Sex Abuse: What’s the Harm?

It is said that sex abuse robs a person of his or her childhood. It disrupts normal emotional and psychological development and results in feelings and knowledge for which a child is unprepared. Children as young as two or three cannot understand that sexual activity with them is wrong. But this kind of abuse can damage a child’s behavior and self-worth and interfere with healthy adult relationships. It can even cause victims to become sexually abusive individuals themselves.


The ill effects of sex abuse vary in their symptoms and long-term impact. Some children seem to exhibit little psychological distress. They may, however, be fearful of discussing their feelings or may have repressed them as a coping mechanism. Other children experience delayed effects-no apparent short-term harm but serious problems that emerge later in life. In general, the variables that affect the degree of harm suffered by the victim include the child’s age, the duration, frequency and severity of the abuse, the extent to which force was used, and the relationship of the abuser to the child. Often, the abuser is known to the child, causing the victim to be torn between loyalty to the abuser and the sense that what is occurring is very wrong. In such cases, children will be frightened of disclosing the abuse because

  • They are afraid they will be blamed for the abuse and punished for it.
  • They fear their families will not love them anymore.
  • They are afraid they will cause a break-up of the family.
  • The abuser has threatened them with violence.

In general, children who disclose the details of the abuse soon after its occurrence will be less traumatized than those who carry the secret for years.

Impact of Sex Abuse on Children

The effects of sex abuse on child and adolescent victims include, but are not limited to:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of trust in adults
  • Sleep disturbances and nightmares
  • Unusual interest in things of a sexual nature
  • Seductive or sexually-acting out behavior
  • A feeling that their bodies are dirty or damaged
  • Withdrawal from friends or family
  • Return to infantile behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting
  • Unusual aggressiveness
  • Extreme fear or anxiety
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Delinquent behavior

Impact of Sex Abuse on Later Behavior

As adults, people who were sexually abused as children may experience

  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Insomnia
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug Abuse


Victims of child sex abuse respond to different treatment methods. Those with higher self-worth and strong family support fare better. Some seek out spiritual guidance or educate themselves about sex abuse through reading, conferences and workshops. Others benefit from psychotherapy. Generally, victims who can let go of guilt and self-blame are more likely to overcome the effects of abuse. Often, it is the passage of time that promotes healing.

Filing a lawsuit against a sex abuser cannot undo the harm. But it can provide financial compensation for damages and perhaps prevent the abuser from harming others. If you or a loved one has been sexually abused as a child, contact the attorneys at The Orlow Firm for a free initial consultation. For your convenience, we maintain four offices throughout New York City. Call (646) 647-3398 or contact us online.