The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Women's Sexual Health: A Comprehensive Review

Sex Med Rev. 2018 Apr;6(2):188-200. doi: 10.1016/j.sxmr.2017.12.002. Epub 2018 Jan 19.


Introduction: Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has been identified as a potent risk factor for sexual dysfunction. Certain characteristics of the abuse experience, such as repeated abuse, appear to affect the risk of developing sexual dysfunction. Despite the robust findings that CSA can be detrimental to sexual function, there is little consensus on the exact mechanisms that lead to these difficulties.

Aim: To summarize the most up-to-date research on the relation between CSA and women's sexual function.

Methods: The published literature examining the prevalence of sexual dysfunction among women with CSA histories, various types of sexual dysfunctions, and mechanisms proposed to explain the relation between CSA and later sexual difficulties was reviewed.

Main outcome measures: Review of peer-reviewed literature.

Results: Women with abuse histories report higher rates of sexual dysfunction compared with their non-abused peers. The sexual concerns most commonly reported by women with abuse histories include problems with sexual desire and sexual arousal. Mechanisms that have been proposed to explain the relation between CSA and sexual dysfunction include cognitive associations with sexuality, sexual self-schemas, sympathetic nervous system activation, body image and esteem, and shame and guilt.

Conclusion: Women with CSA histories represent a unique population in the sexual health literature. Review of mechanisms proposed to account for the relation between CSA and sexual health suggests that a lack of positive emotions related to sexuality, rather than greater negative emotions, appears to be more relevant to the sexual health of women with CSA histories. Treatment research has indicated that mindfulness-based sex therapy and expressive writing treatments are particularly effective for this group. Further research is needed to clarify the mechanisms that lead to sexual dysfunction for women with abuse histories to provide more targeted treatments for sexual dysfunction among women with abuse histories. Pulverman CS, Kilimnik CD, Meston CM. The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Women's Sexual Health: A Comprehensive Review. Sex Med Rev 2018;6:188-200.

Keywords: Childhood Sexual Abuse; Sexual Abuse; Sexual Dysfunction; Sexual Health; Sexual Trauma; Women's Sexual Health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Abuse, Sexual*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Sexual Dysfunction, Physiological*
  • Sexual Dysfunctions, Psychological*
  • Sexual Health*
  • Women's Health*