We now know, as has been shown in a very large (and increasing) body of research, the most well known of which is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Survey, that the more adverse childhood experiences we suffer. the greater is our risk of later developing various psychological and physical illnesses (indeed, those who have suffered significant chronic trauma as children have, on average, a reduced life expectancy and age at a faster rate compared to those fortunate enough to have experienced a relatively stable and secure childhood. For example, those who suffered, as children, severe enough chronic trauma to have gone on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) in adulthood may, without appropriate therapeutic intervention may have a life expectancy that is 19 years below the average.
WHY MIGHT THOSE WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT CHILDHOOD TRAUMA BE AT INCREASED RISK OF CONTRACTING SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES (STDs)?
- IMPAIRED IMMUNITY: Research suggests that childhood trauma can weaken our immune systems which, in turn, makes us more vulnerable to contracting diseases including, of course, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
- INCREASED RISK TAKING: It has also been found that those who have suffered childhood trauma are less averse to taking risks than average and this includes a greater than average propensity to taking sexual risks.
- ALCOHOL/DRUGS: Those who have had traumatic childhoods are more likely than average to develop problems relating to alcohol and drugs which, in turn, can lower inhibitions with obvious knock-on effects in relation to sexual behaviour.
- PSYCHOLOGICAL PAIN/DISSOCIATION/PROMISCUOUS SEX: Those who have suffered significant childhood trauma may suffer chronic psychological pain as adults from which they desperately need to escape – such mental escape is known by psychologists as dissociation and sex can allow a person temporarily to dissociate. Seeking such a dissociative state through sex can, therefore, become addictive (in the same way as using alcohol and drugs to detract from mental anguish can become addictive); it is easy to see, therefore, why survivors of childhood trauma may become sexually promiscuous.
- FEELINGS OF REJECTION/INFERIORITY: If we were rejected by parents in childhood we may grow up feeling unwanted and inferior; frequent, casual sex can make individuals feel temporarily desirable and special, acting as an ephemeral antidote to these negative feelings. However, once the sexual encounter is over, the individual will often be left feeling empty, ashamed and of as little worth as a human being as ever.
- LONELINESS: Related to the above, many people who have experienced significant childhood trauma develop serious problems with interpersonal relationships as adults, leaving them feeling socially isolated and alone; again, casual, promiscuous sex can provide temporary relief, but also involve the drawbacks mentioned above.
EXAMPLES OF RELEVANT RESEARCH:
Research conducted by Haydon et al. (2010) found that young women who had experienced physical neglect in childhood were at higher risk than average of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Wilson and Widom (2009) conducted a 30-year prospective study and found greater reporting of having suffered more than one sexually transmitted disease (STD) by participants who had suffered childhood trauma or neglect compared to controls.
Madrano and Hatch (2009) conducted research that found the greater the severity of abuse (physical, sexual and emotional) female participants had experienced in childhood the more sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), on average, they were likely to have contracted.
The above serves to add further evidence to an already very large body of research demonstrating the potential impact of childhood trauma on adult health.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).