Don’t talk to me about sex. I don’t want to have it. I don’t want to think about it. I want nothing to do with it. It’s been eight years, and even then it was a problem.
It started with sexual abuse. A predatory teacher turned comforting hugs into a sexual relationship I was neither ready for nor wanted. Over the course of three years, he broke me down relentlessly until I had no choice but to say yes to every manner in which he inserted himself into my space without invitation. I learned to disconnect from my body entirely — to submit was the path of least harm. Sex simply wasn’t safe and I never wanted to be in that situation again.
When I had my first serious partner years later, they expected me to be an expert in sex, but I was terrified despite deeply wanting to be with my partner. I couldn’t get the idea that sex was unsafe out of my mind. I faked it as best I could, but neither of us was truly satisfied. We had stopped having sex altogether months before our inevitable breakup.
I felt like a failure, like I just wasn’t good at intimacy and it was safer to keep it out of my life. I shut down and obsessively pushed the subject away. Compounded by my trauma and deep shame, eventually even the mention of sex caused panic. I can’t talk about it at length. Even the idea of dating causes severe anxiety. Nobody around me seems to be having trouble, but I definitely am.
When my therapist mentioned I am probably a sexual anorexic, I had never heard the term. So I did a little research and found I’m not alone in my aversion to sex.
Sexual anorexia is the deprivation of sex and intimacy because of overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, anger and a need for control to create a sense of safety. This can manifest as withholding sex, love, praise and appreciation from your partner, feeling loathing toward your body, having contempt for the idea of sex or isolating from potential dates and partners. I checked off all these boxes.
Like in my case, sexual anorexia is often a symptom of underlying issues, especially trauma. This could mean sexual abuse, but other types of abuse, neglect or abandonment as well. Sexual anorexia serves as a protective mechanism against deep-seated traumatic messaging around sex.
“A person tries to get safe,” says Marissa Nelson, a licensed marriage, family and sex therapist in Washington, D.C. “What happens is that the fear response comes in and then the body goes into fight or flight.”
Although sexual anorexia does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is considered an avoidance disorder.
“In many ways this whole behavior is like a protective mechanism,” adds Elana Clark-Faler, a licensed sex addiction and sex therapist in Los Angeles. “It’s really trying to look at more of the deeper issues [and] trying to understand why the protective mechanism is happening.”
While it may not seem like a big deal to avoid sex, it’s devastating. Sex is one of the most basic, intimate means of creating meaningful connection as an adult, so much so it’s built into our biology. To not have that intimacy with other people, to avoid dating and shut out the possibility entirely, I not only feel lonely, I feel hollow.
Sexual anorexia also places sexual power in the hands of other people when sex should be a personal expression of individuality and humanity. My abuser compromised my sense of safety in a relationship when really, intimacy can and should be empowering.
“[Sex] really is integral to personal sexual agency,” says Nelson. “It really allows us to connect with pleasure […] because I want it. It’s because it feels good to me. It’s because this is an expression of my own sensuality and I’m not doing it for anybody else.”
I am still a long way from being ready to express my own pleasure physically — the healing process will take time. But what I did learn is that with support, I can reclaim my body and sexuality from sexual anorexia and learn to enjoy intimacy because it’s something I want, not something I am forced into. And that makes me feel less alone already.