Alcoholism and Child Sexual Abuse – They’re Connected


This is the first in a series about childhood trauma and alcohol.

I’ve been re-reading Ann Dowsett Johnston’s book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me, but the correlation between childhood trauma and adult alcoholism is staggering. Here’s what Ann says:

“The strongest single predictor for both alcoholism and depression is having been sexually abused or traumatized in childhood. …Sexual trauma is the strongest predictor.” (page 81)

The women Johnston interviewed had this to say:

“I drink to numb, I drink to forget, I drink not to feel, I drink not to be me.” (page 107)

Anyone who has ever felt the soft hum of alcohol going down her throat, blurring pain and depression, knows that alcohol works. You feel more relaxed as the alcohol triggers the reward spot in your brain. All’s well with the world, you’re wittier and wiser than you were before the drink. It’s quick and effective. It’s your best friend. … Until you want it to let go … And it won’t.

The trouble with wine, spirits and beer is this: by the time you realize you’re dependent on them, that your sleep is shallow and your body is suffering, it demands that you drink more and more before it will bless you with its nice warm feelings.

There’s another association with alcohol abuse and childhood trauma. In my personal experience and in all the people I’ve met who suffered abuse at the hands of an adult they trusted, that perpetrator was almost always fueled by alcohol.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at how traumatized children tend to start drinking early and I’ll introduce another author you may find useful.


  1. Vivian Treadwell says:

    For some reason I made up my mind at 12 years old do not do to others what was done to me not become an alcoholic not become an addict of illegal drugs, to this day I’m not sure why this happened, for anyone who is in addiction because of the pain that they suffered, see yourself as a child, have empathy on yourself, and hugg yourself, huggs are going out from me.

  2. I’m glad for you, Vivian, that you didn’t try coping through substances. Could you say more about your decision not to start drinking? Was it a particular person who served as a role model? Was it disgust for what you saw as the result of drinking?

    We often think about our wounds. But what about your strengths? What gave you the strength to survive your painful childhood? It’s worth thinking about. Would like to hear.

  3. Ben says:

    This is interesting.

    While I have no doubt that alcoholism is linked to childhood sexual abuse and depression, I take issue with the idea that perpetrators are almost always fueled by alcohol. In my family, none of the perpetrators drink at all. Also, all of my abused students come from ‘dry’ homes. All of the abusers I have known, in both my personal and professional lives, are teetotalers.

    Perpetrators who abuse others while sober are the worst sort. Those who abuse while drunk generally are relatively non-abusive when sober; after the drunken rage, they often cry and beg for forgiveness. Sober perpetrators, on the other hand, plot their abuse in advance and then abuse rationally and relentlessly while in full control of their physical and mental capacities.

    When a person is abused by a drunk, the victim can argue, “He didn’t really mean to do that to me. He was drunk and couldn’t control himself. He would normally never hurt me!” Such rationalization allows the victim to continue to love and attach to his or her perpetrator.

    Those abused by sober perpetrators, however, cannot rationalize their abuser’s acts. Victims of such perpetrators know their abuser is truly evil.


  4. Ben says:

    Post Script:

    If we assume that sober perpetrators of child sexual abuse are psychopaths or sociopaths, then we might ask what are the relative percentages of alcoholic abusers to psychopathic/sociopathic abusers. I don’t know what the figures are.

    I wonder: could it be that we wish to believe that most, or even all, perpetrators of sexual abuse are alcoholics? Just as a child prefers to rationalize away his or her parent’s abuse (“Daddy only beat Mommy because I forgot to clean up my room.”), perhaps we adults would rather rationalize away our knowledge and understanding of abuse (“John only hurt his child because he was drunk; he didn’t realize what he was doing.”).

    We feel better believing that there is an ‘answer’ to why some people hurt others. It feels better to relegate such abusive acts to alcohol, to an object, rather than a human being. Such rationalization helps us to deny the concept that human beings are, indeed, capable of such atrocities.

  5. Thanks, Ben, for your thought provoking comments. That’s so interesting that you have dealt with people abused by sober – and worse – perpetrators. You paint a terrible picture of devious, sober minds facing their victims.

    For me, alcohol doesn’t excuse the perpetrator. The abuser is still responsible for his (or her) actions.I think alcohol allows abusers to push aside their normal ethical boundaries.

    • Ben says:

      Yes, I agree. Alcohol makes it ‘easy’ for a drinker to overstep personal boundaries, but that fact doesn’t excuse him from his actions.

      Most of us find it ‘easier’ to understand abuse when we can rationalize it away. For instance, an abused child would much rather take the blame for the abuse (“Dad broke my arm because he loves me and needed to teach me a lesson.”) rather than accept the fact that his father broke his arm for no good reason, but rather just because he was in a rage, and his child was conveniently positioned and too little to stand up for himself.

      If a child were to acknowledge the truth to himself (“Dad broke my arm solely because he is a malicious bully looking for someone weaker than himself to prey upon.”), the child would open himself up to a world in which terrible things happen for no good reason, where adults who are supposed to care for him cannot be trusted. Such a realization could easily break a child.

      I suspect we adults, although we have much stronger cognitive capacities, still like to utilize, at least at times, such rationalizations.

      • Ben says:

        It’s like our current-day thinking about our children and ‘stranger danger’. While professionals are quite aware that the vast majority of child abuse and abductions are perpetrated by family members and close friends, most adults cling to the false idea that their children are most at danger from strangers.

        It is easier for a parent to sit with the idea that the stranger is the dangerous one than to know and admit that the actual danger lies within his or her own family.

        Just think how scary it is to sit with the idea that your own husband, father, brother, or son could be molesting your own daughter, for instance, without your knowledge. Not many of us could sit with such an idea consistently.

  6. I think your comments explain our society’s denial of the prevalence of child sexual abuse. Isn’t it amazing that at least one in four females and one it six males is sexually abused before the age of 18?
    No wonder people don’t remember their own abuse and are very uncomfortable being reminded that sexual abuse is endemic.

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