Childhood Sexual Abuse:
The Silent Shame

Warning: this column may contain content that can be triggering for some readers. 

In the past year, male and female clients came to me wanting to face their past childhood sexual abuse. While my primary focus as a clinician is to help clients with substance abuse, statistics prove that a history of child sexual trauma directly correlates with the misuse of alcohol or other drugs. And if this person identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, this correlation increases dramatically.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), child sexual abuse is a significant but preventable adverse childhood experience.

The numbers are staggering in America:

  • Approximately 3.7 million children are sexually abused each year in the United States.
  • One in four girls and one in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse at some point in childhood.
  • Approximately 90 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child or child’s family knows.

Unfortunately, these numbers are much worse if the child identifies as LGBTQ+.

In general terms, most research shows that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to have experienced sexual abuse than heterosexual youth. For example, national estimates range from 40 percent to as high as 80 percent of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ+, which also increases their vulnerability to sexual trauma.

It’s also important to keep in mind that one’s sexual orientation or perceived orientation is not the cause of child sexual trauma. There is merely a direct correlation when looking at statistics.

Why are these youth more vulnerable? Many experts believe it’s about acceptance from family and other important systems (eg, school, friends, religion, community). This non-acceptance leads one to hiding their true self, which in turn leads to a variety of mental health issues, including shame, isolation and low self-worth.

Perpetrators target their victims and develop an acute sense of knowing which children are most vulnerable. This includes “grooming” their victims as a precursor to the sexual abuse. Given the intense rejection by family members and others, it makes sense that most perpetrators would believe they can abuse queer youth with little to no fear of consequences.

Our LGBTQ boys and girls already are perceived as different by society, and when rejected by peers as well as family, most perceive they will not be believed if they come forward. There is also fear of being found out if they were to tell a trusted adult about what happened to them. This leads then to shame; shame is most often what prevents us from talking about this significant but preventable adverse childhood experience.

Shame lives in fear and darkness; now is the time to bring the shame around this traumatic experience into the light.

Shame can impact and permeate every aspect of one’s life when left untreated. More common mental health consequences from child sexual abuse include depression, anxiety and PTSD; common behavioral consequences include substance misuse, risky sexual behavior, and increased risk for suicide attempts (and an increased risk of suicide ideation).

For LGBTQ+ adults, another consequence associated with child sexual abuse is re-victimization during adulthood. This may include placing oneself in situations where there is a higher risk of sexual trauma/victimization, intimate sexual partner violence, and engaging in sexual practices that are re-traumatizing for the person. Coupled with our community’s statistically higher rates of substance use, mental health therapy may incorrectly focus on symptomatic behaviors instead of the origin of the pain.  Thus, not creating a safe space of trust for the victim to disclose past child sexual trauma.

To change this bleak and stark picture, we can begin to talk about this painful topic more openly in a show of unity and support. There is plenty research focusing on treatment after abuse occurs; little research has been done on preventing abuse from occurring. This means our community can continue to work on helping our younger members feel unconditionally loved and accepted, especially when rejection is still happening in families.

Today, more and more informed therapists are trained in “trauma informed care.” This includes trauma from growing up LGBTQ+ as well. If you have child sexual abuse in your past, know that you are not alone, know that there is help. Please consider finding a clinician trained in trauma informed care and also gay affirmative therapy. Know that you CAN move away from shame and toward your authentic self. There IS hope!