Why Can Childhood Sexual Abuse Lead to Promiscuity?

September 4, 2017 Tia Hollowood

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may try to cope with PTSD symptoms by engaging in sexual promiscuity. Here is how one survivor explains why this happens.

At first, the idea that sexual promiscuity can result from childhood sexual abuse seems illogical. Wouldn't someone who suffered sexual abuse have difficulty creating intimate relationships and work to avoid personal contact? While this can often be the case, a review of the research on childhood sexual abuse (from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, or AAETS) confirms that a large number of survivors engage in promiscuous behaviors, even those who turn away close relationships. Here are some of the reasons why childhood sexual abuse can lead to promiscuity.

The AAETS report also supports the finding that childhood sexual abuse is known to result in a myriad of symptoms including depression, sleep disturbances, poor self-esteem, guilt, shame, dissociative disorders, anxiety, and relationship difficulties. Often these symptoms exist under the umbrella of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In my case, dissociation, shame, and poor self-esteem were the PTSD symptoms I believe led to my promiscuity during my late teens.

Sexual Abuse Survivors Often Equate Promiscuity with Self-Worth

My trauma had ended, but I remained silent about the sexual abuse. In fact, for several years after it ended, I maintained contact with my abuser. The abuse I suffered had been so normalized that I stuffed it away and attempted to minimize it. In fact, my abuse had incorrectly convinced me, that I had to be sexually desirable to have any self-worth.

Promiscuity in Sexual Abuse Survivors Masks Other PTSD Symptoms

Sex became an escape on several levels. It was a dopamine-, serotonin-, endorphin-loaded experience. I did not have to be emotionally attached. I could have the satisfaction of being found attractive, wanted, and worthwhile, while still escaping any controlling relationship or the possibility of abandonment. As a final defense, my reckless encounters could trigger dissociation, which remained my ultimate escape for many years.

My actual symptoms of sexual abuse were still there in all their untreated glory. I eventually realized that I only felt better for short moments at a time. People began to label me and look down on me. My escape began to create more wounds than it could hide. I was becoming even more withdrawn. I needed help.

Replacing Promiscuity with Treatment for Childhood Sexual Abuse and PTSD

It took me a long time to recover from my childhood trauma. Rebuilding a healthy sense of self-worth was a large part of my recovery. I needed help to realize that promiscuity is not a dirty word. Choosing to have numerous consensual partners does not make anyone cheap or morally deficient. What is wrong is shaming someone because they have had sex with multiple partners. At the same time, I needed help to realize that sex without intimacy does not reflect love or affection. We are lovable and worth being around without presenting ourselves as sexually available.

Finally, I needed to learn that promiscuity doesn't cure the symptoms of PTSD caused by childhood sexual abuse. Long-term healing takes time and help. I was afraid to discuss my abuse or my promiscuity with my first few counselors. I wish I had known that a good therapist would not be surprised or judgemental about anyone's trauma or behaviors. When I finally could discuss everything, a tremendous weight began to lift from my shoulders. I needed to tell my entire story to heal.

Promiscuity is a difficult topic to address. I know we heal with each other and strengthen each other by sharing our stories. Please feel free to add to the discussion below. Your email information is private, and I will respond to everyone who comments.


APA Reference
Hollowood, T. (2017, September 4). Why Can Childhood Sexual Abuse Lead to Promiscuity?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Tia Hollowood

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In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 25 2018 at 4:02 pm

Hi Sharon, thanks for joining the conversation. You have asked a great question. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse seek validation that what happened to them was wrong. I think part of the reason for this is that we have spent a fair amount of energy trying to minimize the trauma in our own minds as a coping mechanism. From a mental health perspective, indecent exposure and inappropriate touching involving children are acts of abuse.
Your recollection of events is detailed. You clearly identified these situations as wrong and uncomfortable when they occurred. Your younger-self must have been so confused and upset that adults were acting so inappropriately.
If you are still experiencing intrusive thoughts or have concerns that you need more help processing these traumatic memories, a therapist experienced with trauma can help you work through them. Thanks again for sharing. T

