Over 1.2 million children are maltreated each year, of who over 137,000 are victims of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is distinct from other adversities because it often starts early in development, spans long durations, is associated with insidious bodily boundary violations, is highly stigmatized, can be shaming and demoralizing, and has serious implications for sexual development. While a substantial literature suggests that childhood sexual abuse has deleterious effects on social and psychological development, there is emerging evidence that it may also alter putative mechanisms that promote risk for adverse physiological health outcomes in adulthood. Indeed, childhood sexual abuse is associated with increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and HIV (all among the top ten leading causes of death for women in adulthood). However, evidence has thus far been correlation and limited by methodological drawbacks such as retrospective assessments, cross-sectional designs and inadequate control of confounds. Sexual abuse also affects processes in parents that confer risks to offspring. It is estimated that 30% of mothers with histories of abuse go on to abuse their offspring or recreate environments where abuse persists across generations. Resiliency is rarely a focus and knowledge about sexual abuse victims who remain relatively healthy over the life course is scant. Uncovering mechanisms for continuity and change can spark novel approaches to existing treatments and unanticipated targets for intervention. Psychosocial agents that act on biological processes are exceedingly important to uncover, yet these multiple levels of human functioning are rarely included within the same study. The Female Growth and Development Study (FGDS), which began in 1987 and has retained 96% of a sample of females with substantiated sexual abuse and matched comparisons, is uniquely poised to address these critical gaps. In an accelerated longitudinal, cross-sequential design spanning 6 time points (T1-T6), a multi-level, biopsychosocial assessment was repeated three times in childhood/early adolescence, twice in late adolescence and once in early adulthood. Over 90% of offspring were assessed at T6. Due to its distinctive methodological rigor, results published in developmental, psychological and medical journals have provided some of the most definitive evidence for the effects of sexual abuse. Two additional assessments, T7 &T8, will examine the long-term effects of sexual abuse on adverse health outcomes that are unique to the adulthood period. At T7 &T8, the majority of offspring will be at ages when their mothers were assessed, allowing an examination of intergenerational continuity through identical instrumentation and observation techniques. T7 &T8 will employ innovative technologies, emerging theoretical paradigms and novel data analytic techniques to significantly advance scientific knowledge about the impact of early life stress. Doing so will (1) bolster causal inference and provide the necessary traction to orient policy toward early and sustained intervention, and (2) illuminate empirically based treatment modalities targeting a complex set of biopsychosocial risks.

Public Health Relevance

Child sexual abuse is a significant public health concern as it increases the risk for several adverse health outcomes across developmental, psychological and physical health domains. However, the identification of risk trajectories and mechanisms of action are not fully explicated, weakening causal inferences and public policy efforts to prevent and treat these outcomes. By continuing to follow an existing cohort of women who were sexually abused in childhood into the adulthood period, this study will impact the health and well-being of individuals and families coping with sexual abuse by providing recommendations for precise and developmentally sensitive interventions that target multiple levels of human functioning and adjustment.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-RPHB-G (90))
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Esposito, Layla E
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Pennsylvania State University
Other Health Professions
Schools of Allied Health Profes
University Park
United States
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Noll, Jennie G; Guastaferro, Kate; Beal, Sarah J et al. (2018) Is Sexual Abuse a Unique Predictor of Sexual Risk Behaviors, Pregnancy, and Motherhood in Adolescence? J Res Adolesc :