People who experienced neglect in childhood are more likely to struggle to maintain a stable and coherent sense of self, which in turn is associated with dysfunctional sexual behaviors, according to new research published in the International Journal of Sexual Health. The findings suggest that identity difficulties act as a mediator of the relationship between childhood neglect and sexuality in adulthood.
“Too few researchers are interested in more subtle types of child maltreatment that are as damaging, if not more, than more overt types of child maltreatment,” said study author Noémie Bigras, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Montreal.
“Whether or not the types of violence leave physical marks, they all are relational experiences that are likely to be prompted or reactivated in adulthood once in an intimate relationship or perhaps during sexual activities. Gaining a better understanding of how any type of child maltreatment is at play in adults’ intimate lives is crucial to enhance therapeutic interventions and making a real difference in these survivors’ lives if they ever consult a professional.”
The researchers recruited 374 adults from Canada and Europe, and had them complete an anonymous online survey that assessed childhood neglect, childhood sexual abuse, identity impairment, and sexual disturbances. The survey also collected sociodemographic information such as sex, age, relationship status, sexual orientation, education, occupation, and annual income.
Bigras and her colleagues found that childhood neglect was positively associated with identity impairment, which in turn was positively associated with dysfunctional sexual behaviors.
In other words, participants who reported that one or both of their parents ignored them, seemed not to love them, or did not provide them with basic needs as a child were more likely to also report following the orders of others indiscriminately and having greater difficulty in maintaining a sense of self that was stable across different situations. Those who reported this type of identity impairment, meanwhile, were more likely to report engaging in indiscriminate or potentially harmful sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex.
Higher levels of childhood neglect were also associated with greater sexual concerns, such as being ashamed of one’s sexual thoughts.
“These results suggest that, years after having experienced neglect from attachment figures, it can still influence a person’s sexual life through its repercussions on impaired identity,” the researchers said. “By not receiving sufficient care and attention from their caregivers, survivors may have internalized that they are not important to others and have little personal value, altering the development of a solid sense of self. This, in turn, might lead to poor abilities to care for themselves, to know what they like and need, and to act in ways that make sense to them in the long run.”
The findings held even after controlling for childhood sexual abuse and sociodemographic factors.
“From a developmental perspective, childhood neglect may have subtle associations with sexuality because of how it shapes how a person construes their view of themselves. Indeed, a better sense of self could allow an individual to identify their sexual needs and set boundaries, which are crucial aspects for a healthy and positive sexuality,” Bigras told PsyPost.
But it is still unclear if identity impairment directly causes sexual disturbances. The cross-sectional design of the study prevents inferences about causality. Future research could also included more diverse measures of sexual functioning.
“This study was only assessing two indicators of sexual difficulties, sexual concerns and dysfunctional sexual behaviors. I think further research should explore broader aspects of sexual well-being in association with childhood neglect such as sexual satisfaction, distress, function and even sexual communication,” Bigras explained.
“I also think that although more research is being done longitudinally on how early traumatic experiences may influence adult sexuality over time with a partner, more specific work is needed surrounding more subtle and understudied types of child maltreatment such as neglect.”
“I cannot help but promote what I was trained for and say that if people have the impression of struggling on the intimate or sexual level without really understanding why but at the same time they feel that there are blockages, that may have been installed during childhood, it might be a good idea to plan on starting therapy,” Bigras added.
“I know there are all kinds of constraints that may prevent starting therapy and opportunities to find a therapist are somewhat rare, but if you can afford or are able to find a professional that is sensitive to trauma, attentive and warm it can really open the access to a profound and healing therapeutic work, ultimately allowing for a healthier and more fulfilling sexuality with oneself and/or one’s partner.”
The study, “Who Am I and What Do I Need? Identity Difficulties as a Mechanism of the Link Between Childhood Neglect and Adult Sexual Disturbances“, was authored by Noémie Bigras, Myriam Bosisio, Marie-Ève Daspe, and Natacha Godbout.