February, 13 2018 at 3:31 am

I was abused by several different people on different occasions. 1st that I can recall was a neighborhood store clerk. The store was just next door to my house. I was small not sure the age old enough to go to the store alone. My mom used to always dress me in dresses. I hated dresses and stopped wearing them for long time but that's for another story. I remember t going into the store to buy a candy I was wearing a blue dress. The store clerk said something I can't remember but I followed to the back. He picked me up. His arms under my dress. I think he said something about the dress that's why I keep bringing it up. I don't remember much after that except a customer walked in cause the door bell rang the store clerk put me down. I ran to the front grabbed a cans bar and ran out the door. I remember looking up at the customer and he looked at me then at the clerk. I don't know what happen after that. Another time. Whe I was a bit older in 2nd grade we lived in apt. there was this teen boy Raul i don't remember how or why but I ended up alone with him underneath an empty apartment. In one of the bedrooms on the floor there is an opening a crawl space to go under. He took me there. I remember the cold dirt underneath my bottom. It felt soft. And it was quiet. After that I can't remember much. Except running home. My big brother later that day was chanting "stop Raul stop pulling my panting downs" but my brother didn't stop him or help him instead he made fun and I can't remember what all he did. Another time as an adult in my early 20s I went out with a guy friend i use the word guy friend loosely only because when I woke the next day I had a condom inside me. Apparently i passed out and he didn't bother to tell me. We are no longer friends. There are so many times in my life that men have tried to rape me. Strangers, friends family ones walking home from school I was in 5th a police car stopped me said they had a call of a suspicious car following a young girl. Another time my grandmother neighbor told me if I came over he'd give me 5 $. My aunt tore him a new one. I was at a party at a friend's house her brother offered to take me home. Instead he took me into this dark area a hill got out kept walking around his car talking to himself. I've never been so afraid. I swear he was trying to talk himself into not hurting me. As a teen I wore baggy clothes, I hated when men looked at me, I get up as a tom boy. Never wore makeup. Never thought as myself as pretty. I was always self conscious. I don't know why evil men seem to gravitate to me. I tried to commit suicide when I was a teen. Like I said as a teen I hated men. But when then I got into drugs and drinking and then sex seemed to be important. I don't even know how to explain it. I'm married now 3 kids. My husband knows my past and hates everything that's happened to me. He is very understanding. Even though i really can't say for sure I remember exactly what happened. My husband said I got drunk one time and while we were having sex i got into a fetal position crying to leave me alone. He said he's never been so angry at who ever did that to me and can't imagine what I went I went through. It's probably a good thing i can't remember. But a part of me wants to know. My 10 year told us last year her grandfather molested her. He is dead now. And I don't know if it's my fault this happened to her. But I feel as maybe it is. Also rumor is my grandfather was also sexually abusing his granddaughters 2 of my cousins came forward. But I can honestly say I don't remember my childhood. But should I try? Would it help or cause more hurt?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 13 2018 at 11:46 am

First, thank you for sharing your story. Your question is very similar to one I asked my therapist almost twenty years ago.
You do have memories, and they are quite detailed. I can only share with you what my therapist told me when I asked the same question. Work on processing the memories that you do have. If that opens up more areas that need healing, then you go from there.
I still do not remember everything, and I'm okay with that because I know plenty. More did come back to me as I began processing what I did remember.
From your description of your history as well as more recent events, it sounds like you would benefit from a counselor experienced in dealing with trauma. They will help you organize your memories and also help you find a way to recall things without experiencing the fear and pain of the original events. T

Vanessa Pariseau
February, 4 2018 at 11:54 am

I am at my wits end In my husband is absolutely amazing, understanding soo forgiving but I need some feedback from someone that has gone through tjis type of behavior and drama.. i was sexually abused from the age of 4-7 by a family member and did some counseling when i FINALLY came out to a teacher at school..but since getting together with my husband 10 years ago now I have been soo unfaithful and although he gives me a lot of attention it just doesn't seem to be enough, he even sexualized me to prove that attraction..but I just need help I NEED my husband in my life..i just need to know is it possible that as an adult now I NEVER really healed from this childhood drama.. please help me I am beyond desperate...please!!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 5 2018 at 11:03 am

