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Exploring the Link Between Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorders

Jul 20, 2022
Last updated Dec 11, 2023
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All forms of sexual abuse may be a risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, especially childhood sexual abuse. Many survivors of sexual abuse may develop disordered eating as a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma that occurs as a result of being sexually abused or assaulted.

When it comes to sexual abuse and eating disorders, it is important to keep in mind that correlation is not causation, and many survivors of sexual abuse may not develop an eating disorder. However, data suggests that the link between sexual abuse and eating disorders should not be ignored.

Key Takeaways

  • Sexual abuse can be a risk factor for developing eating disorders.
  • The eating disorder most commonly linked with sexual abuse is bulimia.
  • Survivors of sexual abuse may be able to pursue compensation for the damages they incurred.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are psychological disorders that are characterized by severe and reoccurring disturbances in eating behaviors accompanied by distressing thoughts and feelings. While there is no definite answer as to what causes eating disorders, most specialists agree that eating disorders are complex illnesses that stem from a combination of different psychological, biological, and environmental components.

Risk factors or comorbidities of eating disorders include mental health risks like depression, anxiety, or a history of sexual abuse. Other risk factors include body image issues, a family history of eating disorders, and socio-cultural risk factors like the prevalence of diet culture.

Trauma & Sexual Abuse

According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, roughly 30% of patients with an eating disorder had a history of sexual abuse as a child, with rates being even higher among patients with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. A history of sexual abuse can influence the possibility of developing an eating disorder in a number of ways, including by creating body image issues, creating a need for control, or making the individual more prone to anxiety, depression, or compulsive behaviors.

Negative Body Image

Body image issues are risk factors for developing an eating disorder. This may include weight-related bullying or teasing, having an obsession with being thin or having the perfect body, and early childhood problems related to eating, feeding, or gastrointestinal problems.

Genetic Factors

A person who comes from a family with a history of disordered eating is at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Part of this increase is said to come from modeling behaviors that are linked to eating disorders. While the prevalence of eating disorders in some families may be greater than in others, this does not mean that one can inherit the gene for eating disorders. Instead, one may inherit other behaviors associated with eating disorders, including anxiety or perfectionism.

Environmental Influences

Environmental factors that may influence the likeliness of developing an eating disorder include being subjected to weight teasing, diet culture, media, and other outside influences. Many specialists examine these socio-cultural factors using the tripartite method, which suggests that exposure to parental, peer, and media messages contributes to if a person engages in social comparison and idealizes thinness. Engaging in these two behaviors (social comparison and the idealization of thinness) may lead to the development of body image issues and eating disorders.

Correlation Between Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorders

Specialists consider sexual abuse and eating disorders to be comorbidities. Sexual abuse and childhood sexual abuse can cause body image issues including a sense of disconnection from the body and self-critical views. Some survivors of sexual abuse may seek to change their bodies in order to reduce their attractiveness, sometimes done through binge eating or restrictive eating.

There is psychological symbolism regarding the correlation between sexual abuse and eating disorders. Disordered eating is often developed by survivors of sexual abuse as a coping mechanism to address the trauma that comes with being sexually abused, assaulted, or harassed. Disordered eating like restrictive eating and other controlling behaviors regarding food may be used as a way for survivors to regain the feeling of control. Binging can be seen as a way to fill a void, while purging can be seen as a way to get rid of something unwanted, like a memory or emotion. These behaviors will not fix or take away the underlying feelings or emotions but are often used as a way to cope with and distract from the trauma.

Do I Have An Eating Disorder?

Taking an eating disorder self-assessment can help you decide if you need to speak to a doctor regarding disordered eating. Each eating disorder has unique symptoms, and it is best to consult with a medical professional if you think you may have an eating disorder. Common mental or behavioral eating disorder symptoms to look out for in a self-assessment include:

  • Extreme weight loss
  • Obsession with weight, diet, calories, food, or grams of fat
  • Excuses to avoid meals and eating in public
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or being “fat”
  • Severely restricting the types and amount of food consumed
  • Excessively weighing oneself
  • Excessively working out
  • Patterns of binging and purging

Physical symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • Atypical blood test results
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Always feeling cold
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue or trouble sleeping
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Weak immune system and wound healing
  • Thin and dry hair and nails

