Understanding Sexual Anorexia

Woman leaning over her husbandRecent interest in sexual addiction has drawn attention to a variation called sexual anorexia. Also called sexual “acting in,” sexual anorexia is characterized by a severe aversion to sexual contact and the obsessive avoidance of sex. Other signs of sexual anorexia include:

  • Shame and loathing after sex
  • Rigid, judgmental attitudes about sex
  • Excessive fear about sexually transmitted disease
  • Body distortion
  • Obsessive self-doubt
  • Self-destructive behaviors to limit, stop, or avoid sex
  • Episodes of sexually acting out or sexual “binges

Deprivation creates the illusion of control. In food anorexia, the person refuses to eat, controlling exactly what goes in her body; in sexual anorexia the person denies access to sexual penetration and emotional contact.  Convinced that “no one can hurt me if I don’t let them in,” sexual anorexics experience an emotional wasting away as they become increasingly isolated.

Much like bulimics, sexual anorexics may enact a “binge and purge” cycle. Individuals may go through periods of extreme deprivation of sex followed by promiscuous sexual behavior. Sexual addicts, in an attempt to control their compulsive behavior, may even enforce an anorexic phase—born out of self-hatred, or as punishment or atonement for sexual acting out. In Ready to Heal: Women Facing Love, Sex, and Relationship Addiction, Kelly McDaniel writes, “Sexual anorexia is an extreme aversion to closeness, and sexual addiction is an objectification of the other person that makes closeness impossible.”

Other compulsive deprivation behaviors such as hoarding, being a workaholic, debting, and saving may accompany sexual anorexia. Sexual anorexics also may be overweight or obese, as eating can soothe their anxiety and protect them from the advances of others by making them appear sexually undesirable.

People who are this terrified of human contact can have sustained serious wounds of abuse. This could be an obvious trauma, such as sexual abuse by a parent or caretaker, or by the more covert injury of a negligent, disinterested parent.  Infants and children need consistent attention and love from their caregivers, and the absence of these can be just as damaging as abuse. It is particularly devastating when a child, wounded at the hands of a parent, realizes there is no one to turn to for solace. This corruption of trust and safety teaches the child to fear their own need to be connected to others.

People with sexual anorexia and other intimacy issues long for affection, but they have learned through trauma that they are undeserving of love and that others cannot be trusted. Because of how horribly they have been wronged by others, rigid isolation appears to be the only way to feel safe.

Reaching out for help can be very difficult for someone who has been unable to depend on others, but it is essential for recovery. Support groups can help a person to feel less alone and can strengthen his or her capacity for intimate connection with others. Individual therapy can help people with sexual anorexia explore their pain and mistrust of others, and can create a corrective, caring relationship with a stable other.

Further reading:

Carnes, Patrick. (1997). Sexual anorexia: Overcoming sexual self-hatred. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Katehakis, Alexandra. (2010). Erotic intelligence: Igniting hot, healthy sex while in recovery from sex addiction. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI.

McDaniel, Kelly. (2008). Ready to heal: Women facing love, sex, and relationship addictions. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.

© Copyright 2010 by Caroline Frost, MA, MFT, therapist in Los Angeles, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jerome

    November 2nd, 2010 at 11:33 AM

    In a local magazine,I have read about many men writing in to say that their wives are not interested in sex and do various things to avoid the same.This actually surprised me because I had never heard of something like that before.But I guess this is yet another thing that has existed for long but is coming out in the open only recently.

  • Levi

    November 3rd, 2010 at 4:39 AM

    For some women to have so many hangups about sex it sure does seem like an awful lot of them have issues with it too!

  • lenny

    November 3rd, 2010 at 8:52 AM

    its not like someone wants to depreive themselves of sex.its just that the person is having a problem that needs redressal and support from the partner and not a what-the-hell-is-wrong attitude.

  • HENSEN

    November 3rd, 2010 at 11:10 AM

    Is this kind of a behavior always genuine or is it sometimes because some people just can’t bring themselves to do it due to their problems. I think talking to a counselor wil work best. Let’s see if this happens.

