The Shadow Side of Sex Addiction – Sexual Anorexia and How to Treat It

It’s even more of a taboo than sex addiction – the intimacy disorder of sexual anorexia. It is a process addiction, comprising obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviours that come to dominate people’s lives, causing suffering and harm. Sexual anorexia affects adults of all ages, including people who stay single long-term, as well as people in an existing relationship or marriage.

The disorder is often not discussed or understood well – partly because people with sexual anorexia often go to great lengths to hide their difficulties. The secrecy around sexual anorexia can mean that many people go undiagnosed for many years.

It progresses over time, so sexual anorexics typically get worse if they don’t receive treatment. Fortunately, there is specialist treatment and support for sexual anorexia, including when people have a co-existing addiction or mental illness.

In this blog, we’ll discuss ten common signs of sexual anorexia and how they affect people’s relationships. Sexual anorexia can also co-exist with sex addiction – we’ll explain how that happens. Please speak in confidence today to the Addiction Helper team, to find out about outpatient and inpatient treatment programmes in the UK and overseas.

10 signs of sexual anorexia

1. Compulsive avoidance of sex and intimate relationships

Sexual anorexia is the gradual or sudden withdrawal from sex and intimate relationships. It can affect people who have had many previous sexual relations, as well as people who have had little or no sex or intimacy in their life.

The disorder manifests in different ways, unique to each – but it always comprises a set of strategies and behaviours, which minimise or prevent sexual contact and intimacy in real life.

Sexual anorexia can also develop in an existing relationship that was once sexually active. This is where a husband, wife or partner distances themselves sexually and sometimes emotionally from their partner. It can happen slowly, or it can happen suddenly, following a significant life change or traumatic events – such as pregnancy and childbirth, a serious injury, the death of a close relative or an illness.

Where sexual anorexia develops within a relationship, typically communication about sex and intimacy breaks down too. The subjects become the elephant in the room. There is often little of no discussion about the change in the sexual relationship. It gets harder and harder to break through the impasse.

Frequently, sexual anorexia will lead to relationship breakdown, where the partner who still wants to engage sexually feels very dissatisfied, confused or rejected.

2. Fantasising about sexually unavailable partners

People with sexual anorexia often develop private fantasies, to compensate for the lack of real physical or romantic intimacy. It’s very common for sexual anorexics to have patterns of obsessive thinking about sexually unavailable partners. They fantasise about sex and romantic contact – typically keeping all the details to themselves. There is very little chance of these fantasies developing into a real-life relationship or sexual experience.

For example, a sexual anorexic might fantasise about sex or a relationship with a public figure, an old school friend on Facebook, a person who lives abroad or a happily married colleague – precisely because it’s so unlikely to go beyond fantasy.

3. Social and emotional anorexia

Often people with sexual anorexia also find social situations and emotional expression difficult. Extreme shyness or awkwardness may lead to people avoiding social gatherings with friends, family or work colleagues. They might discover parties or work events very difficult or exhausting. Another person’s anger or upset might be very alarming or draining.

Isolation can sometimes feel like a relief or escape to social anorexics – and even though they may be lonely, spending much time by themselves can feel easier than forming genuine friendships.

4. Low self-esteem and sexual anorexia

Very commonly, people with sexual anorexia have low self-esteem. They compulsively avoid sex and intimacy with romantic partners, fearing exposure and rejection. In treatment, they often describe overwhelming or paralysing fear at the prospect of becoming physically and emotionally intimate with people. This fear keeps them locked into cycles of avoidance.

5. Perfectionism

Intolerance towards even the smallest imperfections, in themselves or others, is also a common sign of sexual anorexia. It’s a defensive strategy to maintain the status quo of avoiding close relationships and sex.

6. Sexual anorexia and other addictions

Being sworn off sex and intimacy is a form of self-deprivation. Although sexual anorexics often derive a sense of safety or power from their anorexic patterns, usually the pain of sexual anorexia progresses over time.

It’s very common for other addictions to develop, to fill the void. Addictions to drugs or alcohol, as well as other process addictions like workaholism, overspending, bulimia, anorexia or internet addiction, can take over – as a distraction or compensation for the lack of intimacy and sex.

7. Sexual anorexia and mental illness

Clinical depression and anxiety disorder are often co-occurring disorders with sexual anorexia. Thorough assessment and intensive rehabilitation can unravel the disorders from each other, helping to identify the beliefs that require therapeutic intervention to resolve and were medication may be necessary.

8. Unresolved trauma

Sexual anorexia often develops as a result of unresolved trauma, including abuse in childhood, sexual violence or a history of abusive relationships. The person believes their anorexic strategies will prevent further harm or danger in their life. Without support and treatment to resolve their trauma, the patterns of sexual anorexia become vicious cycles.

9. Compulsive use of pornography

In some cases of sexual anorexia, there is also a dependence or addiction to pornography. Addictive use of pornography has been shown to desensitise people sexually over time. Men and women who get addicted to porn develop a tolerance to pornographic images, seeking out more graphic and intense materials. It becomes progressively more difficult to achieve and maintain sexual arousal in real life – with some avoiding sex and intimacy altogether.

10. Sexual anorexia and body image disorders

As with food anorexia, often body image problems occur alongside sexual anorexia. Deeply held fears about bodily features, nakedness or physical contact with another person can lead to people swearing off sex and intimacy. They fear judgment, ridicule or rejection – projecting their negative beliefs about themselves on to potential sexual partners.

When Sexual Anorexia and Sex Addiction Go Together

Sexual anorexia can also switch to sex addiction. For example, there may be intense periods of acting out sexually – having sex with multiple partners, or having a very intense short-term relationship. This is then followed by an extended period of avoiding sex and intimacy altogether. They swear off sex, fearing further exposure, painful experiences or negative consequences.

Eventually, the cycle repeats itself – so the period of sexual anorexia comes to an abrupt end with another phase of heightened sexual activity, usually with partners who are unavailable for genuine intimacy or a lasting relationship. If a sexual partner does indicate they want a more intimate connection, this can trigger another phase of sexual anorexia.

Treatment and Support for Sexual Anorexia

The first step is to reach out for help with sexual anorexia and any other health problems you have. Contact Addiction Helper for a telephone assessment and to find out about counselling or rehab for sexual anorexia – including when you have other addictions or a diagnosed mental illness.

In large towns and cities, there are also free support groups for sexual anorexia – Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, for example. You can search online for your nearest meeting to connect with sexual anorexics in recovery from addiction.

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