Hi Vanessa, I'm glad you're reaching out. I see that you had some therapy closer to the time of your abuse, and from your description it sounds like your time in therapy was relatively short.
Healing from trauma is an ongoing process and I don't believe there is a magic point where we are completely healed. We recover, we move on, we have a setback, we move on. Some people have fewer setbacks than others.
Therapy as a child/youth would not have addressed the issues that surround sexuality in adult relationships.
I do believe you would benefit from speaking to a counselor about your past trauma and your current concerns with your marriage. They can help you continue with your healing and provide you an understanding of how childhood trauma impacts us throughout life.
You are not alone in this. T

Jeremiah Bradbury
July, 19 2018 at 2:07 am

Hello, my wife was sexually abused by her grandfather from age 3 to 10yrs old. She has 5 mental disorders from this and not to forget a huge control issue.Im on here because I'm at my wits end at just over 4 yrs..she had her moments of telling telling me she has cheated in every single relationship !!I've found messages,e-mails, #,s ...dirty sheets!!I know she's cheating and don't know what to do...anybody have any suggestions??

October, 20 2018 at 11:28 pm

I can only say that I'm sorry. There is nothing that YOU can do. SHE has to decide to make that change, and seek the appropriate Mental Health Specialist.
My husband claims he was assaulted by a trusted neighbor when he was 13. While he acts all tough and says it never bothered him, he had numerous encounters before I had to leave.
His father also did those things, mother too. "As long as they come home together" it was ok in their home. Not mine. Later, it was other things too. I can't go on that journey with him.

January, 29 2019 at 4:56 am

That is desperately sad Jeremiah, I do hope you have kept your own mental health, as this is the most important thing for you.
Take care of yourself.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

November, 21 2018 at 2:36 am

I have been where u are. I was abused sexually by a neighbor from 4 to 6. I was very sexual in my first marriage & unfaithful. He was the love of my life at the time & father to my kids. I did get a divorce. I will tell you the grass is NIT greener & had I known what this split would put even just my 2 kids through let alone me!! Who was made disabled by my next highly abusive domestic partner. Nerve damage & severe forever pain. My kids tho have suffered SO much. No man will love them like their own Dad. If hes a good man, as u say. Get help. Work through this. I will pray for u & ur family !!!!
All my luv & prayers for your families future

November, 21 2018 at 3:01 am

I am in a marriage now the last 11 years. I do love him very much. I have been able to stay completely faithful now I was drugged & raped at a party which I told my husband about. I was faithful to my last 2 partners before him as well. I am a flirt sometimes well was in the past. , the last 4 years even that I dont do. I have been able to really find my self esteem. In my 20s I had totally none & I can clearly look back & see I had PTSD & I tried to cover my feeling of being worthless My ex oddly also had a sexual addiction he had told me. At the end of r marriage I caught him in a lie. Sadly the man I thought was the love of my life was NOT as perfect as I thought. I am glad I divorced him all in all. He is such a different person Now I dont even recognize him. We married far to young I had sexual issues from my abuse. He had severe sexual addictions & fetishes which only hieghtened my sense of not being enough. Feeling that way was no way to live. I tridd to get help for us but he would go to one or two sessions & never go again. I couldnt fix the marriage alone. When I left he told me he knew he would never gave with anyone what we had. Odd he felt that way too late. He tells me this as my truck was packed to leave the state. My current marriage js healthy as far as trust going both ways. I finally have self respect & self esteem. That took real work on my part. That man that molested me stole SO much from me. Who knows who I would gave been who I would have married & been attracted to had he not molested me? The different type of person I am sure to whom I chose in this life. I feel Im finally in a real good place in my head. I feel good about who I am , how I raised my kids. So in the end I have finally gotten past what that nasty sick old man did to that poor little girl back in the late 60s I FINALLY AM OK & PAST IT!!! My daughter now 28 one semester from her masters & engaged to be married. I DID protect her. She was NEVER molested. I protected her From what I was not procted from. I find enormous healing in THAT ALONE. #me2. Sisters. We are. HUMAN we should not let people make us feel we need to hold kur heads down for begaviors that were spearned by being molested as a child. I have had a couple people in my life who have tried to rub my face in it. If they cant understand that the fact u were molested as a child comes out in overtly sexual ways when we are adults then thats on them not you we understand & obviously you are NOT alone in your response

