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What is Sexual Anorexia? Understanding Sexual Avoidance


A man contends with sexual anorexia.

It’s likely you’ve heard of anorexia in the context of eating disorders, but perhaps not regarding sex and intimacy. The word anorexia is derived from the Greek word orexis, which translates to without appetite. In the same way people struggling with restrictive eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa develop a fear towards food and weight gain, people with Sexual Anorexia experience intense fear surrounding sexual contact in intimate relationships.


Read on to learn more about the complexities of compulsive avoidance of sexual activity.


Sexual Anorexia & The Common Symptoms


Sexual Anorexia is a condition in which someone experiences obsessive avoidance and intense fear of sexual intimacy. The term was coined by Dr. Patrick Carnes and popularized in his book, Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self Hatred.


Properly diagnosing and treating anorexia related to sex can be challenging because there can be many reasons why someone may experience sexual avoidance or inhibited sexual desire. Hormone imbalances, certain mental health conditions, having a history of sexual trauma, and some medications can all be reasons a person may be avoiding sex.


An important distinction is whether the fear of intimacy and sex presents as an unrelenting obsession and hyper-focus. Someone suffering with sexual anorexia tends to be ruminating constantly about sex in a way that is dominating their life and severely impacting their intimate relationships.


Some common symptoms of sexual anorexia can include:


  • Dreading sexual pleasure
  • Persistent fear of sexual contact
  • Strong avoidance with anything related to sex
  • Misconstruction of body image
  • Feelings of self hatred after engaging in sex
  • Obsessive thoughts about own sexual adequacy
  • Severe anxiety about sexual transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Episodes of frequent sexual engagement followed by extreme deprivation


How Does Sexual Anorexia Develop?


People of all genders can develop sexual anorexia. It’s often a result of sexual trauma such as sexual abuse or it can be developed by those who have experienced sexual rejection and associate sexual intimacy to shame and anxiety.


Other types of people who might be predisposed are those who already struggle with other forms of addictions or compulsive behaviors such as food addictions/eating disorders, substance abuse, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or anxiety disorders.


It’s also not uncommon for those who grow up in sexually repressive environments, such as purity culture, to develop this and other intimacy issues. In certain cultures where sex is taught as something dirty, shameful, or immoral, many people, particularly women, can experience a damaging relationship to intimacy with others and find themselves compulsively avoiding sex.


Similarities of Sexual Anorexia & Sex Addiction


It may be confusing to think of Sexual Anorexia as an addiction, given that sufferers disengage with sex, versus sex addicts who experience compulsive behaviors around sexual contact. The two conditions are two sides of the same coin. On one side exists sexual compulsivity and the other, sexual restriction – both come with consuming thoughts, behaviors, and oftentimes severe challenges in peoples’ lives.


People with Sexual Anorexia tend to develop a similar cycle of addiction as those struggling with Sex Addiction. According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, there is the same core belief system amongst those facing Sex Addiction and Sexual Anorexia. Both sex addicts and sexual anorexics feel a strong need to be in control of their life and use sex as the means of feeling in control, both experience a strong obsession around sex, and for both, sex can be a distraction from facing underlying painful emotions.


Getting Support


Since Sexual Anorexia involves intimacy avoidance, sufferers often feel alone and confused as to why they don’t want and fear sex with partners. It can be really challenging for people struggling with Sexual Anorexia to feel safe in relationships and the symptoms often come with shame and feeling as if they are sexually “broken.”


If you believe you are struggling with Sexual Anorexia you are not broken. Discovering and defining a healthy relationship with sex can be difficult when sex is associated with a painful past. Working with a trained mental health professional who has experience working with sex addition can help sufferers identify the cause(s) of their fears and receive medical advice, a diagnosis and/or treatment.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Kayla Tricaso is the Office Manager and Patient Intake Specialist at Modern Intimacy. When she is not working at Modern Intimacy, Kayla is in graduate school to become a therapist who specializes in trauma.



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