Although still stigmatized in our culture, sex addiction has steadily gained recognition in the public consciousness over the past decade, resulting in a host of treatment centers, rehabs, support groups and specialized therapists. What is less talked about, but equally devastating, is "sexual anorexia," a concept that refers to the compulsive avoidance of sexual nourishment and intimacy.
The phrase has been floating around since 1975, but Dr. Patrick Carnes is credited with introducing it to the mainstream in his 1997 book of the same title. Much like a food anorexic, a sexual anorexic may refuse all sustenance—in this case, emotional and sensual sustenance—in order to keep chaotic feelings, anxiety, and unexplored trauma at bay. Where sex addicts "act out" or "binge" through promiscuity or high-risk behavior, sexual anorectics starve themselves by "acting in," denying themselves the pleasure of relationships, dating, loving touch, and genuine connection with others.
For the anorexic, the possible rejection he or she might encounter from another human being is just too threatening. It feels safer to remain isolated, no matter how unsatisfying that lifestyle may be. Sometimes this self-imposed exile from sexuality may be the result of sexual abuse or body dysmorphia, or it may have originated in a highly repressive or religious upbringing. Rigidity, judgment, and shame dominate the sexual anorexic's emotional landscape, leaving little room for exploration or curiosity. Like an alcoholic or drug addict, the anorexic may go to great lengths to hide the condition, making up excuses in order to decline event invitations, feigning illness, or compulsively switching jobs, apartments, or schools to avoid developing community.