  • Goey

    November 3rd, 2010 at 7:34 PM

    and let us be aware that this can also be because your partner might just be cheating on you…?!

  • Minako

    November 4th, 2010 at 4:40 AM

    I have never heard of this term sexual anorexia? I guess anything having to do with either taking one behavior from one extreme to the other is never going to be a good or a healthy approach to living.

  • Chelsea

    November 4th, 2010 at 8:28 AM

    It’s not that uncommon for anorexics to have an aversion to sex. Low body weight and malnutrition can make for problems with hormones, for one thing. A fear of being “fat” can make it difficult to take off your clothes and feel free to embrace your sexuality. A lot of people with anorexia have abuse/molestation in their past or current lives, which also adds to the difficulty. It’s a very layered problem.

  • BRENDA

    November 4th, 2010 at 11:23 PM

    Partners of such people need a lot of patience and need to support the person.And also,he/she should remember the vows-to be together in both good and bad times and stand by each other.

  • BRENDA

    November 4th, 2010 at 11:24 PM

    Partners of such people need a lot of patience and need to support the person.And also,he/she should remember the vows-to be together in both good and bad times and stand by each other.

  • Paula

    November 6th, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    Is this usually present at a young age or does it typically emerge once the person is married?

  • Caroline Frost

    December 1st, 2010 at 1:51 PM

    Paula,
    Sexual anorexia can emerge pretty much anytime from adolescence on. It may the result of early wounding in childhood or from a traumatic event, such as a rape. It may also be the byproduct of a sexual addiction and present itself during a period of social withdrawal.

    It must not be confused with normal marital sexual issues. Most married couples go through periods where one or both partners lose interest in sex. Sexual anorexia is a much more profound fear and disgust of sex and sexuality.

  • HotHoneyButter

    March 21st, 2011 at 1:17 AM

    I have sexual anorexia — text book case. I am a 30 year old female virgin. I don’t see any hope for this situation. I do not trust men and don’t know how to; usually they are VERY judgmental with the “average” girls. They seem to not be interested in someone that has these types of problems, because of the lack of sex involved. oh well.

  • Ashli

    October 29th, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    I have this and it is a nightmare, i used to not have any issues with having sex with long term boyfriends. Even with the thought of maybe it was connected to my history of being raped when i was youngm but it was not connected whatsoever. I have been with my current boyfriend for over a year and suddenly stopped wanting to have sex. The thought scares me and I avoid it in any way possible. It has been a complete nightmare and a really big strain on my relationship.

  • CarolineFrost

    CarolineFrost

    October 29th, 2012 at 6:28 PM

    Ashli, I’m sorry to hear of your troubles. Sometimes the body reacts in ways that don’t make logical sense, but it sounds like it’s trying to tell you something important.

    There is certainly help for you. If you need a referral in your area or would like more information, please feel free to contact me through GoodTherapy.org http://www.goodtherapy.org/caroline-frost-therapist.php
    Best wishes,
    Caroline

  • Wyatt

    July 15th, 2013 at 6:25 PM

    I’m very glad I finally discovered this. This describes me and my situation with a level of accuracy that’s astounding. It’s a big relief in a way to know that I haven’t been crazy this whole time and that there’s a label for what I’m dealing with.
    I’ve had Sexual Anorexia from the day I was first capable of sexual feeling and it’s certainly not an easy thing to deal with. We live in a society that’s pretty sexually liberated and forward thinking. So telling people that I don’t want anything to do with it rarely goes over smoothly. Most assume that i was abused as a child (I wasn’t). And no one seems to be able to understand wanting to get rid of my sexuality entirely.

  • s.

    November 11th, 2013 at 4:19 PM

    Wyatt, I find it funny and interesting that you would say we live in a sexually liberated society while sex addicts or otherwise sexually open people believe the converse to be true. I’ve been diagnosed with SA and I am still exploring and attempting to come to terms with it, so I obviously feel the same way you do. It’s all perspective, I suppose.

