Exploring the Links: Eating Disorders & Sexual Violence

Recent research and practice efforts have shown links between sexual victimization during childhood or adolescence and developing an eating disorder.  To provide more informed services, people working in anti-violence movements can review the resources in this online resource collection on sexual violence, trauma, and eating disorders.


Research Connections

Much of the information available on eating disorders comes from experts treating eating disorders specifically, but researchers have found a connection between experiencing sexual violence and developing an eating disorder. Anti-sexual violence advocates and professionals trying to incorporate a trauma-informed perspective can benefit from exploring these links.

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Evolving Language

Throughout the collection, the term “eating disorders” is used because it is most commonly recognized by the general public. Some practitioners have recommended using the term distorted eating as an umbrella term instead. Just as with sexual violence, language continues to change and evolve. 

Bridging Prevention and Practice

Preventing sexual violence and eating disorders involves similar approaches. This speaks to the connection between many forms of oppression in doing social change work. Media messages dictate how women and girls should look, think, and behave. Both sexual violence and eating disorder prevention efforts address these messages, promoting healthy body image and increased self-worth.
Direct service workers and mental health specialists must understand these connections in order to develop appropriate interventions.  Prevention educators can use these resources to conduct outreach with organizations and individuals working to end eating disorders by making connections between Bridge imageeffective sexual violence prevention and eating disorder prevention. For more information on these topics, or to recommend additional resources or topics for this collection, please contact resources@nsvrc.org.

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Link between eating disorders and sexual violence:

Recognizing that sexual violence has a major impact on a person’s life, many researchers and advocates have noticed the link between this kind of trauma and developing and eating disorder. A person can respond to trauma in a variety of ways. Developing a sense of control over eating is a common way that people have found to cope with sexual violence.
Is there a link between Eating Disorders and Sexual Violence? (2 p.) by VAWnet (2011). A blog post from TA* Question of the Month discusses the link between sexual violence and eating disorders based on research findings and similar approaches to primary prevention.
Factors that may contribute to eating disorders (1 p.) by National Eating Disorders Association (2004). This fact sheet discusses some common factors that impact eating disorders, including social factors like media portrayal; psychological factors, such as low self-esteem; or interpersonal factors, like a history of physical or sexual abuse.
Food as Coping Mechanism (video), Melanie Rogers, MS, RD. This video discusses the use of food as a coping mechanism, which can lead to the development of an eating disorder. Rogers discusses using food as a coping mechanism, “stuffing” or stifling feelings when a person faces challenges or difficulties in life.[a1]
Disease Control (2011). This website explains how the ACE Study examines associations between childhood maltreatment and health problems in later life. It also includes questionnaires, major findings, and data and statistics.
Responding to Childhood Trauma: The Promise and Practice of Trauma Informed Care (77 p.) by Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (2006). This publication provides an in-depth examination of how trauma affects child development. Focus is given to risk and protective factors, the psychological effects of trauma, the main tenets of trauma informed care, and strengths-based approaches that promote resilience.


View additional resources:

Understanding Oppression: Eating Disorders & Sexual Violence

Prevention of Eating Disorders & Sexual Violence

General Information on Eating Disorders