Sexual harassment, our teenage daughters, and eating disorders

A recent study from the National Women’s Law Center found that 1 in 6 of the teen girls surveyed said they had been harassed in the last six months. One in 5 girls between 14 and 18 years old reported being sexually assaulted, and 6 percent of all girls surveyed said they had been raped.

In a separate survey conducted by the American Association of University Women, 48 percent of 7-12 graders experienced sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 school year.

No matter how good our parenting is, we can’t control the social situations our child enters. Schools, church groups, sports teams and all social settings can be places where our girls are sexually harassed. This means that we must take steps to help our daughters avoid and address sexual harassment, assault, and rape. We must provide them with knowledge and tools that they can use to protect themselves from sexual harassment whenever possible. If the worst happens, we must intervene quickly and aggressively to report the harasser and help our child heal.

Sexual harassment may include making comments about a person’s appearance, body parts, sexual orientation, or sexual activity. These comments may be said out loud, performed using gestures or written using texts or social media. Their intention is to hurt, offend or intimidate another person. Regardless of how they are communicated, they are always inappropriate and need to be addressed.

Sexual harassment turns into assault when it gets physical – when someone tries to kiss or touch someone who doesn’t want to be touched. Rape is when a person forces someone else to have sex with them. There are three types of sex: vaginal, anal and oral.

Many parents remember being sexually harassed as children, which may make them hesitant to treat harassment too seriously – saying it’s “just teasing,” or “harmless,” but it’s important to know that our girls do not ever deserve any form of sexual harassment, no matter how much it reminds us of our own harassment as children. Read about Taylor Swift‘s recent court case to find out more about this.

I'm not going to allow you or your client to make me feel in any way that this is my fault, because it isn't.-2

Eating disorders and sexual harassment

Sexual harassment, assault, and rape are all associated with the development of eating disorders. There are many reasons for eating disorders, but traumatic experiences, especially those involving the body, are some of the most strongly correlated event-based triggers for eating disorders.

Many times an eating disorder will develop as a maladaptive coping mechanism following a traumatic event. This coping mechanism may involve restricting food, binge-eating, and binging and purging. Girls may find that controlling their bodies makes them feel safer in the world, or they may unconsciously try to change their sexual appearance by gaining or losing weight.

Anorexia, Binge Eating Disorder, and Bulimia, along with the most common form of disordered eating, OSFED, are all serious disorders that need to be addressed as quickly as possible to promote full recovery.

What parents can do about sexual harassment

1. Talk about boundaries: Have frequent conversations with your daughter about sexual boundaries. Sexual harassment often begins with a small innuendo or joke, which she may not know how to handle. Help her build some language for responding to jokes, even from friends. Discuss the three levels of sexual abuse: harassment; assault and rape. Talk to your daughter about consent, and remind her that she should always protect the boundaries she feels are right, regardless of her relationship status, behavior, dress style, or past history.

2. Pay attention to school, work, sports, and church groups: Talk to your daughter about who she is in contact with on a daily basis. Does she feel comfortable with her peers and adults involved in the activities she’s involved in? Pay attention to any abrupt changes in her willingness to attend places and events that have previously been fun for her. Ask whether something happened and whether there is anything you can do to help.

3. Set digital boundaries: Text groups and social media apps can be filled with sexual innuendo and harassment. Group conversations can go from fun to dangerous very quickly. Talk to your daughter about what is and what is not acceptable in digital media. For example, taking photographs of body parts, discussing body parts, and other sexualized activity online should be discouraged. Determine whether you need to monitor conversations in order to support your daughter as she learns to identify sexual harassment situations.

4. Report problems immediately: Don’t hesitate to discuss sexual harassment with your daughter’s school, sports team, church, etc. There is a good chance that your child will not be comfortable doing this herself, and this is a time when she needs your active participation as a parent. Don’t let her, or anyone else, tell you to just “let it go.” Be persistent in following your complaint through the system, and engage an attorney specializing in sexual harassment if necessary.

5. Get treatment for your child: Many girls find themselves living with PTSD following sexual harassment situations. Don’t wait for signs of distress. If your daughter has been sexually harassed, schedule an appointment with a qualified therapist who can help her process the situation. Even if she says is not traumatized by the harassment itself, she may find herself traumatized by the aftermath. Reporting someone for sexual harassment is extremely stressful in our society, and she will need support in handling the fallout.

6. Continue to watch for signs of distress: Many times, victims of sexual trauma go months – even years – before the impact of the trauma makes itself known. Because of the delayed reaction, which is common, the person who was traumatized may not link their PTSD behavior – which may include substance abuse, self-harm, suicidality and eating disorders – to their sexual trauma. Be vigilant in continuing the conversation with your child and watch for signs of distress so that you can help your child heal from the trauma, no matter when it presents itself.

Ginny Jones is the editor of She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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