  • Wyatt

    January 3rd, 2014 at 9:57 PM

    S,

    You’re quite right when you say this is a matter of perspective. For me, being consciously against my sexual nature is completely natural. It’s all I have ever known. This makes seeking help for, as you say, coming to terms with this is pretty difficult. People with normal views on sex think I should be working to accept my sexual side when that’s something I simply cannot do. It’s going to make so many aspects of my life difficult, but I’ve more or less grown used to the fact that this is the way I am.

    Best of luck with your own struggles, I hope you find some resolution.

  • Rachael

    February 25th, 2015 at 5:00 AM

    I find the definitions of sexual anorexia sexist and narrow. I’m surprised Hazelden and Patrick Carnes have not developed their theories more. I’m sexually anorexic. I’m not married and therefore do not withhold sex from my husband or partner. I do not binge and purge on sex. Rather, I am rarely attracted to anyone sexually. However, when I am I’m as sexually active as the next person. I could go into more details but I’d like to challenge the perception of frigid women in marriages. The field is far, far wider.

  • Sad

    April 26th, 2015 at 4:34 PM

    Looking back I have always had issues with sex… My first husband blamed me and I have blamed him since…
    I have always felt broken and at least now I know I’m not alone.

  • Precious

    July 12th, 2016 at 7:59 AM

    I understand anorexia to be the willful avoidance of something in an attempt to control oneself in any number of areas… Knowing that, I, as a 41 year old woman, have tried the “abstinence” route to addressing and hopefully healing my sex addiction or hyper sexual cravings. I figured that I couldn’t get myself in trouble if I just avoid anything sexual because I have a hard time putting anything that can lead to sex into, what I know to be, in it’s right place. I don’t hate or despise sex. Actually, I think I like it too much- but don’t know how to hold it down and keep it from affecting my thoughts and daily functions. So I abstain. But I don’t ever stop thinking about, craving, and even becoming aroused at the the thought or possibility of any sexual or intimate act.

    Sexual anorexia.

    Every definition that I come across in books and on the web focuses on traits that have nothing to do with my uses for sexual anorexia. It is all aimed at self-control, the other person has to fend for themselves. I suppose there are some who don’t like the sex that they crave, but I do. And want to restrain it within healthy-like parameters, such as a relationship, so that it can continue repeatedly with no disruption. But, of course, that is hard because of the disassociation. But I try…

  • Willow

    September 19th, 2016 at 3:00 PM

    I always though I was odd and just made wrong or people simply dont like me. But its just so lonely. Can it be fixed?

  • cat793

    December 24th, 2016 at 11:57 AM

    I am in complete despair. I am a 45 year old man and until recently have somehow managed to avoid sex since the age of 28. Recently I have woken up (that seems the best description) to realise I have wasted 17 precious years of the prime of my life. It dawned on me about 2 years ago that it cannot be right to go without sex like this. Now panic has set in as I realise my window for enjoying sex, love and intimacy with attractive women is rapidly closing. I also seem to be having increasing problems with ED. I cannot sleep more than two hours a night due to feelings of desperation. I just cannot understand how I have let this happen to me. I can never get the time back. I was sexually active between the ages of 24-28 so I know the joy, peace of mind and feelings of self confidence and peace that come from sex.

  • Michael

    February 28th, 2017 at 6:06 PM

    cat793…you remind me a great deal of myself and my own past. I am a 49 year-old man, and I have had sex once in the last 20 years. I am so pleased I have found this description ‘sexual anorexia’…it seems to describe my problems so well. I feel sexually attracted to women, and have had two committed heterosexual relationships, the last one ending in 1997. Since then I have been so averse to sex and committed to independence as a single person that I am now unable to express my sexual needs with anyone…I simply don’t trust them. I feel that everyone is out to hurt me, and that I am at fault for trying to assert my sexual feelings, as if there is something horrendous and downright bad about my desire for women. I am stuck in this, I am sick of it, it feels so unfair that I cannot be trusted to just act naturally. Thank you for your comment here, I have found it very helpful.

  • Michael

    February 28th, 2017 at 6:09 PM

    cat793, yes, I also suffer from ED.

  • Precious

    April 27th, 2017 at 11:06 AM

    So, if this is really what is considered Sexual Anorexia, what do I have?

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