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 2022, December 5 from

Author: Tia Hollowood

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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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