Published May 11, 2009
Not having enough sex? Maybe your weight is to blame … and I’m not talking about being overweight.
Want to bring sexy back? Start by taking on the “thin is in” campaign we’ve been subjected to for decades. While the media delights in glamorizing eating disorders, those obsessed with being super slim have learned it’s anything but sexy. They’ve learned the hard way that the quest to become model chic — like any mental or physical “disease” — slowly eats away at one’s own sexuality.
Their sexual identity, sexual nature and sexual desires all ultimately pay the personal price for the need to be skinny or to gain control over their lives. Partners of those with anorexia nervosa or bulimia are affected by these sex sideliners as well, with the relationship suffering in a number of ways.
Far from their “girl”-disease stereotypes, anorexia and bulimia afflict the young and old of both genders.
In combating the signs of aging and maintaining their younger forms, more and more older adults are becoming obsessed with their diets. Adult-onset eating disorders appear to be on the rise, with a Cornell University survey finding an increase in the number of women in their 40s being hospitalized for an eating disorder.
Men can be affected too. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, males make up 1 million of the 8 million Americans with eating disorders. And they bear its burdens no more easily.
Research out of the University of Toronto found that men and women with eating disorders experience similar rates of anxiety, depression, panic disorders, phobias, and alcohol dependency.
Yet the bulk of the information and research data on eating disorders focuses on females, especially those with anorexia. With food and sex among a human’s most basic physiological needs, it’s no surprise that a lack of one impacts the other. Restricting one’s food intake (anorexia) or limiting the body’s retention of food — by vomiting, using laxatives or both — hits couples where it hurts on a number of levels.
Lack of Sexual Interest
Sexual attitudes among women with anorexia nervosa are rather poor. The majority of sufferers are sexually naïve and exhibit sexual disgust. Full of body hate and extremely self-conscious, they see themselves as less sexually appealing and are less interested in sexual activity than others.
They have a great deal of apprehension about their sexual expression, sexual interest and sexual attractiveness to others. Sexually anxious, many see pleasure as threatening. After all, she’s going to great lengths to avoid the pleasures eating offers. Naturally, then, there’s a higher incidence of sexual avoidance and aversion among women of low weight.
The depression, low self-esteem, general malaise, and fatigue lower one’s sex drive and sexual interest even further. Of the anorexics who are sexually active, many report lower rates of overall sexual activity and orgasm, and higher rates of negative emotions during sex. They also rarely engage in sexual fantasy.
But other studies, like one published in the journal Psychological Medicine, report that some females with anorexia report increased sexual activity, despite lowered libido.
This is because many women suffering from this eating disorder become hypersexual, using sex as an expression of power. They enjoy the control involved, even when it becomes self-destructive.
Having an eating disorder is also linked to deficient sexual functioning in women when they become sexually active. When a female severely reduces her intake of food to the point she’s consuming hardly anything, naturally, her reproductive system shuts down.
With low body fat, her body fails to produce sufficient amounts of sex hormones, namely estrogen. Thus, she’ll quit menstruating, making pregnancy difficult for those hoping to reproduce. These endocrinal changes have a domino effect, starting with a lack of vaginal secretions.
This loss of vaginal lubrication makes intercourse painful and uncomfortable. As a result, many develop an aversive reaction to sex and further loss of interest. Lack of orgasm is also common in women with anorexia nervosa.
Given these issues, sexual problems are inevitable for the woman dealing with an eating disorder, as well as for her partner.
Determined to be the only person affecting her body, she will keep her figure to herself. This makes sexual advances increasingly difficult for an anorexic to deal with. It makes matters incredibly frustrating for her pained and confused partner, whom she comes to resent.
A strong sense of dislike toward a partner is the most widespread of sexual problems among women with anorexia nervosa. This is further complicated when her body weight is so low that the woman’s sexual attractiveness to her partner may diminish as well. Thus, the aversion becomes mutual. The sex becomes a forgotten matter.
Healing Your Relationship and Your Sex Life
So what are couples to do? First and foremost, the person with an eating disorder needs to get professional help from both a doctor and therapist. Nothing can change until this individual acknowledges that she needs help and seeks it out. Partners need to then buckle down for a long road to recovery. Even after a woman has recovered from an eating disorder, she may still continue to have sexual difficulties.
The good news is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Research published in Psychosomatic Medicine examining changes in sex drive during weight restoration in patients with anorexia nervosa found that an increase in sex drive accompanied weight restoration.
Until lovers can get to that place of reclaiming their sex lives, they can find faith in this Wayside Pulpit quote: “Look on worries like bad weather; unpleasant, but never lasting.”
Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."