By Crystal Nesfield, Trauma Therapist, Willow House at The Meadows
While the impact of sexual addiction is becoming more widely understood, and treatment for sexual addiction more widely available, the issues associated with sexual anorexia are often overlooked.
Sexual anorexia is a compulsive avoidance of giving or receiving social, sexual, or emotional nourishment. This is much like a food anorexia, in which a person refuses all nourishment through food, but instead of refusing food, people with sexual anorexia refuse to fulfill their need for intimacy. Sexual anorexia and sexual addiction could be considered to be on opposite ends of the same spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, a person is sexually binging, while on the other end, a person is sexually restricting. However, the two are actually very similar in some ways. Both conditions can lead the person to experience powerlessness over their behaviors, and consequences for their behaviors and both can impact every aspect of a person’s life. Additionally, both conditions share the tendency for the person to have obsessive thoughts about sex. A person with sexual anorexia has obsessive thinking around the avoidance of sex and intimacy. A person with a sexual addiction has obsessive thoughts around obtaining sexual gratification.
A person with sexual anorexia may experience an uncontrollable need to avoid sexual behaviors at all costs. This often leads to self-destructive patterns and negative impacts on their relationships. A person with sexual anorexia may experience depression, restlessness, irritability or anxiety when engaging in sexual contact, or when faced with the possibility of engaging in an intimate relationship. Interestingly, however, the person with sexual addiction often faces the same emotional consequences when abstaining from sexual contact. And both the person who is compulsively engaging in sexual behavior and the person who is compulsively avoiding sexual behavior may have rigid or judgmental beliefs about their sexuality that they attempt to overcome through their behaviors.
Also, both sexual anorexia and sexual addiction can have similar origins. Either condition can manifest in a person who has grown up in an environment where sex was believed to be shameful, and/or where they experienced sexual abuse or exploitation. Many types of trauma also often lead to distorted beliefs pertaining to sex. Both people with sexual addiction and people with sexual anorexia may be attempting to control unresolved trauma or uncontrolled feelings by either bingeing on sexual behaviors or depriving themselves of intimacy.
By abstaining from intimate relationships and isolating themselves, a person with sexual anorexia is attempting to protect themselves from further harm. This person may go to extreme lengths to avoid relationships. This could include self-mutilation or adjusting their appearance. A person with sexual addiction may go to extreme lengths to engage in sexual behaviors, such as exposure to disease or bodily harm.
With both sexual addiction and sexual anorexia, a person has difficulty forming healthy, intimate relationships, and both feature symptoms of a deeper issue the person may be experiencing and need to be addressed through the appropriate treatment. This may include attending a 12-step meeting focusing on compulsive sexual behaviors, such as SLAA or SAA, and working with a qualified therapist. By engaging in treatment for sexual anorexia, a person can begin to form healthy relationships and have a more fulfilling life.