Civil Tort Actions: Childhood Sexual Abuse and Women’s Substance Abuse

07/09/2013 // Justice News Flash: Featured Column // Susan B. Ramsey // (press release)

Tort actions seek financial compensation for wrongs that have caused injury to the person bringing the suit. These wrongs may include intended harms, as in the case of a perpetrator who touches a victim in a harmful or offensive way against her wishes. The wrongs may also include negligent harms, as when a person or entity fails to use reasonable care for the victim’s safety. In this latter category of cases, a negligent harm might include cases in which an employer fails to conduct a proper background check or to adequately investigate prior complaints of sexual harassment or assault. Claims of intentional or negligent harm can be pursued by both adult and child victims of sexual assault. There are a number of medical – legal issues that arise during the course of litigation of these types of cases. One such issue is the relationship between child sexual abuse and substance abuse later in life.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may turn to alcohol or other substances in an attempt to relieve their emotional suffering, in other words to “self medicate”. More and more clinical studies support what many working in the fields of substance abuse treatment and working with child abuse survivors have long been aware of that many women seeking substance abuse treatment report histories of childhood sexual abuse. A report was authored by members of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, based on a survey of about 1,100 women that compared women who reported sexual experiences that were classified as abusive to women without histories of child sexual abuse. The results of this analysis indicated that women with histories of childhood sexual abuse were significantly more likely than women without childhood sexual abuse histories to report recent alcohol use, intoxication, drinking related problems and alcohol dependent symptoms or use of prescribed psychoactive drugs and illicit drugs, and depression and anxiety. Findings from this United States National Sample support those of previous clinical studies and suggest that women’s experience of sexual abuse in childhood may be an important risk factor for later substance abuse, psychopathology and sexual dysfunction.

Further studies such as reported by the Department of Psychology Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington and Seattle draw the apparent connection between child sexual abuse or physical abuse and later substance abuse problems among adolescence and adults. The rates of child sexual abuse reports among women with substance abuse problems were found to be on average nearly two times higher than those found in the general population and the rates of substance use abuse problems among women with child sexual abuse histories were found to be similarly elevated. Interestingly enough the rates of child sexual abuse were not found to be increased substantially among males with substance abuse problems – but men with histories of childhood sexual abuse were found to be at greater risk for substance abuse problems issues than men in the general population. Women, girls and boys with substance abuse problems were found to have elevated rates of childhood physical abuse relative to the general population while adult males with substance use problems were not found to have elevated rates of childhood physical abuse.

Survivors of sexual assault or sexual abuse in childhood may abuse drugs to help them “numb out” and push away the painful memories of sexual violence. Victims may also turn to drugs instead of true recovery resources, such as counseling; they may not think that friends or family will understand them, they may not know where to access recovery resources, or they may be embarrassed to talk about what happened.

Friends and family of sexual assault survivors may be among the first to recognize the signs of substance abuse. Early recognition increases chances for successful treatment.

Warning signs include:

• Giving up past activities or hobbies

• Spending time with new friends who may be a negative influence

• Declining grades or performance at work

• Aggressiveness, irritability

• Forgetfulness

• Disappearing money or valuables from family and friends

• Lying

• Depression or hopelessness

• Avoiding friends and family

• Drinking and driving or getting in trouble with the law

• Suspension from school or work

If you have a friend or family member there is help available.

Resources for survivors of child sexual assault and abuse.

There are many national and local organizations which provide resources for adult survivors of sexual abuse as well as family members or parents of children who have been sexually abused.

RAINN – Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network has a website ( and a hotline number of 1-800-656-HOPE. The website provides much information about where to get help, how to get additional information and a newsroom which provides help information about recent cases in the media.

ASCA – Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse is an international self help support group designed specifically for adult’s survivors of neglect, physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. This program offers community based self help support groups; web based self help support groups, survivor to thrive work box. It has a website (

The National Crime Victim Bar Association is an affiliate and program of the National Center for Victims of Crime. It was founded in April 1999, creating the nation’s first professional association of attorneys and expert witnesses dedicated to helping victims seek justice through the civil system. The National Crime Victim Bar Association continues the pioneering work of Frank Carrington and is a testament to the National Center for Victims of Crime’s long-standing commitment to civil justice for victims. Crime victims deserve compensation for the harms they have suffered, and third parties are increasingly held accountable through the civil justice system. (


Ammerman, R.T.; Kolko, D.J., et al. Child Abuse Potential and Parents with Histories of Substance Use Disorder Child Abuse and Neglect, 23 (12): 1225-1238 (1999)

Downs, W.R. and Miller, B.A., Relationships Between Experiences of Parental Violence During Childhood and Women’s Self-Esteem Violence and Victims, 13 (1): 63-77 (1988)

Wilsnack, S.C., Vogeltanz, N.D., et al., Childhood Sexual Abuse and Women’s Substance Abuse: National Survey Findings Journal of Study of Alcohol 1997 May: 58 (3): 264-271

Simpson, T.L. and Miller, R.W., Co-Committance Between Childhood Sexual and Physical Abuse and Substance Problems. A Review – The Clinical Psychological Review 2002 February 22 (1) 27-77

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