Childhood Abuse and Revictimization of Adult Women

The experience of abuse is a pervasive problem within the United States. A 2006 study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services found that 1 million children in the United States experience abuse and/or neglect each year. Data collected by the National Institute of Justice along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that 1 in 6 women in the United States (18.2%) have experienced being raped, and fully 52% of women reported being physically assaulted as adults. (Tjaden & Thoennes,1998). A number of studies have looked at the consequences of child abuse, one of which is an individual’s increased risk of being victimized later in life, a phenomenon is known as revictimization.

A study conducted by Coid et al. (2001), found that women with a history of childhood sexual abuse (childhood sexual abuse) or childhood physical abuse (CPA) were two to three times more likely to be sexually revictimized after the age of 16. Messman-Moore and Long (2000) found that 20% of participants reported having been sexually abused as a child. Of these, 52% reported a minimum of one form of unwanted sexual contact as an adult, while 25% reported at least one incident of severe physical abuse or two incidents of minor physical abuse in adulthood. Based on this data, women with a history of childhood sexual abuse were found to be more at risk to experience abuse as an adult compared to women without histories of childhood sexual abuse.

Women who reported childhood sexual abuse were also more likely to experience forced intercourse as well as more physical and psychological abuse than non-victimized women. Gidycz, Coble, Latham, and Layman (1993) found that 32% of childhood sexual abuse survivors in their sample of college women experienced adult victimization compared to 13% without a history of childhood sexual abuse. Individuals who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were 11 times more likely to experience rape or attempted rape. In a review of the literature on revictimization, Arata (2002) found that most studies report that approximately one-third of women who experience childhood sexual abuse went on to experience repeated victimization and sexual abuse into adulthood. Arata also noted that most studies indicate that childhood sexual abuse victims are two to three times more likely to experience victimization in adulthood compared to women without childhood sexual abuse.

While few studies look at child abuse outside of childhood sexual abuse, one study by Widom et al. (2008) examined lifetime victimization in 892 individuals. Of this group, 55% had court-substantiated cases of three forms of child abuse (physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or neglect). Data collected in this study indicated that individuals who experience childhood victimization reported a higher number of traumas and victimization experiences later in life compared to those without histories of child abuse. Some of these revictimization experiences included being more physically harmed than individuals without a history of child abuse (75% versus 59%), being forcefully sexually assaulted (36% to 17) and witnessing another person being sexually attacked (8% vs 2.%). Overall, research has consistently demonstrated that women with child abuse histories are at a greater risk of experiencing adult abuse.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that women with child abuse histories, especially childhood sexual abuse, are more likely to experience victimization as adults. This finding has prompted researchers to investigate risk factors that may make individuals vulnerable to revictimization. One factor that has been demonstrated by numerous studies is the experience of childhood sexual abuse and adolescent sexual abuse.

Cumulative trauma has also been demonstrated as a risk factor for sexual revictimization. The more traumatic experiences an individual incurs, the greater their risk of being revictimized. Moeller, Bachmann, and Moeller (1993) found that abuse in adulthood was associated with the total number of abusive experiences (sexual, physical, or emotional) an individual accumulates over his or her lifetime. Specifically, individuals with histories of childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse were at the highest risk for adult revictimization (33%), followed by individuals who experienced two types of child abuse (21%), and individuals with a history of only one type of abuse (5%).


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