31% of women in prison state they were sexually abused as children.

U.S. Department of Justice, 1991

Teen Pregnancy

62% of pregnant and parenting adolescents had experienced molestation, attempted rape, or rape prior to their first pregnancy.

Boyer & Fine, 1993

74% of women who had intercourse before age 14 report a history of forced sexual intercourse.

Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994

Between 11% and 20% of girls were pregnant as a direct result of rape.

Boyer & Fine, 1993

Women on Welfare

Over the last decade, six surveys of welfare recipients have produced estimates of sexual abuse that are both diverse and strikingly high. In Paterson, N.J., 24% of the recipients surveyed said they had been sexually abused as children. The figure was 25% in Michigan, 28% in Chicago, 38% in Washington State, 41% in Utah and 42% in Worcester, Mass.

"It is extremely common," said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has interviewed hundreds of women on welfare. "Nobody in the policy-making community talks about this, and they should."

The New York Times, November 28, 1999 by Jason DeParle


Abused and neglected children were more than twice as likely to run away from home than non-abused children. Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse-Later Criminal Consequences. Cathy Spatz Widom

Over 1,200 kids run away from home every day. It is estimated that 5% (60 kids) are suffering from sexual or physical abuse.

National Runaway Switchboard Curriculum; Chicago, Illinois


Approximately 95% of teenage prostitutes have been sexually abused.

CT Center for Prevention of Child Abuse, 1992

HIV Infection

1 in 5 reported AIDS cases is diagnosed in the 20-29 year age group: (the incubation period between HIV infection and AIDS diagnosis is about 10 years) Therefore, many diagnosed in their 20s became infected as teenagers.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 1993

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Every year 3 million teens acquire a STD. Sex and America's Teenagers

1994, The Alan Guttmacher Institute

Low Self-Esteem/Depression/Suicide

Abused girls were twice as likely as non-abused girls to:

  • Have low self-confidence
  • Suffer depression
  • Engage in bingeing or purging behavior

Adolescent boys who were sexually or physically abused were:

  • 3X more likely to suffer from depression
  • 2X as likely to have suicidal thoughts
  • 4X as likely to engage in bingeing or purging than non-abused boys

The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls 1997, Louis Harris and Associates, Inc.