Sexual Anorexia: When Does Not Enough Become a Problem?

A woman stands in a stark room alolne.When is not enough sex too little by far?

When we talk about sex addiction, most of us think of someone who is unable to stop engaging in sexual activity. And most of us can understand that too much sex can be dangerous, due to the potential for acquiring sexually transmitted diseases, losing a committed l relationship, or experiencing a decline in health. But no one ever died from lack of sex, right? Surprisingly, addiction can be described as too much or too little—excess or deprivation.

Sexual deprivation, also known as sexual anorexia, has severe physical and psychological consequences, and many people come to me looking for help in tackling and unraveling this serious problem. By the way, a significant percentage of the people I work with by phone are struggling with sexual anorexia. Often, these people feel more ashamed and embarrassed than those with a more traditional form of sex addiction. Before you think you don’t know anyone like that, remember that they will probably keep their secret, feeling deeply out of sync with a culture that constantly promotes sex but is sadly unconscious about sexuality.

Perhaps you suffer quietly with sexual anorexia, consumed by dread of sexual pleasure yet filled with fears and sexual self-doubts. If so, you may find Dr. Patrick Carnes’ excellent book, Sexual Anorexia helpful. He explains what sexual anorexics are not, “It is not inhibited sexual desire they are experiencing, although often they possess a naïveté, an innocence, or even a prejudice against sex. It is not about being cold and unresponsive although that certainly is a way in which they protect themselves against the hurt.”

He continues, describing a number of other reasons that people contact sex therapists, “It is not about religious belief, although religious sexual oppression may have been a place to hide. It is not about guilt and shame, although those feelings are powerfully experienced.” Nor, I might add, is it about sexual betrayal or rejection, though these are themes I hear quite often. It is simply the emptiness of profound deprivation, the silent suffering known as sexual anorexia.

The word anorexia comes from the Greek word orexis, meaning appetite. Thus an-orexis translates as ‘denial of appetite.’ And most of us associate it with the obsessive avoidance of food, or self-starvation. The steadfast refusal to eat can become a way for food anorexics to assert a kind of power over others, especially those they feel are trying to control them in some way. Many food anorexics are driven by a powerful need to achieve a Barbie-doll figure. The terror of sexual rejection is the primary force behind this striving for impossible thinness. Sexual anorexics often share these same fears and distortion of thought. Dr. Carnes notes that in both cases, the sufferers starve themselves in the midst of plenty. That’s been true in my experience too—the majority of sexual anorexics that I’ve worked with have had partners or spouses who were more than willing to engage sexually.

There are striking parallels between food anorexia and sexual anorexia: the essential loss of self, the same thought distortions, the same extreme self-hatred and isolation. Both types struggle for some kind of control over themselves and others, usually the people closest to them. Food anorexics will sometimes become “bulimic,” bingeing with compulsive overeating, and then purging by self-induced vomiting. In a similar fashion sexual anorexics often “act out” with periods of sexual promiscuity or exaggerated frequency. One woman I worked with reported that she only approached her boyfriend for sex twice per year, but when she did she demanded nonstop intercourse or would masturbate to the point that she bled.

Sexual anorexics can be men or women, heterosexual or homosexual. Many have histories of childhood abuse and neglect, sexual and otherwise, what one person I worked with called “my dark secrets.” At some point, they experienced profound loss of trust, causing their “wires to cross,” or their sexual arousal template to be affected. The more frightened you are, the stronger your need to maintain some semblance of control.

Since most sexual anorexics are unaware of the hidden trauma driving them, I’ve found therapy can be very helpful. One man I worked with expressed amazement that “there’s actually a name for this horrible suffering.”

© Copyright 2010 by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CCS, therapist in Los Osos, 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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  • Mathew

    Mathew

    May 6th, 2010 at 2:27 AM

    Both my wife and I are working professionals and work in different cities.We meet up one extended weekend(of 3-4 days) once a month and we hardly ever have sex because we feel it is far more important to ‘be’ with each other and share everything.I do not know if this qualifies as a problem but I really hope there is a solution to all this?! :|

  • Chase

    Chase

    May 6th, 2010 at 4:53 AM

    I never knew that this existed or that there would be people who would willingly withold sex from their lives. I am not trying to be flip at all- I come to this site to try to understand and get a better knowledge of the many mental and physical issues which can affect us all. It is just that this is a new one on me, even the term sexual anorexia is one I have never heard of before. But I guess when I think about it it is another situation where someone is grasping for control in their lives any way that they know how and if they have issues with their body or with sex from the past it would only be natural that this need for control would exhibit in this manner. Quite interesting for sure, but I am not convinced that you will convince many men that this is a real thing.

  • Nikita

    Nikita

    May 6th, 2010 at 10:15 AM

    ^^Yes,it does exist and affects a sizable part of the population.The only reason why most cases are not sought help for is because people do not recognize it as a problem and even if they do they are too lax or shy to seek help.I have been through this very problem,and if not for my sister I would never have gone looking for help.

  • donna

    donna

    November 12th, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    i have not had sex in nine years becuase i am no longer interested in the lame brain i married. I long for a smart,senstive,good looking man. I am so horny and stress out that i think some of my physical elements are from wanting the touch of a man again.I am drawn to doctors for some reason and i know it is more than the scrubs.I actually got off at my last pap smear and believe me there is nothing fun about that intrusment i would prefer handcuffs and blindfolds.But at least i was naked in front of a guy again and seemed pretty safe.And my mind filled up with dirty thoughts of what i would like to do to him and believe me this man is drop dead gorrgeous while i am coyote ugly in my view my body is hot and he can look at it any damn time. When he touch my back i thought i was going have to leave because i was so turned on i grabbed the light. But never in a million years would a cause troule for this guy just want to screw him. His wife should sit and stare at him for hours or eye fuck as it is called.But i am still in alot of pain and hope soon to have insurance because my neck is killing me and those headaches are back.Sexual tension headaches.

  • eva

    eva

    February 2nd, 2011 at 8:32 PM

    I don’t know if i can manage to handle it if i were on the situation, but i do understand if ever.maybe i would try my best to be more attractive w/ my partner so that he will feel the eagerness to make love w/ me. if i still fail despite of everything and the effort, i would suggest to consult a professional help.because for me it’s not healthy that your partner has sexual problem like this.

  • Teddy Jensen

    Teddy Jensen

    April 23rd, 2011 at 1:49 PM

    This is not the way I see sexual starvation. I see it as being taught as something dirty, sinful, to fear and this causes avoidance, or fumbling and clumsy attempts to have sex… which is always miserable….. then the person avoids and starves…

    ANY COMMENTS ON THIS??????????? write me at my e mail

  • Peter M

    Peter M

    June 22nd, 2012 at 6:27 AM

    Hi… I am starved, so to speak, but am shy of bothering my wife about this, as she seems to have no interest or need for sex, and has never asked for it in all our married life. When we were younger she accepted and seemed to enjoy my advances, but then it seemed to become merely something to be tolerated, and then I could not be interested myself. So I daydream (etc.). I had my share when I was younger. Should I just be stoic? I don’t think we are bored by each other – we greatly enjoy many other aspects of our family life, with one son, and also share work intersts without stepping on each other’s toes.

  • Marla

    Marla

    April 19th, 2014 at 6:13 PM

    I see more harm of labeling someone “sexually anorexic” when the problem most likely stemmed from trauma. What’s the point? Why not deal with the real issue?

  • Herman

    Herman

    April 21st, 2014 at 9:48 AM

    I agree Marla. Both sexual addiction and sexual annorexia are to my mind misleading catch phrases.

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