The 16 Signs of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Over many years of working with survivors of childhood abuse, in all of its many permutations and combinations, I’ve come to believe that there is a constellation of symptoms or behaviors in adults which suggest they might have been abused as children. While these are more applicable to sexual abuse, some apply to physical abuse victims and a few apply to the other types of abuse we put children through.

Disclosure: the most exhaustive list I’ve ever found is in the book Secret Survivors, by E. Sue Blume. It’s an old one (1998) but it is still worth reading if any of this feels like it might be your truth.

It is not my place as a therapist, in my opinion, to diagnose or make decisions about your past.  It is my job to help you discover it for yourself.  So while the items on this list are common in the people I’ve worked with, I do NOT use it as a tool to tell clients they’ve been abused. I use it for my information only. It provides a possible underlying reason that my client chose to come to therapy at this time. The same is true for you — you must NOT read this list and say to yourself “I ticked off most of these characteristics, so I must have been abused”. That’s not the way this stuff works. {Sorry}

Abuse survivors often:

1. Have a very sensitive gag reflex

2. Can’t tolerate having water hit them in the face (in the shower or pool)

3. May not enjoy bathing; personal hygiene can be a challenge; alternately they may shower fastidiously and too often

4. Dressing inappropriately (either very modestly or very immodestly) for the weather and their size

5. Obesity (in my clients about 1/3 of the obese women were sexually abused)

6. Have eating disorders, alcoholism andor/ virtually every form of addiction, including sex

7. Abuse themselves – cutting, picking at the skin, burning (usually from cigarettes)

8. Lack boundaries, physically, emotionally and spiritually

9. Have ‘dead zones’ on the body (for example, may not know body has wet spots after toweling off after a shower, or she may not know how she got a bruise)

10. Are unable to make love in certain positions

11. Can’t remember periods during childhood or realize that everything happened at ‘8 or 9 or…’

12. Feel crazy, or different, or alone; also feel dirty and unworthy

13. Regularly see double entendres in ordinary conversation

14. Not trust the body (to be strong, graceful, reliable, healthy)

15. Suffer emotional abreactions: reliving the emotions of the abuse when confronted with specific stimuli, e.g. smells (aftershave or cooked cabbage like Grandma always made) or sounds (a footstep in the hall at night) or images (a type of bed or a sofa in the basement) or touch (the hair, or lack of, on a man’s chest) or taste (slimy, tart, or spicy). This is usually part of PTSD, but that deserves a post of its own, because of the complexity of the topic.

16. Arousal when reading about a child who’s been victimized. This is the body’s response to the victim’s sexual ‘education’ and is particularly prevalent if the victim was groomed over a period of time.  But it is the most shameful reaction for victims and one that is the hardest to talk about. It is also the only item on this list that makes me mad.  I’m not talking about the arousal of a perpetrator here, but the reaction of my client who feels ashamed because “Something is wrong with me if I feel this way”. It reinforces the message they were given during the abuse that said “this is your fault” or “you like it”. This message is incredibly complicated if the victim experienced arousal during the abuse. (Yes it happens – it’s natural and it’s normal).This isn’t a person who is aroused looking at a child but only when reading about the abuse done to children. (All my women clients who report this symptom admit it only comes when reading, but I have a small sample.)

It should be clear that the effects of childhood sexual abuse are long term and insidious. They don’t go away unless treated and resolved. They vary in complexity and how they interact. They are always impacted by the role the client has adopted to handle the stress of her family of origin.

And they are always treatable. They can be resolved, diminished or made manageable. The important thing is to accept that if ‘something doesn’t feel right’, it probably isn’t. And that there is no shame for what was done to you.


If you doubt that, please go and watch children playing at a park or in a yard or in their home.  Preferably watch children who are about the age you were at the time of your abuse or when it began. Watch them carefully. Then tell me what is sexual about their behavior.

Little kids love to run around without clothes.  It’s natural for them.  Tell me what is sexual about a 2 or 3 year old running and giggling because she got out of the bathroom after her bath and is enjoying the escape.

Kids are not sexual – unless a perpetrator has taught them to be.

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
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34 Responses to The 16 Signs of Childhood Sexual Abuse

  1. iamnotshe says:

    JACKPOT! Here is a list of reasons why I DIDN’T have kids. It wasn’t just fear … it was based on a lot of factual info. Thanks for sharing this important stuff.