September, 19 2017 at 4:30 am

Geri and Tia, I have read about so many women getting help (finally) for this in their mid-40s, which was also the case for my own recovery. There must be something about that fourth decade. Its mind boggling that our experiences and our abuse are minimized and normalized, which I feel like, is a form of emotional abuse itself. No one wants to hear it, to deal with it, or help. Its too hard for them or whatever so we are left to our own 5, 10, 20 year old devices. Why do our own loved ones turn away from helping and let it continue and leave the victim with even more shame to live with, even more emotional, physical problems. Its just cruel to add more Ti what we are already dealing with.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 19 2017 at 6:02 am

Vanessa, you touch on an area I still struggle with. Despite my openness regarding my trauma, there are still people in my life who don't want to acknowledge or validate it in any way. I've tried to find perspective by reminding myself that I have no idea what anyone else is going through. Thank you for sharing!

March, 9 2019 at 12:29 am

Because I'm not believed, I've never been truly honest with anyone. Ever. I lie. All the time. It's because I'm afraid to speak out. Whilst married I had so many partners. I've had my husband after we split even though I'm in a new relationship. I can't be honest to my new partner or my husband about that. It just continues.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 20 2018 at 11:20 pm

Many years past, I am really doing that inventory. The only thing I can think of is that they do t know what to say or do.
Having gone through some tremendous grief fairly recently, we see that many friends don't know what to say or how to act, or think it something you can just "get over" in a few days..
My prayer for each of your healing. Only in Christ have I found relief.
I just finished reading "The Way I Used To Be" by Amber Smith. A tragic journey through a young lady's response to her rape. Brought back some strong emotions, including self sabotage.

September, 18 2017 at 9:12 am

I was sexually abused and exposed to seeing my mother having sex with multiple partners set a young age and from a very young age I was hypersexual from all the exposure and abuse, and it continued and turned into promiscuity in my teens and throughout my life. I've been raped, I've been sodomized and I've never been able to prosecute my abusers. But thru sex I tried to fill a void tried to take charge tried to give it to them before it was taken. I can't even say how many men I've been with and it disgusts me now. And just makes me hate myself more. I'm in therapy though so I'm trying,

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 19 2017 at 6:57 am

Nicole, I am sorry that you are struggling with self-hate right now. I do know exactly what that is like. Therapy provides a great path towards learning to love ourselves. Thank you for sharing your personal story with us.

Jan Blumenthal
September, 17 2017 at 7:07 am

Thank you, Tia!

Jan Blumenthal
September, 17 2017 at 7:05 am

I stopped counting after awhile how many men I slept with. I would take a National Platform defending the promiscuity of sexual abuse survivors. Survivors, we strengthen each other by continuing to be open and transparent about this heinous crime. Who cares what anybody thinks about us? The entire Department of Human Services and Law Enforcement have our backs. Stand strong survivors. We have a lot of support!❤️

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 17 2017 at 5:20 pm

Thank you, Jan. We are truly stronger together.

September, 11 2017 at 5:42 pm

I only had a one-time attempted abuse, but at the age of 6 when it was my cousin who was put in a position of power over me and nobody believed me the next day, I think that was where the PTSD started. When I finally told my mom 7 years later and her response was (literally) "you need to get over that", that was the nail in the coffin. My cousin asked me to perform oral sex on him, and I felt so much guilt at the age of 6 that I didn't do what my 17-year old babysitter asked me to do that I started eating to make the guilt go away. It didn't work. Then when my mom told me to get over it, I started trying to scratch the guilt out of myself. That didn't work either. As I got a little older and more independent, I tried to make up for failing my cousin by performing that act on any man who asked for it. I did not actually lose my vaginal virginity until the age of 26, but lost my oral virginity around the age of 18. Then at the age of 29 I was raped by my boyfriend. It took me 3 years to realize that coercing a person into sex while they are having an emotional crisis is rape. (I literally was just thinking "go away so I can cut myself.") I have not had sex or even a romantic but not sexual relationship since then. Someone pointed out to me that sexual abuse survivors either go toward hypersexuality or celibacy. I have the privilege of having done both. I have since talked to my sister and my other cousin (the original perpetrator's sister) about the situation. They were the people I told the next day. They both said they were sorry for not believing me and that he did the same thing to both of them. When he had a daughter, I feared for her. She is an adult now. I have not discussed this with her (and possibly never will, knowing now that she has her own mental health issues). I have tried EMDR. It made the memories worse. It helped me connect the dots between why certain sounds (mouth sounds) bother me, but never taught me how to deal with it. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and suggested I do Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which basically teaches how to calm intense emotions or just survive until they go away and deal with things that bring about intense emotions, but it never teaches how to process emotions and make them have less power. I am now seeing a trauma therapy specialist in hopes to one day have a fulfilling relationship even though I don't even know my own sexuality at this point and question why a relationship matters. I just want to know it's an option again.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 12 2017 at 10:43 am

