What is the damage from sexual abuse?

Cheryl Shea, M.Div.
Mars Hill Centre

The Damage of Sexual Abuse

I once heard Dr. Dan Allender, author of The Wounded Heart say, “Sexual abuse is the Evil One’s best tool to shut down our hearts from loving God and loving others.” I have to agree. While any sin has significant effects on our soul, the sin of sexual abuse seems to provide a fertile seedbed for disconnection with God and others.

God’s plan is that, as children, we would be raised in a godly, healthy environment where we would learn to know there is a loving God, and learn to know how to love Him and others. When a child is sexually abused, and does not have the skills or understanding to deal with this in a godly manner, the pattern of disconnection begins.

A child does not have the emotional or intellectual ability to process what has happened to them. A safe adult must provide that and that does not come through denial, “Let’s just forgive your dad, and it will be our secret.” Created in the image of God, even as young children we intuitively know what happened was not right.

While it is impossible for sexual abuse to not wound the soul of a child, the damage is greatly reduced if the parent (s) respond in a way that indicates that what happened is not okay, and that they will now do something to protect the child and punish the abuser. Unfortunately, with all of the adult survivors I have worked with this has not been the case. Parents, because of their own woundedness, were unable to respond as was needed to the abuse. Inside, at some level the child then decides that the world is not a safe place and they must take care of themselves

So begins the labyrinth of ways sexual abuse victims use to keep themselves from being hurt again. As children they may have acted out their rage in rebellion or being quietly compliant with the demands of others, including their abuser. As adults they may be driven to perform to prove their worth, do and be everything everyone else wants or use guilt to manipulate, to stay in control.

I said in the previous article that one of the keys to healing is listening and believing. This is true. Another key to healing is realizing that I was violated, sinned against and that sin has affected my life. When we are sinned against the effect is destructive to our souls. While we understand that Jesus died for our sins, we sometimes miss the truth that He rose again not only to break the power of sin in my life, but to redeem the effect other’s sin have had on me.

So, how do we begin to face the damages of sexual abuse. First, we need to see how it has damaged us. Ultimately, the effects of abuse in adult survivors are evident in two ways — in secondary symptoms and in our style of relating to God and others.

Secondary symptoms are like the tip of an iceberg. On the surface we may be able to see that something is not going well in our lives, however the real issue is hidden beneath the surface. Secondary symptoms include:

Depression –This includes feeling sad for a long time, poor sleeping patterns, lack of interest in things, family or friends and suicidal thoughts.

Addictions –Anything or any behavior can be an addiction if it is used to help numb the pain or feel in control in a situation.

Sexual dysfunction – Sexual addictions, such as pornography, or promiscuity or lack of interest in sex can be an indication of sexual abuse.

Eating Disorders – Sexual abuse deeply effects how we feel about our bodies. Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binging, obsessing about food or over-exercising may have their roots in childhood sexual abuse.

Self-destructiveness – This includes slashing, burning oneself, suicide attempts and other physically destructive behavior.

Low self-esteem – Sexual abuse victims often feel different than everyone else, and don’t like themselves or value their contributions to society.

Physical complaints – When sexual abuse is denied and the whirlwind of emotions buried, the emotional pain often comes out through physical symptoms such as back pain, headaches or stomach problems that seem to have no medical cause.

Simply because someone has these symptoms does not mean they have been sexually abused. Generally, abuse survivors will have all of these symptoms in a very intense manner.

Seeing these secondary symptoms of abuse is only part of the picture. We need to be able to see how these symptoms affect how we relate to God and others. It’s not enough to have a healed heart; God’s desire is that we have life-giving relationships and can be part of community. In the next article we’ll explore how abuse affects our style of relating.


The Wounded Heart, by Dr. Dan Allender, Navpress, 1995

Healing Victims of Sexual Abuse, Lynn Heitritter & Jeanette Vought, Bethany House Publishers, 1989

Cheryl Shea, M.Div.
Mars Hill Centre

Sexual abuse

  1. What are the myths about sexual abuse?
  2. What is the damage from sexual abuse?
  3. How does sexual abuse affect relationships