What is the relationship between sexual abuse and eating disorders?

What is the relationship between sexual abuse and eating disorders?

Undergoing sexual abuse in childhood seems to be an important risk factor with regard to the development of eating disorders, it would seem that 30% of people with an eating disorder have suffered sexual abuse in childhood (Connors & Morse, 1993).


Sexual abuse suffered at an early age is a powerful traumatic experience, its effects can manifest even many years after the incident, when the subject becomes aware of what has happened to him, the emotional and cognitive reactions that occur in the abused person usually they are: confusion, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, self-punishment and anger (Cohen, 2020).

It is such a traumatic experience that internal sensations such as hunger, fatigue or sexuality often become difficult to identify and blend together. In fact, people who have been sexually abused turn to food to alleviate a wide range of states of internal tension that have nothing to do with hunger; this happens because the experience they have experienced has made them confused as regards their internal perceptions (Cohen, 2020). For these people, trusting food is safer than trusting people, food never abuses you, it never hurts you and it never refuses you, also you can say when, where and how much, no other relationship satisfies your needs in such an absolute manner (Cohen, 2020).

Once they reach adolescence or adulthood, the abused often try to desessualize themselves, they can become very fat or very thin in an attempt to make themselves unattractive, they hope that their armor of fat or thinness will protect them from experience sexual, they are often unaware of how they manipulate food or the body in an attempt to feel more secure (Cohen, 2020).

In addition to the predisposition to develop eating disorders, survivors of sexual abuse are vulnerable to depression, substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder and sexual problems (Cohen, 2020).

According to some authors, since painful relationships have been the cause of the development of the eating disorder, supportive and loving relationships will be the means of healing: it is therefore essential to get in touch with other people who can validate the pain and accept it, what is possible mainly by embarking on a psychotherapeutic path (Cohen, 2020).

Another important element that leads to recovery and acceptance of trauma is the ability to achieve sexual intimacy with a partner.

Achieving intimacy means giving up, relaxing, sharing and letting go while eating to fight negative emotions has to do with control, rigidity, fear and isolation (Cohen, 2020).

Below are some transcripts of interviews with abused people, in which it is possible to note the relationship between sexual abuse and food abuse.

Amber, raped when she was a child by her adult cousin: ‘Overeating and laxatives have become my way of getting rid of pain and confusion. I realized I was trying to evacuate my cousin from my body through those laxatives. ‘ (Cohen, 2020).

Donald: ‘After my parents divorced, my mother got drunk and danced around the house in a nightdress. I got scared, but the worst part was that I got excited. To try to regain control, I started not eating anymore and developed anorexia. Through therapy, I now understand how I was trying to starve my horrible feelings towards myself. And my shame also made me feel that I didn’t even deserve to eat ‘(Cohen, 2020).