    And, today, i am a respectful and loving adult, after 50 years on earth — i may have been loving before that 😉 … just didn’t want to risk “bad behavior” on children. Too precious.

    And, even though i swim, be da***** if you splash me in the face! Oh yea … them’s fighting words.

  2. Stacy Green says:

    What an extremely powerful post. I’ve been lucky enough not to experience anything like this, but I worry about my 6-year-old daughter every time she goes to a friends. I don’t have a real rational for this – they seem to be good people. But there is an influx of friends/family in the house, and with all the darkness I read about, my mind goes crazy. I don’t want to put ideas in her head, but I also want to make sure she feels she can tell me anything. So that’s a fine line to walk.

    Anyway, bless you for posting this and to those who’ve been abused, major kudos for recovery and talking about it.

    • Stacy, thanks so much for stopping by. If you know your daughter, and I’m sure you do, you will be able to tell, should anything happen. A watchful eye is always a good idea. and perhaps your mother’s instincts are yelling at you about this home. If that’s the case, then you’re wise to heed and watch.

      We can recover from abuse – but we need to be heard and believed when we disclose and then we need an opportunity to heal. Just as with any injury, it needn’t be life altering if dealt with promptly. so keep an eye on her, and an open mind but don’t sweat the small stuff (as they say).

      • Stacy Green says:

        Thanks, Louise. I think part of it is the teenage boy with some pretty big disabilities. He’s a good kid, but he’s also got some serious anger issues. He’s 14 with the mentality of an 8 year old, so he loves playing with the girls, which is fine. However, he can get really rough, and Grace has come home with bruises. So it makes me nervous. It’s probably nothing, but we can never be too careful. Thanks for the advice:)

  3. More interesting info! I’m not surprised about #16, considering how many abusers were abused themselves. It’s encouraging that therapy can help get them past even this. You’re doing a wonderful service here.

  4. Such a heart-breaking and important list, Louise. Knowing the signs can go a long way toward getting kids the help they need. A close loved one of mine was sexually abused and experienced almost every one of those (maybe all) signs… She repressed the memories until adulthood. Years later, her abuser wrote her an apology letter, admitting to much of what happened.

    What’s your take on repressed memories? Huge question, I realize, and I don’t mean to pry into your wisdom! But if you ever felt inclined to share, I’d love to hear your take. (No presure!)

    • I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who repressed the memories. It’s the only way most victims can get thru daily life. then they start moving to the forefront when an external event triggers them. for women, pregnancy and turning 40 are common triggers. As is a daughter reaching the age of our abuse. For men it varies more and usually takes some work and journaling to get at. It’s this whole concept that is the foundation of my hero’s journey in Family Ties. (LOL) because kids repress things they can’t handle. but always they come out, unless we get into drugs, alcohol, ED etc to pur up a wall.

      hope that makes sense? and no, we don’t need hypnosis to get at them. they do come out if we’re attentive. thx again for your blog luv this morning. Much appreciated.

      • Thanks, Louise. Makes sense indeed! Now I’m even more intrigued by your book! 🙂 Memory repression seems like a miracle to me… The way the brain will protect someone, separate them from what’s happening during or following abuse. I wrote a song about it (and what happened to my mom). If I ever get around to recording it, I’ll share it with you.

        • when you’re ready, I’d love to hear it. and yes, memory repression is amazing, as is Dissociative Identity Disorder, another brain tool to protect us from horrific abuse.

  5. Jill C Flanagan says:

    Wow Louise. There are about three or four that really hit home for me. Esp the obesity, which I know is a protection mechanism.
    Very interesting post, though. There are many others I identified with and found surprising and the ones I didn’t identify with were very interesting to me.
    I agree with iamnotshe, this is why I didn’t have children, either.
    Thanks for the illuminating post!

