The Link Between Sexual Abuse and Addiction

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When a person experiences sexual abuse in any form and at any time in their life, it causes many problems. A traumatic experience such as this is undoubtedly extremely damaging mentally as well as physically. Victims suffer many consequences of sexual abuse, including depression, low self-esteem, PTSD, and many other problems. One prominent problem that can manifest because of this type of abuse is addiction. There are multiple studies that conclude that victims of sexual abuse have an increased risk for addiction and substance abuse problems.

Sexual abuse is defined as any action that coerces someone to perform sexual acts that they do not want to do. These acts cause trauma – either physically, mentally, or in most cases, both. Sexual abuse involves a loss of control on the victim’s part. It refers to any behavior in which unwanted sexual activity occurs. These include rape, incest, child molestation, or sexual assault. They can also include hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

There are more sexual abuse victims that you probably realize. To put things into perspective, there are an average of 321,500 victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the US. 15% of these victims are under the age of 12. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), sexual abuse victims are 26 times more likely to abuse drugs and 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol. The likelihood that they will suffer from depression is 3 times greater than someone who was not sexually abused.

This article is part of our series on substance abuse.

Why Do Victims Turn to Substances?

Victims often feel a great deal of shame when they are sexually abused. Many times they have no one to talk to. They have no means of escaping their pain. Victims can also feel guilty about their experience. They may feel as if they brought the situation onto themselves because of something they did or didn’t do. These feelings weigh heavy on victims’ hearts and souls.

People who have been sexually abused want to escape from their memories. They do want to think of experiences that cause them pain and fear. And so they self-medicate to deal with their pain. Victims may do this without realizing it. Whatever substance or act they choose, it gives them short-term relief from their bad feelings. Perhaps they can even forget about their sexual abuse for a little while. This type of self-medicating can have detrimental effects depending on the substance and its addiction potential. Most of the time the person does not even realize they are becoming dependent on the substance. In many cases, drugs or alcohol use becomes the only way that the victim can boost their self-esteem and feel good about themselves again. In other cases, they use the substance abuse as a form of self-harm.

Studies Showing the Link Between Sexual Abuse and Addiction

A study that examined the relationship between a history of physical and sexual abuse and drug and alcohol-related consequences found that past abuse was significantly associated with more addiction consequences. The American Journal on Addictions stated that 75 percent of women who enter treatment programs report having experienced sexual abuse. According to another study, women who had a history of childhood sexual abuse were 3 times more likely to become dependent on drugs or alcohol when they are adults. This means that there is not only a connection between adult incidents of sexual abuse and addiction, but also between child sexual abuse and addiction.

According to a study by Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour in 1992, rape victims are 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana when compared with non-victims. They are also 5.3 times more likely than to use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes and 6.4 times more likely to use cocaine. The study also concluded that sexual abuse victims are 10 times more likely to use hard drugs other than cocaine. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape report, 60 percent of women receiving treatment for substance abuse also survived physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children.

The Role of Alcohol and Drugs in Sexual Abuse


Alcohol and other substances play a big role in sexual assault and related abuse. When people – especially women – are intoxicated, they are more vulnerable to unsafe circumstances. If something does happen to them, they are less likely to get help if they are drunk or high. Also, someone who merely drank socially may begin to drink heavily in order to escape their pain from sexual abuse.  A study by Lutz-Zois, Phelps and Reichle in 2011 involved 1,117 female college students. They wanted to find out if child sexual abuse had any impact on adult sexual abuse. They study concluded that alcohol use lead to future re-victimization.

Social Stigma Attached to Addiction and Sexual Abuse

Unfortunately, both addiction and sexual abuse have stigmas attached to them. In the case of sexual trauma, there are many people in society who hold the victim accountable. If drugs or alcohol was involved in the abuse, victims are blamed for their “bad decisions.” When it comes to addiction, many people believe that it is a choice and not a disease. They see the addict as weak, even though they have no idea what experiences and trauma they went though. This social stigma does nothing but compound the healing process. It also further isolates the victim and increases their shame.

People like Stanton Peele do not believe that sexual abuse (namely childhood) and addiction are linked, despite the overwhelming evidence:

“In general, my feeling is that no type of specific trauma results in any type of specific dysfunction in adulthood. It is not merely my distaste for deterministic models of psychology and psychiatry that makes me say this… Rather, it is the culture of violence, drinking, etc. of which the household is part that supports and conveys this heightened likelihood to engage in a behavior or, more generally, it is the entire deprived, degraded, or disorganized home that leads to a host of disorders. “

We must have compassion for victims of sexual abuse who are also addicted. Remember, they are usually using because they want to escape from their painful memories. They know no other way. The link between addiction and sexual abuse (the root problem) must be explored to end the pattern of addiction. New coping skills must also be learned. Recovery is possible when the root of the addiction is identified and dealt with.

This article is part of our series on substance abuse.

Categories: Categories Addiction, Health & Wellness, Lifestyle, Mental Health, Treatment
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