The Impact of Eating Disorders on Sexual Desire
This is a vulnerable admission for me to write, but my 15-year battle with an eating disorder has made an impact on my sexual desire. There—I confessed it openly. I pushed back against the shame, embarrassment, and insecurity that too often silences me on this particular issue.
I used to think I was an enigma when it came to sexuality. As a 20-something woman in a committed, safe relationship with the most incredible husband, I could not figure out why sex was so difficult. The media portrayed it as this irresistible, euphoric, sensual experience, so how did I become fearful and sexually averse?
I felt abnormal, weird, and freakish—an exception to the rule that humans are base creatures with carnal instincts. But now, as I continue to unpack this dilemma with my husband and therapist, I have learned about the impact of eating disorders on sexual desire, and it needs to be de-stigmatized because I suspect this is more common than I once believed.
How Eating Disorders Can Impact Sexual Desire
Since eating disorders are usually entrenched in a complex and self-conscious relationship with body image, it does make sense that disembodiment would cause a barrier in healthy sexual desire. I had been trying to control and detach from my own body since the age of 13, so when I reached a point in life where it seemed like a reasonable time to discover sexuality, I was clueless about how this body even worked—not to mention, what brought it pleasure.
More than a decade later, at the age of 28, I am just now starting to reconnect with the physical, uninhibited side of myself that has been squelched for too long. As I explore how my unique body responds to sexual contact, I have learned that, although humans are wired for both arousal and affection, eating disorders can switch off those natural urges which then impact sexual desire. Here are three reasons why—in my own experience and based on research—this issue can occur.
- Malnourishment can lead to a sex hormone imbalance. Eating disorder behaviors such as caloric restriction and binge-purge cycles interfere with the body's absorption of vital nutrients. Over time, this deficiency will affect the endocrine system, which produces the main sex hormones estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone, and when those hormones become imbalanced, they can repress sexual desire.1
- Eating disorders are sometimes linked to sexual trauma. One common response to sexual assault or abuse is to dissociate from the body since that is where the violation took place. As a result, many people who experience a sexual trauma feel ashamed of or repulsed by their bodies which could provoke the onset of an eating disorder and stifle the desire to pursue a healthy connection to sex in the future.2
- Poor body image can result in discomfort around sexuality. When there is an acute level of criticism or obsession with how the body looks, this can lead to anxiety, stress, disinterest, and fear around sexual performance. In some cases, an insecure body image is even associated with low arousal and lack of orgasms since too much focus on the body's appearance can escalate inhibitions and decrease pleasure.3
Reclaim Sexual Desire in Eating Disorder Recovery
Now that I have begun to understand the impact of eating disorders on sexual desire, I feel more empowered to reclaim my own sexuality. I have some beliefs, doubts, challenges, anxieties, and behaviors to dismantle, but I am not an unnatural, bizarre anomaly as I once presumed. So one of my intentions for eating disorder recovery is to be curious about sexual desire—and embrace it for myself.
- Schorr, M. et al, "The Endocrine Manifestations of Anorexia Nervosa: Mechanisms and Management." Nature Reviews Endocrinology, June 2018.
- Palumbo, L., "The Connection Between Eating Disorders and Sexual Violence." National Sexual Violence Resource Center, February 2018.
- Quinn-Nilas, C. et al, "The Relationship Between Body Image and Domains of Sexual Functioning Among Heterosexual, Emerging Adult Women." Sexual Medicine, March 2016.
Schurrer, M. (2020, February 6). The Impact of Eating Disorders on Sexual Desire , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, July 12 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2020/2/the-impact-of-eating-disorders-on-sexual-desire