Sexual Abuse Of School Girls

Colette Dowling, LCSW

NYC psychotherapist Colette Dowling,LMSW, author of the following article on sexual abuse of girls in school, has written eight books on womens psychological issues, including The Cinderella Complex, which was published in 23 languages.

Sexual abuse of girls and women has become increasingly prevalent in our society. Often it produces trauma, including symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Sexual abuse--not just in girls who've suffered rape and incest, but in those more chronically traumatized with daily, sometimes hourly taunting and sexual humiliation in school halls and classrooms--has been overlooked or outright denied. (Check out sexual abuse for a thorough discussion of the effects of sexual abuse and child abuse--including signs and symptoms parents should be on the lookout for.)

Sexual abuse creates a certain syndrome of symptoms: repetition (the compulsion to re-live the trauma), nightmares, dissociation (slipping into trance states when some smell, or sight, or person triggers traumatic memory), and hypervigilance, a state of anxious awareness maintained to fend off danger, that plagues both sleeping and waking hours, and which makes intimacy with others difficult, if not impossible. Sadly, parents often miss the signs of sejal abuse in their daughters and girls are too ashamed to report it.

For over a decade, now, psychologists and therapists have been concerned about the mood problems, the eating disorders, the loss of self esteem--the disaffection from school, and sport, and other interests that have become pandemic among adolescent females. The rush to uncover, and treat, depression, anorexia and bulimia, self-cutting, suicide attempts and other dramatic symptoms of inner despair, has been everywhere noted. But very rarely have these behaviors been connected with sexual trauma.

It a took massive leap in social consciousness before Vietnam veterans could get others to recognize the physical and mental abuse both soldiers and civilians experience during war and how devastating these expereinces are. Finally, in the 70s and 80s, the symptoms of participating in warfare--nightmares, repetition compulsion, sleep disturbances and hypervigilance, the "flashback" intrusion of terrifying memories--began to be acknowledged and studied in a serious way.

Now it's recognized that the same kinds of symptoms are found in those who've been raped and sexually assaulted. Such experiences live on forever inside the body and brain unless they are treated with psychotherapy. But trauma symptoms in adolescent girls are still being ascribed to the "normal" tumult of the teenage years. Even when the statistics on the sexual abuse of girls are known, somehow the biological and mental effects of such abuse continues to be denied. Without getting psychological help, girls will not be able to process the assaults they receive--in school stairwells, on the street, in their families. The effects of trauma will color their lives and relationships indefinitely.


NYC psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LMSW, is the author of The Frailty Myth, published by Random House in 2001. Her books include The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence and "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?": New help for Depression, Anxiety and Addiction. Ms. Dowling has a private therapy practice in Manhattan.

Colette Dowling, LMSW, received her masters degree from The Smith College School for Social work and has done advanced training at he Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy,in New York. She specializes in the treatment of women.

For a consultation or for further information, call Colette at 718-594-0201, or e-mail her at


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Copyright Colette Dowling, 2006-2010