Economic impact of child abuse profound, says ESRI

Sex assault survivors are twice as likely to be out of labour force, according to new report

Childhood sexual abuse has a profound long-term economic impact on survivors, according to a new study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

Even decades after the abuse occurred, survivors are more than twice as likely as others to be out of the labour force as a result of being sick or permanently disabled, the research has established.

When account is taken of the psychological difficulties that abuse is already known to cause, male survivors are three times more likely to be sick or disabled than other men.

For women, the impact of child sexual abuse on involvement in the labour force in later life is much smaller and not statistically significant, the study finds. This may arise because the older women who were surveyed were more likely than their male peers to have been "in and out" of the workforce during their adult lives, according to co-author Prof Alan Barrett, head of the economic analysis division of ESRI.


Research has shown the links between abuse and psychological disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. However, the ESRI research is one of the first to examine the economic effect on people who suffered sexual abuse in their childhood years.

The data used in the study comes from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda), in which 8,500 people aged 50 and over were interviewed between 2009 and 2011.

Some 5.6 per cent of men and 6.7 per cent of women said they had experienced childhood sexual abuse, roughly in line with the findings of other surveys.

For men and women, less than 1 per cent said the abuse had been perpetrated by a parent; they were not asked about abuse perpetrated by other family members.

“It should be noted that these figures could well understate the true incidence of childhood sexual abuse if people are reluctant to report such experiences,” states the report.

For men, 17 per cent of abuse survivors were out of work as a result of being sick or permanently disabled, compared to 8 per cent among those who had not experienced abuse. For women, the comparable figures were 14 per cent among abuse survivors and 6 per cent for other women.

When researchers took account of factors such as age and education level, it was found that male abuse survivors lived in households where income was 34 per cent lower than for other men. Male survivors were also found to be twice as likely to be living alone.

For Prof Barrett, the most striking aspect of the research is the way childhood sexual abuse affects survivors throughout their life.

“They survey talked to over-50s about events that happened in their childhood, yet at least 32 years on, the abuse still has an identifiable effect. These events have followed people throughout their entire life,” he said.

The report notes that there are implications from the research for compensation payments to abuse survivors. “While compensation should cover factors other than economic, it seems the economic impacts are real and substantial.”

Prof Barrett said there is a need for more research to help understand these long-term, complex and multifaceted effects of abuse.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times