OBJECTIVE: To examine the association between sexual abuse in childhood and adult depression in women. DESIGN: Two stage, case detection and case identification design, using the 30-item general health questionnaire and the Beck depression inventory for screening and the affective items relating to current functioning on the schizophrenia and affective disorders schedule to identify depressed cases. Details of sexual abuse in childhood were elicited retrospectively by semistructured interview, and social problems by the social problems questionnaire. SETTING: Three general practices, in middle class suburban, deprived inner city, and rural areas. SUBJECTS: 1189 women were screened and 237 subsequently interviewed; 132 were depressed. RESULTS: 49 (37%) of the depressed interviews and 24 (23%) of the non-depressed interviews reported experience of sexual abuse when they were aged under 16 years. A positive association existed between the more severe abuse and depression--all those who had experienced penetration were depressed as adults. A relation was also found between sexual abuse in childhood and sexual problems, housing problems, and problems with their children at school. CONCLUSION: A positive association between child sexual abuse and depression was confirmed, but this was confined to more severe abuse (penetration or attempted penetration).