The Link Between Sexual Abuse and Substance Abuse

The Link Between Sexual Abuse and Substance AbuseWhile the cause for addiction is still widely unknown, there are certain contributing factors that may make some people more prone to developing substance use disorders. These risk factors include genetic predisposition, mental health issues, poverty, and a history of traumatic experiences.1 

It is not uncommon for those seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addiction to also report a history of sexual abuse, suggesting a clear link between sexual abuse and substance abuse. 

Sexual abuse at any stage in life qualifies as a traumatic event. However, sexual abuse and interpersonal violence in childhood is more likely to lead to cognitive issues and increase the chance of mental health disorders later in life.2

Risk Factors for Sexual Abuse in Childhood

Anyone can be a victim of sexual abuse. Sexual violence is common among both genders and can occur at any age. However, there are certain characteristics that may put certain people, particularly children, at a higher risk.

  • Individual Factors: Females between the ages of 6-11 are more at risk of intrafamilial sexual abuse, or abuse from a member in their immediate or extended family. Young women aged 12-17 are more likely to experience extrafamilial abuse, or abuse from an acquaintance, friend, coworker, teacher, or family friend.3 Those who have experienced violent or sexual abuse in the past or those with special needs are more at risk for sexual abuse.
  • Relationship Factors: It is possible for a child’s relationships to increase their likelihood of sexual abuse. Contributing factors may include limited parental supervision, parents who abuse drugs and alcohol, and family members with mental health disorders.2

PTSD and Substance Abuse

Victims of sexual abuse may go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experience disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the past trauma they experienced. Symptoms of PTSD vary, but can include:4

  • Intrusive Thoughts: Those who have experienced trauma may experience flashbacks of their trauma, involuntary memories, and upsetting dreams.
  • Avoidance: After a traumatic event, people may avoid situations that remind them of their experience and resist talking about their trauma.
  • Negative Feelings: Trauma can lead to a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities and feelings of shame, guilt, depression, and detachment.
  • Irritability and Reactivity: Insomnia, self-destructive behavior, emotional outbursts, and problems with concentration are common issues in those who have experienced trauma.

If any of these symptoms persist for more than a month, a person may be experiencing PTSD. When left untreated, this disorder can lead to other mental health issues including substance use disorders. Because sexual violence-related PTSD is associated with feelings of shame and disturbing flashbacks of traumatic experiences, it’s not uncommon for those suffering to turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate. 

Final Thoughts

Due to the strong link between sexual abuse and substance use disorders, it is crucial for those with a history of sexual violence to seek therapy. For those who are experiencing sexual violence-related PTSD and struggling with addiction, entering a rehabilitation program tailored to a Dual Diagnosis⁠—the combination of mental health and substance use disorders—will be essential for a successful recovery.5 


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2003). What Are Risk Factors and Protective Factors?. 
  3. “Risk Factors.” Trousse Media, Government of Québec,
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Sexual Violence: Risk and Protective Factors.
  5. American Psychiatric Association (2017). What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?
  6. McGovern, M.P., Lambert-Harris, C., Gotham, H.J., Claus, R.E., & Xie, H. (2014). Dual diagnosis capability in mental health and addiction treatment services: An assessment of programs across multiple state systems. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 41(2), 205-214.

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