Economic Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Adult Survivors
Economic Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Adult Survivors
by Megan Chuhran, WINGS Foundation
Incest and childhood sexual abuse are among the most underreported and least-discussed crimes in our nation, yet they occur far too frequently for the one in four girls and one in six boys who experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. Childhood sexual abuse knows no boundaries – it happens to those of all socioeconomic statuses, races, sexual orientations, and religions. It is currently happening in our neighborhoods and our schools; and it happened to our coworkers, friends, and loved ones when they were children.
Unresolved childhood trauma can have serious long-term medical, mental health, and economic consequences. The American Medical Association estimates that one in five adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse suffers from severe, lifelong psychological issues. Many adult survivors describe having flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and feelings of shame, humiliation, unworthiness, ugliness, and profound terror (Harris, et al, 1997).In a study of adult male survivors, almost 70% had sought psychological treatment due to the abuse (Lisak, 1994). These psychological issues may increase additional complications, including parenting problems, difficulty obtaining adequate education or job skills, and problems maintaining employment, which may result in survivors struggling to support themselves and their families (Brick, 2005).
A study by Widom (1998) found that 62% of “individuals with documented cases of childhood physical and sexual abuse and neglect” were in “menial and semi-skilled occupations,” while 42% of “a matched group of non-maltreated children… were working in higher occupational levels, from skilled to professional occupations.” Even when survivors work in “skilled or professional occupations,” Currie & Spatz-Widom (2010) found that childhood abuse reduced an adult survivor’s job earnings by approximately $5,000 per year. When calculated over a lifetime, this is a large loss of income.
Both the loss of income and employment in menial and semi-skilled occupation are also “largely relative to the effects of physical health problems” (Currie & Madrian, 1999). Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often report experiencing pelvic pain, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues (Koss et al, 1991). Many of survivor medical conditions are chronic in nature and place limitations on their employment options, activity levels, and ability to maintain employment (Currie & Madrian, 1999). Thus, as Currie & Madrian point out, “in addition to the medical, social, and psychological costs, childhood abuse [also strongly impacts] adult economic productivity.”
Unsurprisingly then, a WINGS Foundation report, showed that 45% of survivors attending a WINGS support group live below the poverty line. Members often describe how their medical complications, such as fibromyalgia and pelvic pain, and/or psychological conditions, including severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, negatively impact their ability to find and maintain employment. Additionally, survivors discuss how their once successful lives turned upside once memories and flashbacks of abuse returned to them during adulthood. The story of Richard, a WINGS group member, exemplifies the psychological and economic consequences of childhood sexual abuse:
Richard* had a fabulous life – he was part of a loving family, owned a successful restaurant, created fashion shows in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, and was featured on TV, radio, and newspapers for years. When Richard was in his 40s, he began remembering more about his childhood, including memories of his father sexually abusing him. Not sure what to do with his feelings and memories, Richard turned to drugs and alcohol. He stopped talking with his friends and family, lost his restaurant and all of his jobs, and became homeless. One day Richard tried to kill himself. Thankfully he did not succeed and he realized that he needed help. Richard saw a therapist who worked with him one-on-one and he joined a WINGS support group. Even though Richard could not afford to pay for a support group, WINGS was able to work with Richard so that he could still attend group and get the help he needed. Today, Richard is still on his road toward healing, but he is hopeful and has made it his mission to help other survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, the poverty, pain, and homelessness described in Richard’s story are an all too common result of childhood sexual abuse. Due to economic impacts, many survivors struggle to afford services that specifically focus on helping them with the pain of childhood sexual abuse. WINGS Foundation’s free support groups, located throughout Colorado, provide hope to many survivors. Research clearly indicates that support groups, such as those offered by WINGS, can help adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse heal their childhood wounds, stem self-destructive behavior and learn to create healthy sexual and relationship boundaries as adults (BC Partners, 2007). As psychological symptoms begin to diminish, many survivors find that they are better able to function in their daily lives, including the return to work and economic stability for some (WINGS Program Evaluation Report, 2012).
BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions. Retrieved May 2012 from
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Widom, C. S. (1998). Childhood victimization: Early adversity and subsequent psychopathology. In: B.P.
Dohrenwend (Ed.), Adversity, stress, and psychopathology (pp. 81-95). New York: Oxford University Press.