ITHACA, N.Y. -- College women who were sexually abused before age 18 tend to have less secure and trusting relationships with their partners and lower levels of interpersonal functioning and social adjustment than college women who were not abused, according to a new Cornell University study.
College women who were sexually abused as children also show more signs of post-traumatic stress disorder than other college women, particularly if they had less secure and responsive relationships with their mothers or primary caregivers during childhood.
"In other words, our findings suggest that how sexual abuse affects overall mental health in later life depends on the quality of the abused girl's childhood attachment. Girls with a secure, responsive relationship in childhood with their mothers or other primary caregivers have some protection against the long-term negative effects that sexual abuse has on other college women who were abused as children," said Margaret Feerick, a doctoral student in the department of human development and family studies, and her adviser, Jeffrey Haugaard, associate professor. Although other researchers have looked at the impact of sexual abuse on behavior problems and adjustment difficulties, the Cornell researchers believe their study is one of the first to explore the long-term effects of sexual abuse on attachment in later life and to examine the role of childhood attachment relationships in moderating the effects of sexual abuse.
"We looked at attachment because attachment theory provides a model of individual development in the context of family relationships, whereby the child's sense of self and personality organization are shaped by his or her earliest relationships, particularly the relationship with the primary caregiver," explained Feerick, who is from Mt. Kisco, N.Y.
Haugaard and Feerick, who expects her Ph.D. in 1998, analyzed questionnaires from 313 undergraduate women at Cornell. The researchers looked at measures of childhood sexual abuse, childhood attachment to caregivers, adult attachment to partners, achievement, interpersonal functioning and adjustment.
Of the women surveyed, 68 percent had no history of sexual abuse; 22 percent had been fondled or touched against their will; 9 percent experienced attempted intercourse and 10 percent had experienced oral, vaginal or anal intercourse. Twenty-two percent had been subjected to exposure, which the researchers did not include as sexual abuse.
"These figures, which are fairly representative of the general population, indicate that sexual abuse is quite prevalent among children and young girls," said Feerick, who presented the findings at the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children Fourth National Colloquium in Chicago in June 1996. "Among college women, surveys report that up to 20 percent had been sexually abused as children. In our sample, most of the abuse was committed by people known to the child, rather than strangers, usually distant male relatives and male acquaintances."
Specifically, the researchers found that on measures of how safe and secure women feel in an intimate relationship, sexually abused women scored about half the average score of non-abused women.
"Although our sample consisted exclusively of college students and thus addresses adult attachment relationships among women who are relatively young, attachment styles tend to be trait-like and are not expected to change much as the women grow older," Feerick said.
On measures of trust, sexually abused women scored 10 points lower than non-abused women on a 108-point scale. Through statistical analyses, the researchers found this difference to be largely explained by the quality of adult attachment relationships.
And consistent with other studies, the researchers found no significant relationship between childhood sexual abuse and academic success and achievement.
The study was funded, in part, by the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.