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Is there a link between eating disorders and sexual violence?

Stemming from posts on the NSVRC Facebook page, in this month’s question we explore what is known about this link. When a person is forced, coerced, or manipulated into any unwanted sexual activity, she or he may experience a variety of thoughts, feelings and reactions. While each person’s response to sexual violence is unique, there are some common responses that many people report in the course of their healing. In addition to feelings of guilt or shame, changes in sleeping patterns and flashbacks to the event, many people report eating disorders (NSVRC, 2010).

Several researchers (Sanci, Coffey, Olsson, Reid, Carlin & Patton, 2008; Wonderlich, Wilsnack, Wilsnack & Harris, 1996) have reported a significant link between experiencing sexual abuse as a child and developing bulimia nervosa. Sanci et al (2008) found that women who had experienced one instance of sexual abuse before the age of 16 were 2.5 times more likely to report bulimic behaviors. Those who reported 2 or more instances of sexual abuse were 4.9 times more likely to report eating disorders. Other studies have shown a link between sexual harassment and eating disorders (DePatie, Woods & Buchanan, 2008).

There are many reasons why a person who survives sexual violence may develop an eating disorder. Control over eating and weight can aid a person in feeling control over their life. This sense of control can be critical when ongoing abuse, flashbacks, nightmares or anxiety seem to overwhelm every other aspect of daily life. In that respect, controlling one’s food intake may serve as a coping skill. Food can also provide very real physical and emotional comforts. Research shows a link between obesity and sexual violence; victims often gain weight as a way to become less attractive, to become less visible, or to try to protect themselves from further violence and abuse (Dube, Anda, Whitfield, Brown, Felitti, Dong & Giles, 2005; see also The ACE Study). Some individuals report difficulties with body image and self-esteem after experiencing sexual violence, blaming their bodies for the actions of the person who assaulted them. The high rates of bulimic behaviors in particular can indicate an individual’s efforts to “cleanse” or “purify” as they work through their pain. Morse and Shapira (n.d.) share additional information on this link through experiences in therapeutic settings and by analyzing research findings.

Both sexual violence and eating disorders can develop at any point in a person’s lifetime. These experiences can affect someone regardless of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, orientation, or religion. Advocates working to end sexual violence and organizations working to stop eating disorders have identified common strategies to create social change. One strategy is to promote media literacy. Media outlets tend to portray women’s bodies as over-sexualized, over-thin, and overall, unrealistic. Engaging young women and girls in conversations about body image and teaching them to think critically about what is shown in media can be one protective factor. The idea is to create a world in which violence, exploitation, and unrealistic body images are never acceptable.

How will you begin a conversation on media literacy and positive body image? What will you do to learn more about how to support sexual violence victims with eating disorders?

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