The relationship between eating disorders and sexual trauma

  • Jennifer Madowitz
  • Brittany E. Matheson
  • June Liang


Research aimed at understanding the causes and comorbidities of eating disorders (ED) identifies sexual trauma as one potential pathway to the development and maintenance of eating disorders. Based on current literature, there are two main etiological pathways between sexual trauma and ED—body perceptions and psychological difficulties. However, previously published reviews on this topic are outdated and have not yielded consistent findings. Therefore, authors completed a literature review covering years 2004–2014 to examine the relationship between sexual trauma and ED according to both proposed pathway models. Authors utilized PubMed, GoogleScholar, and PsychINFO as search engines. Search terms included “sexual assault”, “sexual abuse”, “sexual trauma”, and “rape” in conjunction with relevant ED terminology. Thirty-two studies met inclusion criteria for this review. Current data indicate an increased prevalence of sexual trauma for individuals with ED. Although limited, recent evidence suggests that sexual trauma precedes and contributes to the development of ED. Existing literature indicates that the body perceptions pathway may impact ED through body dissatisfaction, shame, sexual dysfunction, and fear of future sexual trauma. The psychological difficulties pathway indicates a link between ED and the desire to cope with the failure of the average expected environment, psychological diagnoses, the need for control, and the regulation of emotions. However, further research is needed to assess the potential causal role that sexual trauma may play in the etiology of ED.


Sexual trauma Sexual assault Sexual abuse Eating disorders 


Conflict of interest

Authors have no conflicts to declare.

Ethical statement

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Informed consent

For this type of study formal consent is not required.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical PsychologySan Diego State University / University of CaliforniaSan DiegoUSA
  2. 2.Department of PediatricsUniversity of California, San DiegoSan DiegoUSA

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