Tina, I hear you. Your story reflects so many issues we face. In particular, I often hear from survivors who try to minimalize their abuse if did not involve penetrative sex. I too was told something similar to "forget about it," and it was an entirely new trauma to discover I had no one who would believe in me.
I hope you continue to seek support and clarity on your journey. It takes time.

September, 9 2017 at 6:31 am

After a childhood of sexual abuse from both parents and one, maybe both grandfathers, I carried on the deviancy to many others as an adult. It wasn't until my arrest, conviction, and treatment during probation that I came to understand this horrible cycle and the effects it has on others. EMDR significantly helped with my own PTSD. I'm an old man now but still have triggers and flashbacks and return to my early childhood abuses.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 10 2017 at 6:51 pm

Thank you for sharing, Howie. The victim-to-offender cycle (…) is one that many men who have been victims of abuse find disconcerting, and much misinformation exists on the topic. The organization 1 in 6 ( is an excellent resource for information and support for male victims of sexual abuse, including those who wonder "Am I Going to Become Abusive? What If I Already Have?" (href="

September, 4 2017 at 6:02 pm

This article could be written about me ! Was sexuallly abused from age 3-12 , blocked out my childhood. Then lived a life filled with promiscuity, multiple addictions, and an inability to form relationships. Did not receive and sort of help until age 43. Was then diagnosed with PTSD and DID. It is a long process of recovery but I am working hard at it ! Thanks for sharing your story.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 4 2017 at 9:06 pm

Geri thank you for sharing. I wonder how common it is to go undiagnosed for decades. I was in my thirties before it all started falling together. You are right, it is hard work. Glad to hear you are recovering.

July, 16 2018 at 7:10 am

Wow. This is just me at the moment. The short term feeling of acceptance and desirable or lovable doesn't mask the self-hatred that I feel afterwards anymore and end up feeling even worse to allow my body to just be used. Sex is enjoyable but dirty.
I really need help. I have been feeling more and more out of control and I guess all the signs are really at their ultimate high. I need help.

October, 4 2018 at 12:57 pm

Thank you so much. That was my life.

January, 2 2019 at 11:35 am

I am 68 and lost my husband recently. Going through this has brought so many issues to the forefront. I was raped with sticks by my 12 year old brother. My young life included other less viscous sexual assaults. Then at 14, i was knocked out and raped by my boyfriend, who I continued to see. He moved away and I became promiscuous. I had sex with over 80 boys and men over my pre-married life. My husband and I had a horrible life. He was emotionally distant. After 20 years I started it up again. I had a best friend who was just like me. My marriage was now failing. We sought help and I was told he wouldn't change his cold demeanor. He never wanted sex, my one WANT. He was having sex outside of our life which I found out. So after more counseling we stayed together. I loved him for taking care of me. . .he cooked, cleaned, did everything. I had decided to trade affection for his presence. Now that he's gone, I feel relieved and angry that I didn't get the right help, divorce him and have a goog life. He was a horrible father... he left me sufficiently funded to continue life, but now I'm too old to find another man to love.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 5 2018 at 11:05 am

I've recently had a flash back of something that happen to me about 20 years ago. It has shaken me up, nightmares are back. I also do not remember much of my childhood, somethings I remember are flashbacks and dreams. My mind has erased most of it.

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