Types of Disordered Eating

Eating disorders are inherently complex and not every symptom will appear in every patient. Some of the characteristics of these common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Individuals with anorexia nervosa severely restrict their food intake, have an extreme fear of gaining weight, and see themselves as overweight even when they are not. Anorexia may be associated with a need for a sense of control in patients with a history of sexual abuse.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia is characterized by cycles of binging large amounts of food and then purging to avoid gaining weight. Bulimia is one of the eating disorders most commonly associated with trauma from childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, or rape
  • Binge-Eating Disorder: The most prevalent eating disorder, people with a binge-eating disorder will binge by eating large amounts of food in short periods of time but do not purge like people with bulimia do. Along with bulimia, binge eating has a higher association with a history of sexual abuse.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: This refers to individuals who are disturbed by or uninterested in eating, or who have a distaste for certain textures, tastes, smells, or foods
  • Purging Disorder: People with purging disorder engage in purging by forced vomiting, laxatives, or excessive exercise but do not binge.
  • PICA: Pica is an eating disorder characterized by eating things that are not good and do not provide nutritional value.
  • Rumination Disorder: Individuals with rumination disorder regurgitate food that has already been chewed and swallowed then re-chew it and either spit it out or swallow it again.
  • Night Eating Syndrome: People with night eating syndrome wake up multiple times throughout the night and feel like they have to eat in order to go to sleep.

Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorder Statistics

  • A 2016 study from Chile suggests women with bulimia nervosa report higher rates of childhood sexual abuse than women who do not have bulimia nervosa.
  • According to the same study, the risk of a sex abuse survivor having negative consequences later in life as a result of the abuse can be reduced by a supportive family environment.
  • In a study of 329 patients with an eating disorder, close to 20% of participants reported having a history of sexual trauma.

Signs of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Adults

Although there is no single, tell-tale symptom or sign of childhood sexual abuse in adults, there are a number of symptoms that could appear and are most often coping mechanisms. Trauma from childhood sexual abuse may surface years after the abuse occurs. Some types of abuse and certain circumstances may be more harmful to mental health than others, including sexual abuse by a family member, extended or frequent abuse, the use or threat of violence or force, not being believed when they came forward about the abuse, and the age at which the abuse occurred. Some symptoms of childhood sexual abuse that may appear later in life include:

How Can a Sexual Abuse Lawyer Help?

After recovering from an eating disorder and receiving treatment from a therapist who specializes in eating disorders as well as PTSD and trauma, you may be able to achieve justice for what your abuser put you through by holding them legally accountable. A sexual abuse lawyer can help you take legal action against your abuser or other parties whose negligence may have played a part in the abuse. Survivors of sexual abuse may be able to pursue financial compensation for the damages they incurred as a result of the abuse.

To find out if you may be eligible to file a sex abuse lawsuit, find your state’s statute of limitations for sex abuse cases here. If you have questions regarding the statute of limitations, the lookback window for sexual abuse cases, or whether or not you qualify for a sexual abuse lawsuit, contact the sexual assault lawyers of Edwards Henderson today for a free legal consultation.

Eating Disorder Help & Resources

Contact Our Compassionate Sex Abuse Lawyers for Help

Survivors of sexual abuse and especially childhood sexual abuse may be especially prone to developing an eating disorder, with research suggesting that 30% of eating disorder patients report a history of sexual trauma or sexual abuse. If you or a loved one were sexually abused, contact a sexual abuse lawyer who will fight for your rights and to obtain justice on your behalf.

At Edwards Henderson, our sex abuse attorneys have a proven track record of success advocating on behalf of sexual abuse survivors and winning the compensation that they deserve. For more on how you can hold your abuser accountable, contact the sex abuse lawyers of Edwards Henderson today for a free legal consultation.


This page was last updated with new information on May 15, 2023.

May 15, 2023 Update

According to Psychology Today, studies show that 30-65% of child sex abuse survivors develop anorexia, likely due to the survivors’ desires to disconnect from their physical bodies, eliminate body fat, self-blame, desire to ‘cleanse’ their bodies, and other reasons. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by dysfunctional behaviors with food and intense fear of gaining weight. Many child sexual abuse survivors suffer from eating disorders as a coping mechanism to deal with the pain and trauma from the crime.

Article Sources

  1. The Connection Between Eating Disorders and Sexual Violence
  2. Child sexual abuse as a risk factor in eating disorders
  3. Prevalence of Various Traumatic Events Including Sexual Trauma in a Clinical Sample of Patients With an Eating Disorder
  4. State by State Guide on Statutes of Limitations

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