Defining Sexual Anorexia
What is sexual anorexia? When you Google the word, you’ll find a range of various definitions. Those that struggle with anorexia compulsively starve themselves from physical nourishment or binge and purge with food. Sexual anorexia is similar. Patrick Carnes, the nationally known author on addiction and recovery, describes sexual anorexia as: “an obsessive state in which the physical, mental and emotional task of avoiding sex dominates one’s life.” Other definitions would encompass a broader meaning. It could be a loss of “appetite” for romantic/sexual interaction or an anxiety of giving or receiving emotional, sexual or social nourishment. You can see the parallels to the eating disorder, even in the use of language. Bottom line I believe, sexual anorexia is a “fear and anxiety surrounding intimacy.” This can be on a continuum from low anxiety to debilitating fear.
Growing up, I remember always being uncomfortable and not quite “feeling at home” in my body. This began to have an impact on my sexuality in various ways. When it came down to just plain physicality, I was overly modest and felt embarrassed with my growing body and its bodily functions. Time progressed and I entered into relationships as an adult (pre-Christian days). Though I longed for sexual and emotional connection and tried to pursue it, there were also many fears. Being physically or emotionally “naked” with someone felt overwhelmingly vulnerable and scary. What could cause these issues and fears associated with intimacy?
Roots and Fears of Sexual Anorexia
Fear and anxiety surrounding intimacy and its avoidance can be caused by many different things. The first and most predominant causal factor is a person has experienced severe sexual trauma or abuse in early childhood or adolescence. Attitudes about the body and sexuality in one’s family can also leave an unhealthy influence. Was sex and sexuality a shameful thing? Were personal boundaries violated? Perhaps there was deprivation and neglect of needs not being met that led to unhealthy ways of coping. A child growing up in this kind of chaos and pain could develop many fears:
- A fear, confusion or revulsion of sexuality (including gender, orientation, bodily functions, sex and sexual organs)
- Fear of emotional connection or losing oneself (engulfment or feeling suffocated)
- A fear of dependence, attraction or intense feelings towards someone
- Uncomfortability with touch in general (and romantic or sexual kinds of touch)
- A fear of being seen and known authentically (flaws and all)
- Inability to be nurtured and cared for by others and for oneself
Ways of Avoiding Intimacy
There is a hypervigilance that goes along with sexual anorexia—always scanning the horizon for any possible threats. Ways of distancing ourselves are created in an effort to block intimacy and from experiencing more wounding and pain. This gives a sense (or illusion) of control:
- Detaching and withdrawing from relationships—keeping people at a distance
- Avoiding dating or even closeness in friendships
- Compulsively fantasizing, masturbating and use of pornography (depersonalized sexual situations, watching others experience intimacy while keeping self-protected)
- Other addictions (food, gambling, alcohol, shopping etc)
- Becoming emotionally dependent on unavailable people
- Sexual Addiction and promiscuity (acting out with multiple partners is not about real connection and is a fear of true vulnerability and intimacy)
Moving Forward into Intimacy—Growing into acceptance, love and self-care
God has designed us for deep connection with others. He also created us with legitimate emotional needs, like being affirmed and accepted for who we are. We desire and long to be seen and truly known, being touched and feeling safe. Our culture believes the only way we can have these needs met is through a sexual experience. Sexual Anorexia and the fear of intimacy shame these needs and kill our desires. They are considered a weakness and are discounted as if they don’t matter. God wants to rescue and salvage these lost parts of ourselves–taking back that which was stolen or given away. Finding a good therapist to help this process is key. Also, finding a support group or community where you feel safe provides a place to fumble around and “practice” healthy intimacy and authenticity. Here are ways we can cooperate with Him in the process:
Stopping Behaviors that are Part of the Problem
What helped us survive our wounding and pain (addiction, distancing strategies, etc) is now in the way of us truly being known and experiencing relationships and intimacy on all levels. We need to begin letting go of those things that are blocking real connection.
Beating Back that Core Issue: Shame
Shame keeps us small and hidden. We feel if we were really seen for who we are people would reject us. Shame fuels our sense of unworthiness and self-hatred. The remedy to this ongoing self-protective disconnection is taking small steps of vulnerability. We need to find safe people and environments where we can be real.
Creating Healthy Belief Systems about Sex and Sexuality
For those struggling with sexual anorexia, sex and sexuality can feel hurtful, exploitive, uncontrollable and unsafe. This abuse mindset needs to be challenged and a healthy belief system needs to be cultivated. Can intimacy be mutual, respectful, nurturing and responsible?
Feeling Secure in Your Gender
We can’t feel good about our sexuality unless we feel positive and secure as the men and women God created us to be. Healing needs to be brought to those wounds that have attacked our masculinity or femininity and left us feeling inadequate in our gender.
Living into Your Body—Mindfulness, Nurture and Self-Care
Our physical bodies are a gift from God. Without them we would never be able to live out God’s plan for our lives. To own your body is to begin to take care of it. Besides the usual good eating habits and exercise—visit the doctor, go to the dentist. This is good self-care. Get out of the virtual world and be “mindful” of what your body and senses are saying. Find simple ways to nurture yourself and let others care for you occasionally.
Risking Small Steps towards Many Levels of intimacy
We need healthy touch. We are created for emotional connection. Once again this requires some vulnerability and letting others see and know us. For those struggling with sexual anorexia this can feel daunting all at once. That’s why small steps are recommended at first with healthy boundaries in place. With each small victory of positive experience, it gives a foundation to help with the next small step towards intimacy.
A staff member since June of 1992, Scott is a key player in the WGA discipleship ministry. He plans, organizes, and implements every aspect of the Thursday night support group. In addition to public speaking, counseling group participants and training leaders, Scott maintains personal contact with many group members and it is to Scott’s credit that many group members feel personally welcomed, cared for and loved.
Although he holds a degree in graphic arts, he attributes his ministry qualifications to the “school of hard knocks.” God’s abundant grace continues to be the instrument of growth in his life, and he desires to be firmly grounded in the forgiveness and freedom of relationship with Jesus Christ.
Scott attends a Presbyterian Church.