Get Help


If you need immediate information you can call one of these 24-hour toll-free hotlines.

  • Rape Abuse & Incest National Network
  • 800-656-4673
  • Childhelp USA
  • 800-422-4453
  • National Domestic Violence/Abuse Hotline
  • 800-799-7233


Caution: It’s Not All About the Sexual Experiences

Other childhood experiences can cause the same problems, or make them worse. And there’s always much more to who you are.

Here I focus on some potential obstacles to understanding and dealing with the potential negative effects of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences.

Under-Estimating and Over-Estimating

People often ignore and under-estimate the effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in their lives. This tends to increase problems and prevent healing.

But sometimes people go to the other extreme, and believe that such experiences are the only or the complete cause of problems that actually have other causes as well.

Such over-estimation is not uncommon, and very understandable. It can happen as one begins seeing connections between past sexual experiences and present life difficulties.

There are some typical ways people can end up over-estimating the effects of harmful sexual experiences, and under-estimating othermajor contributors to their problems and suffering.

Many effects can also be caused or worsened by other harmful experiences.

Of course, harmful sexual experiences can have a huge impact on one’s life. But if you focus too much on how such experiences may have affected you, then it’s easy to overlook the (sometimes greater) contributions that other unwanted or traumatic experiences and relationships have made to your current problems.

For example, if you mention your your harmful sexual experiences to other people – partners, friends, family members, even therapists – they may believe that those experiences ‘explain everything’ (or almost everything) that you are struggling with. The popular media send this message all the time, by featuring lots of stories and research about sexual abuse while ignoring the long-term effects of other harmful or traumatic childhood experiences.

Other Potentially Harmful Childhood Experiences

Unwanted or abusive experiences happen to children who live in families and homes that are, like all families and homes, imperfect. And some are more imperfect than others. Experiences like those listed below can have huge effects on a child, and certainly can magnify or complicate the effects of harmful sexual experiences.

  • Older children may abuse younger children.
  • One parent may be caring, the other cold and cruel.
  • Parents may be physically or emotionally abusive to each other.
  • Parents or caregivers may be minimally involved or not very supportive.
  • The home may be chaotic and unpredictable, and never feel like a safe place.
  • One child may be a ‘scapegoat’ who is rejected and abused by everyone else.
  • Parents may pretend everything is fine when there is little love or connection in the family.
  • A parent may lack healthy adult relationships, and use a child for emotional and sexual gratification.
  • A parent may disappear when depressed, lost in an addiction, incarcerated, or hospitalized for mental illness.
  • A child may be unwanted and passed from parent to parent, relative to relative.
  • Disturbed, exploitive or violent relatives, family friends or others may live in or pass through the home.
  • A single parent may cycle through boyfriends or girlfriends, some abusive and violent.

I cannot emphasize too strongly that many of the problems caused by unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood can also be caused – and made worse – by other harmful experiences including emotional abuse, physical abuse, harsh and cruel punishments, and emotional or physical neglect by parents and other caregivers.

Alone or in combination, such experiences can lead to problems in many areas, including:

  • Self-esteem
  • Relationships
  • Regulating emotions and impulses
  • School and work performance
  • Alcohol and drug abuse and addictions
  • Behavioral addictions (porn, gambling, etc.)
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression

There Is Always Much More to Who You Are

No matter what unwanted or abusive experiences you may have had as a child (sexual or otherwise), and no matter how great the effects of those experiences may be in your life now, there is always much moreto who you are.

There is a danger of creating – and getting stuck in – a view of oneself that revolves around having been a ‘victim,’ or being a ‘survivor,’ or any other potentially limiting way of defining or labeling yourself. (See Sorting It Out for Yourself.)

Finally, there are many things, including educating oneself and therapy, that can help people heal from harmful effects of unwanted or abusive experiences in childhood. But if improving your current life and creating a better future take a back seat to focusing on the past, then healing will be slowed down and maybe even prevented.