Why Are Sexually Abused Children At Greater Risk for Revictimization?

by Adam Horowitz  
teacherwithstudentsIt is commonly understood the survivors of childhood sexual abuse are at greater risk for a variety of psychological problems than persons who do not experience this trauma. This includes depression, anxiety, substance abuse, mood swings among many other issues.

Research has also suggested that child sexual abuse may also place the child at greater risk for further abuse later in childhood and even into adulthood. This a phenomenon called revictimization. Revictimization may occur in the form of unwanted sexual contact, physical abuse,or psychological maltreatment. To some people, this seems counterintuitive because they feel the child should be guarded based on prior experience. Others blame victim themselves for revictimization and erroneously assume the victim must have been promiscuous or “asking for it.” Neither of these assumptions are true and there are numerous scientific-based theories as to why children who are sexually abused are at increased risk for revictimimzation.


Personalities forged in an environment of early abuse: Children who are abused by people they are close to learn to equate love with violence and sexual exploitation. They have not learned to create safe and appropriate interpersonal boundaries, and they grow up unable to see themselves as having any right to make the choice. Their self-image is so damaged that they may see nothing wrong with even extremely abusive treatment of them by others. It is seen as unavoidable and the ultimate cost of love. Some children sexually abused as children may believe that their sexuality is all they have of any worth.

Compulsion to repeat trauma: According to researcher Bessel van der Kolk, “Many traumatized people expose themselves, seemingly compulsively, to situations reminiscent of the original trauma. These behavioral reenactments are rarely consciously understood to be related to earlier life experiences”. Survivors of earlier rape and abuse may put themselves at risk of further harm, not because they want to be abused or hurt, but because they may be seeking a  different, better outcome, or to have more control. It may also be because they believe they deserve the pain inflicted on them. Often, reenactment has a compulsive and involuntary feel.  Survivors may feel completely numb, and unaware of how reenactment is taking place.  Conversely, it may call forth the same terror and shame as experienced in childhood.

Some children who are exposed early to violence or neglect come to expect it as a way of life. They see the chronic helplessness of their mothers and fathers’ alternating outbursts of affection and violence; they learn that they themselves have no control. As adults they hope to undo the past by love, competency, and exemplary behavior. When they fail, they are likely to make sense out of this situation by blaming themselves. When they have little experience with non-violent resolution of differences, a return to earlier coping mechanisms, such as self-blame, numbing (by means of  emotional withdrawal or drugs or alcohol), and physical violence sets the stage for a repetition of the childhood trauma.

The effect of trauma: It is true that some people may have a series of violent partners, or encounters with sexual predators. While some survivors may be overly cautious about everybody, other traumatized people actually have a harder time forming accurate assessments of danger.

Traumatic Bonding: Abusers traumatically bind their victims to them by alternating threats with intermittent kindness. It is not unusual for a perpetrator after hurting his child victim to offer comfort, assuring the child that everything would be okay again for a while. To a child, it may not matter that the comforter is also a violator, as it was still better than nothing. The duality of roles as both violator and comforter serves to cement the sense of entrapment. Researcher Judith Herman writes about the tendency of abused children to cling tenaciously to the incestuous parents who hurt them. Perpetrators of sexual abuse may capitalize on this tendency by giving their victim the only sense of specialness, or being loved, that they have ever had. It is well understood that people subjected to trauma and neglect are vulnerable to developing the tendency to traumatically bond with those who harm them. Traumatic bonding often underlies the excuses of battered women for the violence of their partners, and for the repeated returning to a batterer.

The survivor’s belief that he or she was dirty and utterly corrupt: Child sexual abuse often leaves the victim with the sense that they had been born inherently dirty. Children who experience abuse and abandonment may conclude that their inner badness is responsible for the abuse in order to sustain attachments to those who hurt them.

The survivor’s belief that he or she was not worth standing up for: Children often feel embarrassed and foolish for complaining about sexual abuse abuse; this is particularly true where the initial disclosure to an adult is met with disbelief or apathy. This response results in the children coming to believe that if something bad happens to them, it does not matter.

The belief that “It was my fault”: Haven’t many people who were beaten and sexually abused as children heard things like “you make me do this to you” or, “I wouldn’t do this  to you if you weren’t so bad”? Hence, this is what we learn, and what we believe when people continue harming us.

The belief that you must always forgive because an abuser matters more than you: Many abused children unconditionally forgive the adults who hurt them – it’s part of traumatic bonding and part of the way they blame themselves.

Regression and being drawn into the same space as childhood: Can a child say no to an adult? Some may argue,” no, but an adult can say no to an adult.” Yes, but not where there is an established power differential, especially one based on the fear of violence. And not when one has learned again and again that “no” has no currency. A child who is abuse may feel like he or she has no say in the matter. Even later in the life, a sense of choice still seemed an abstract absurdity.

Our attorneys have extensive experience handling abuse cases involving child sexual abuse and sexual assault of adults. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse or assault, contact our law firm at 1-855-700-PATH or send an email to sexual abuse lawyer Adam Horowitz at [email protected]. Our law office handles sexual abuse cases nationwide.