This week (7th-13th February 2022) is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week, and so I want to post on the intersection of this with Eating Disorders. It’s a heavy topic and not one that everyone will feel safe reading about. Therefore, if you find this type of content triggering feel free to go ahead and stop reading; there will be another blog on a different topic soon.
Sexual abuse and violence are far more common than people seem to think, with 1 in 10 estimated to experience sexual abuse before the age of 16 and more than 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men experiencing rape or sexual assault as adults. If you were not familiar with those statistics I hope they stopped you in your tracks, perhaps you even thought about your inner circle of family and friends and did the math as to how many people will have been affected. It’s a deeply sad reality that I hear about all too often in my day job as a Therapist.
When it comes to Eating Disorders and Sexual Abuse, finding prevalence statistics can be challenging. Perhaps this is to be expected since both are issues often shrouded in secrecy and shame for some of those individuals affected. Meaning that any statistics available are likely to be an underrepresentation of the reality, or at least a modest estimate, anyway. None the less sexual abuse and Eating Disorders are often present in the same conversation.
My understanding is that Eating Disorders are common among those who have experienced sexual abuse or violence – but let me be clear that this does not mean that sexual abuse specifically causes Eating Disorders, the reasons for which people develop Eating Disorders are varied and many. A persons Eating Disorder struggle is valid whatever the cause, and even if the cause is unknown or none-specific. Please do not assume after reading this post that someone you know (or work with) who has an Eating Disorder has experienced sexual abuse. It may, or may not be, the case. Sexual abuse is just one reason among many for an Eating Disorder.
It does, however, make complete sense to me that people who experience sexual abuse might be more likely to develop an Eating Disorder, given that this type of violence is a direct assault on the body. For some an Eating Disorder becomes a way to numb the past, for others they are seeking to supress development and avoid a body that might be sexualised. Others might actively gain weight to be seen as less conventionally attractive, or the disordered behaviours could be a way to continue the harm-cycle to oneself. Each trauma and each Eating Disorder is unique, so this is not even close to all of the reasons why these issues can become intertwined – but perhaps goes a little way to showing you why the disorder can act as a coping mechanism.
According to some recent research certain aspects of the sexual trauma might also lead to a greater or lesser correlation between sexual trauma and Eating Disorders. Specifically, it seems that the younger someone was when they experienced the abuse, the higher the chance of developing an Eating Disorder. This is all really important knowledge that can help us (society, therapists, and services) think about how best to support specific sub-groups of survivors, with the goal of limiting later development of Eating Disorders and other struggles.
However, what I’d really hope for is for society to find ways to reduce the prevalence – and of course ideally STOP – sexual abuse and trauma from ever happening. I am so aware that this is something though, that is so far in the future based on the harsh reality of today. Much has to change before we will ever see the safe world we all deserve to have.
I know this is heavier content today, so I am going to leave it at this general overview but, if people feel this is a topic they’d like to see discussed more here on Mental Health Bites, please do let me know.