    • Jill, thanks for taking a look. glad you found some of them interesting, although I’ll bet others were not so fun to read. and yes, obesity is very common in incest survivors. we ‘pad up’ to protect ourselves. then wonder why we fail at diets…be well

  6. DL Snow says:

    Another difficult post, so well written and so informative. Thank you for sharing this Louise. As a mother of two young daughters, this is one of my greatest fears and like Stacy, I too worry about certain ‘friends’ and what happens at their home. Mostly, I encourage the kids to play here instead of there, but it’s really hard when there have been no incidents and the suspicion is based solely on a gut feeling. How do you rationalize that, particularly to your kids, when they want to know why they can’t play at so-and-so’s house?

    • I’m chuckling DL…I always made sure my house was the most attractive in the block. My kids always played at home. we were the first house with a computer and always had the latest games. my parents thought I was crazy but I knew where my kids were and where all the neighbor kids were and they were at my house – under my supervision.

      I hear your challenge. and the worst of it is there is risk everywhere. But remember, abuse outside of the family is fairly rare. if my kids played elsewhere, I’d drop by unexpectedly and I always watched for changes in behavior, so I could make decisions as needed. it’s tough, isn’t it?

  7. donnatunney says:

    A gut-wrenching post. But so informative. Thank you for writing it.

  8. asraidevin says:

    I’m torn between “Oh thank you” and “Oh hell”. *sigh*

  9. Reetta Raitanen says:

    I echo August. A sad but very important list. Healing from abuse is a difficult process but it is good to hear that there is hope. My children are so small that I don’t worry about abuse yet but I’ll propably get a little paranoid when get older. It’s a smart plan to have them and friends play at home.

  10. Kourtney Heintz says:

    Louise, thank you for putting together this post. I think it is incredibly helpful to make information like this available.

  11. Ayaan ali says:

    Hi lousie…umm ok so im 18 (girl) recently one month ago my cousin whos age is24 (male) touched me inappropriately…it was aall fine before.but then he satrted to look at me smiling…our and his family were going out of city for vacation..we booked a van..when i used to paas him things like water bottle or snackes,he used to grab things by touching my hand nd he acted as if nothing happened..then when i was shopping with my family in market .he passed by me brushing me off(like in rushy areas guys do to u) ..i was just so shocked..he acted as if nothing happened..he then tried to stand close to me whenever he got chance..more than this nothing happened..this is first time ive ever had deppression..he has gone back to his country but i constantly have flshbacks..nd he has stuck to my mind..i see dreams abt him constantly after this u think i need a therapist???? I mean is this matter too big tooo consulg therapist..i think im overreacting cuz i dont think this is something big which happened confused..plz lousie do reply me..ill be waitin..feel helpless…

    • it’s not insignificant. What we have to realize that what is traumatic to you may not be to someone else. So see a therapist. and get the help you need. there is no point in losing sleep over some stupid male trying to assert dominance and rights over you and your body.

      good luck

  12. ayaan ali says:

    lousie..the thing is ..i dont know how to explain …the thing is i talked to my trustful aunt..she is gonna deal wid hom but she is not understanding that how depressed i am being..she cant understand and i cant go to therapist by my self..i live in pak..she think taht if i go to therapist,therpist will give me medicine due to which my sleep will increase..she is not understanding my problem..even though she supporting me as she will confront him..but i want my therapy..helpless ..plz lousie do glad u replied bfore..

  13. Ayaan, I am so sorry you are not able to go to therapy. that is the single best way to work through the problems caused by other’s behavior to us. I am glad someone is going to talk to him, but still remember to protect yourself if he’s around. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do for you from Canada except wish you well. I can’t imagine being in your situation but I will keep you in my prayers.

  14. john says:

    what is the possible reason for the 16 signs that you theorize? The reason I ask is because I’m kind of lost in the reasoning for the strong gag reflex, not wanting water in the face and not remembering certain parts of childhood?The rest of the signs I can kind see an abuse victim having.

    • the loss of memory in childhood is very common with abuse survivors. ofthen the child’s brain is not developed enough to register the trauma or the child dissociates mind from body, so the memories aren’t recorded. These are but 2 of the most common reasons but they are fairly prevelant.

      the gag reflex is common in children who were forced to perform fellatio on their male perpetrator. Ditto for the hating water in the face. For some of us, the abuse happened in the tub and we were forced to perform these acts or we’d be held underwater. or the running shower was used to drown out our cries. Fr every symptom, there are multiple potential reasons for it, and they vary by individual, type of abuse, age of abuse and so on.

      hope that answers your question.


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