Does sexual abuse leave intellectual as well as emotional scars?

There’s evidence that on top of their emotional and psychological suffering, victims of child sex abuse also experience learning and memory problems. But the evidence is inconsistent, and some studies comparing abused children with unharmed children have failed to take into account the possible role played by differences in the social class and wealth of the children’s families (i.e. their ‘socioeconomic status’). To investigate further, Corinna Porter (Brigham Young University, Utah) and her team recruited 24 children (19 girls; average age 10 years) who had suffered repeated sexual abuse, mostly perpetrated by an elder brother, and compared their intellectual functioning with an age- and gender-matched group of unharmed children.

Not surprisingly, the abused children all exhibited signs of emotional and behavioural problems, including depression and anxiety, whereas the unharmed children did not. In fact, all the abused children were undergoing therapy for their problems. However, after controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ, there was no difference between the groups in terms of their learning and memory performance (as measured by TOMAL, see

“…having children under therapeutic management may reduce the deleterious effects of sexual abuse on memory and intellectual functioning”, the researchers concluded. They also noted that work in this area is impeded by the lack of a standardised measure of the severity of child sexual abuse – perhaps it is differences in severity of abuse that explains the inconsistent findings between studies. They also highlighted their lack of brain imaging data (previous studies have reported structural brain abnormalities in abused children) and the fact they didn’t investigate the children’s ability to concentrate on the task at hand, or to switch easily between tasks (i.e. executive functioning).

Porter, C., Lawson, J.S. & Bigler, E.D. (2005). Neurobehavioural sequelae of child sexual abuse. Child Neuropsychology, 11, 203-220.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.