Wayne State University

WSU researcher receives funding to study risk mechanisms among adolescent females who were sexually abused as children

Valerie Simon, Ph.D.

DETROIT—A Wayne State University researcher has received an award from the National Institutes of Health to examine the emergence of sexual risk behavior among adolescent female victims of child sexual abuse (CSA).

Valerie Simon, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute, was awarded a five-year, $755,121 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health. She plans to examine trajectories and potential mechanisms of sexual risk behaviors among young adolescent females with CSA histories.

National statistics indicate that sexually abused females are at increased risk of sexual health problems, as they tend to initiate and engage in higher rates of sexual risk behavior at a younger age than their non-abused counterparts. Moreover, traditional sexual risk reduction programs are less effective for sexually abused youth, and the reasons for this are unclear.

“There is a pressing need to understand how CSA affects adolescent females’ sexual behavior,” said Simon. “Little is known about the early sexual development of sexually abused youth, or the mechanisms by which CSA confers heightened risk.”

The goals of Simon’s research are to increase understanding of how early sexual trauma affects sexual health and inform the development of more effectual risk reduction programs for this highly vulnerable population.

Simon’s research plan includes two sequential studies. The first will analyze extant data from a 20-year longitudinal study of CSA to examine the relationships among psychopathology, physiological regulation of trauma-related affect and sexual risk behavior. Simon will work with Jennie Noll, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine and one of the original investigators of the longitudinal study.

The results from this work will inform a second study, for which Simon will gather data about the sexual development of 120 abused and non-abused adolescent females between 11 and 14 years old over an 18-month period.

Traumatic sexualization, the process by which CSA distorts cognitive and affective orientations toward sexuality, and post-traumatic stress disorder are expected to play a unique role in predicting sexual risk behavior for youth with CSA histories. In contrast, only externalizing behavior problems are expected to predict sexual risk among non-abused youth.

“Findings from this study will greatly aid our understanding of the abuse-specific factors associated with sexual health problems among sexually abused youth,” said Simon.

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Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu.