The sexual anorexic is a secret sufferer. While they may appear normal on the outside, on the inside they are starving themselves of sexual pleasure. Yet nobody knows. They suffer alone.
Tragically, sexual anorexia largely goes unrecognized. If people don’t like to talk about having sex, they like to talk even less about not having sex. It is very difficult to understand why someone would, without reason, deny themselves the joys of sexuality; as difficult, really, as understanding sexual nervosa and why someone would deny themselves the joys of eating.
I should here point out that abstinence is not to be confused with sexual anorexia; ultimately, it’s the same as the difference between fasting and anorexia nervosa. While a person may choose to abstain from sex or food for spiritual reasons, the anorexic is psychologically impelled to avoid what are, at base, natural drives and biological necessities.
Avoiding sex becomes a way for the sexual anorexic to control their life. At the root of this desire is a fear of intimacy; typically, the sexual anorexic has been abused or suffered severe rejection. In order to cope with the fear that becomes associated with being intimate, the sexual anorexic avoids sex. They may have sex, but they prevent themselves from enjoying it. Nobody, after all, can force them to come to orgasm. They are still in control.
While sexual anorexia is seemingly the complete opposite of sex addiction, the disorders actually have quite a bit in common—as much as the compulsive overeating and anorexia nervosa. The obsession is the same, but the reaction is different. While the sex addict deals with anxiety by acting out sexually, the sexual anorexic deals by acting in. Often, sex addicts are known to flip to extremes and become sexual anorexics, or vice versa.
According to sex psychologist Dr. Patrick Carnes, sexual anorexia actually shares the core beliefs of sex addiction: that the anorexic is a bad person, that nobody would love them as they are, that their needs will never be met by depending on others, and that sex is their most terrifying need (as sex is the sex addict’s most important need). And, like sex addiction, their recovery can only begin once they admit their powerlessness over their problem and seek help. In his book Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self-Hatred, Dr. Carnes offers an impressive 12 step recovery program for sexual anorexic, beginning with learning to accept nurturing and sensuality.
I asked a fellow UFV student, who asked to remain anonymous, about her self-confessed struggle with sexual anorexia: “It’s hard to explain,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t want sex, because on a certain level I do. I’m not asexual. But I’m afraid to have sex. When my partner touches me, I feel seized up and tense inside. I just want it to be over. I love my partner and want to make him happy, and so I’ll have sex with him. . . . I feel guilty, ashamed, if I try and enjoy sex though. . . . I go out of my way to avoid it because it’s so stressful for me, but then I feel guilty about [my partner]. It sucks, because I feel guilty and stressed if I have sex and feel guilty and stressed if I don’t. It’s really not fair. . . . I know I’m missing out on a lot. We’re working on it though. Love goes a long way.”
Trying to recover from sexual anorexia can be as difficult as sex addiction. Both require a complete re-wiring of how the sufferer views the world. Often, the sexual anorexic comes from a rigid, sex-negative home, and just learning to view sex as healthy and positive can be a challenge. Yet refusing intimacy can destroy their world—not only is their own sexual health and enjoyment at stake, but that of their partner as well—while the sexual anorexic’s obsessive control and perfectionism can rob all joy from their life.
Both the sex addict and the sexual anorexic have to struggle to reclaim their sexuality. That we have created such sufferers is no surprise though, because in our sex-negative society we have utterly lost any sense of “healthy” sex. Our conceptions of sex are so often at extremes. Yet sex doesn’t have to be dirty and taboo, nor does it have to be objectifying and raging out of control; sex can be many amazing things: playful, pleasurable, intimate, bonding, loving and procreative. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the politics and abuses of sex that we forget what sex truly is: one of the greatest joys of being human.