Science has long accepted sex as a basic human need, even more primary than love and affection, with theorists like Maslow and Freud emphatically stating its importance. An obsession with it, though, can be devastating and have consequences beyond one’s control. Sex addiction is a real, daunting problem that society is slowly beginning to face. Movies like Shame and Thanks for Sharing depict the struggles of a sex addict, drawing the public attention it deserves.
What still stays neglected is the other end of the spectrum, though equally devastating in its nature – sexual anorexia. Sexual anorexia is a condition where one compulsively avoids any form of sexual attachment or nourishment. It is a relentless pursuit of avoiding anything even mildly sexual and the individual lives in constant fear of any form of sexual intimacy. This obsession with sex, even a pursuit to avoid it, makes it a form of sexual addiction.
While the term has been in existence since 1975, sexual anorexia was brought to the fore by Dr. Patrick Carnes. In his book, ‘Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Self-Hatred’, Carnes has drawn comparisons between a food anorexic and a sexual anorexic. Both food and sex form the basis of sustenance, and both have sensual qualities. The cause of withholding from both is the same – to keep anxiety at bay.
For the anorexic, the possibility of rejection is so threatening that they resort to withdrawal of all kinds. Insecurity about one’s body is a major underlying factor. Like with a food anorexic, the sexual anorexic is attempting to cope with distorted thought and protecting the self from any perceived harm. It eventually develops into a strategy to deal with any kind of stress and centres on feelings of shame and defectiveness.
Interestingly, a connection between food addiction and sexual anorexia has also been explored. Sexual anorexics resort to several ways to make themselves unavailable and unattractive. They may dress up shabbily, remain unkempt and avoid social contact with any member of the desired sex. They may also cross addict with food to become obese in an attempt to stop others from finding them sexually attractive.
The causes of sexual anorexia are variant – sexual abuse, attachment disorder with cross-gender parent and sexual addiction are seen as the heart of the problem. Sexual abuse leads to an obvious trauma which influences the ability to forge healthy sexual relationships in the future. Lack of stable attachment with the cross-gender parent can lead to an association of discomfort with intimacy.
Sexual addiction forms an interesting case – sex addicts and sex anorexics share the same core belief: that of being unloved. Their strategies of dealing with the same are different. One indulges in sex in a ritualistic manner; the other withdraws from sex completely. But for both, sex becomes the centre of their attention – whether it is a pursuit or withdrawal. The perplexing dichotomy here is that the sex addict may in fact, actively avoid any of form of intimacy with a loved one – they are only able to engage in sex as a carnal need. Likewise, an addict may feel the need to exercise control and withdraw from sex completely. This deprivation eventually leads them to act out by indulging in excessive sex – creating a binge-purge cycle, just like a food addict.
Religion has been found to play an important role as well. Religion often portrays self-control as ideal and emphasises the need to rise above carnal desires, making sexual denial a spiritual act. Being raised in an ardently religious family can lead to feelings of guilt and doubt and an eventual refrainment from sex completely.
While individuals with sexual anorexia go through tremendous anguish, it also leads to anguish in another entity – their partners. Sexual anorexia can show up momentarily with a long-term partner. Partners of sexual anorexics experience excruciating mental pain at being unable to establish any intimacy in the relationship. They often feel unloved and neglected, and can spiral into depression, hopelessness, and anxiety. They are left to carry the unbearable burden of a failed relationship.
On a more general level, a study has found that an unhealthy or unsatisfied sex life leads to lower level of happiness in life. The anguish of a sexual anorexic is thus not limited to only one aspect of his/her life; it impacts their experience of life as a whole.
Given the gravity of this disorder, therapies and 12-step group methods like Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous are being explored. It is important to realise that such deep-seated avoidance can be an overpowering, overwhelming experience for the anorexic, one that leaves them disconnected from the rest. It needs to be addressed with sympathy and care. Because the truth is, sex is a basic human need – one meant to be associated with pleasure, not distress.