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Childhood Sexual Abuse and Women's Substance Abuse: National Survey Findings

Sharon C. Wilsnack, Nancy D. Vogeltanz, Albert D. Klassen, T. Robert Harris

Objective: Clinical studies have found elevated rates of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) in women seeking treatment for alcohol or drug abuse, and elevated rates of alcohol and drug disorders among female psychiatric patients with histories of CSA. The present study examines the relationship of CSA to women's use of alcohol and other drugs in a large, nationally representative sample of U.S. women. Method: As part of a national survey of women's drinking, 1,099 women were asked about sexual experiences occurring before age 18. Women who reported sexual experiences classified as abusive were compared to women without histories of CSA on nine measures of substance use, self-perception of anxiousness, the occurrence of one or more lifetime depressive episodes, five measures of sexual dysfunction, and early onset of masturbation and consensual sexual intercourse. Results: Results of logit analyses, controlling for age, ethnicity and parental education, indicated that women with histories of CSA were significantly more likely than women without CSA histories to report recent alcohol use, intoxication, drinking-related problems and alcohol dependence symptoms; lifetime use of prescribed psychoactive drugs and illicit drugs; depression and anxiety; pain that prevented intercourse; and consensual sexual intercourse before age 15. Conclusions: Findings from this U.S. 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. Implications of these findings for future research, treatment and prevention are discussed. (J. Stud. Alcohol 58: 264-271, 1997)