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Can Sexual Abuse Cause Early Puberty

Posted in Sexual Abuse on April 5, 2018

Victims of sexual abuse early in life have to deal with many ramifications of abuse on their emotional, mental, and psychosocial selves – not to mention possible physical outcomes of childhood sexual abuse. Now, researchers from multiple studies believe that sexual abuse could literally steal childhood away from female victims in the form of early-onset puberty. Explore the possible connection between sexual abuse and early puberty, as well as the consequences early puberty might have on young women.

Scientific Support Suggesting Early Puberty Stems from Sexual Abuse

At least one study has evidence suggesting a link between sexual abuse and early puberty in females. A Pennsylvania State University study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in January 2017 concluded that evidence “confirms an association between…childhood sexual abuse and earlier pubertal onset.” The study also saw a connection between early puberty and further issues such as increased risk of psychological harm, fertility problems, and reproductive cancers.

The 2017 study isn’t the first to find a possible link between sexual abuse and early-onset puberty – the Journal of Adolescent Health published a similar report from Cornell’s College of Human Ecology back in 2013. This study, led by Jane Mendle and her associates, examined 100 girls in foster care who had experienced sexual abuse or other types of maltreatment in early childhood. The team found that only sexual abuse instances (not physical abuse or neglect) had connections with earlier puberty.

The 2013 study also found that the earlier-developing abuse victims had higher rates of psychosocial issues such as depression, anxiety, and withdrawal. Cornell researchers determined that these emotional problems related to early puberty – not to sexual abuse. Mendle stated that while early maturing girls are already more prone to mood issues, girls with histories of sexual abuse showed even more behavioral and emotional problems. They might also be more at risk of peer sexual harassment.

How Might Sexual Abuse Trigger Early Puberty in Girls?

The 2017 Pennsylvania State study compared data from 84 sexual abuse victims (referred by protective services) with 89 non-victims with comparable demographics, histories, and zip codes. The study followed both groups of girls longitudinally from ages 11 to 20 to check for signs of early puberty. Researchers looked for signs of puberty through the “gold standard” in such matters – Tanner staging. Through Tanner staging, investigators measured breast development and pubic hair growth in both test groups.

The study concluded that the abused group did in fact show signs of early pubertal onset and development that the non-abused group did not exhibit. According to the research, sexual abuse victims entered into puberty an average of eight months earlier than non-abused girls in breast development and 12 months earlier for pubic hair growth. Scientists believe that increased stress hormones related to childhood sexual abuse could be the driving force behind early puberty.

What Are the Ramifications of Early Puberty?

Both studies also concluded that increased exposure to estrogen from early puberty could cause additional problems for the sexual abuse victims. Due to the “collective social response to early puberty,” as Mendle puts it, early puberty may increase the risk of bullying, depression, anxiety, sexual risk-taking, substance abuse, and unplanned pregnancy in the victim. It could make life even more difficult for girls who lived through sexual maltreatment.

Mendle also says that adults tend to treat children based on observable maturity rather than actual age. These reactions can contribute to how sexual abuse victims grow and mature. Early puberty could be a tipping point for abused girls that leads to many other issues and social roadblocks. Later in life, early onset puberty could culminate in menstrual problems, fertility issues, and reproductive cancer from prolonged exposure to sex hormones. Scientists have linked premature physical development to ovarian and breast cancers in particular.