Sex and Eating Disorders

Hispanic Couple discussing Sex and Eating Disorders

Sex and Eating Disorders have a strong correlation. Sex is both a biological and emotional act. Eating disorders are biological and emotional disorders. As such, one, undoubtedly, impacts the other.

The topic of sex is often viewed as taboo, making it difficult to find information on how eating disorders impact sex, AND it’s harder for those struggling with an eating disorder to talk about this impact.

That precisely is why we’re going there.

The Body

At its’ core, sex is a biological function that requires the body to perform optimally to “get things going.” Eating disorders make it difficult for the body to do this job.

For both men and women, the malnutrition that often occurs in eating disorders results in the reduction or absence of hormone secretion.

This disturbance in hormone production and secretion makes the physiological act of having and enjoying sex difficult [1].

The physiological impacts of eating disorders also impact the brain’s ability to fire specific neurons and send signals throughout the body, impacting sexual arousal as well as emotions. This can often lead to a decrease in feelings of intimacy and connection.

Bottom line, the biological aspects of eating disorders create a ripple effect that impacts sexuality, both physically and emotionally.

One article reported, “women with eating disorders display more negative attitudes toward sex, increased sexual anxiety, and less sexual satisfaction, while men with eating disorders display significant sexual anxiety that is even greater than their female counterparts [2].”

The Self

Eating disorders are often characterized by distorted body-image and self-view as well as low self-esteem, factors which are also associated with sexual anxiety and insecurity and absolutely effect interest, enjoyment, and performance in the bedroom.

Truly engaging in a sexual experience is challenging when one is feeling ashamed of, or uncomfortable with, the shape, size, and appearance of their body.

Personality traits of individuals with eating disorders may also impact their sex life.

As one article specified, “individuals with eating disorders who are emotionally constricted and overcontrolled report restrictive sexual functioning, whereas those with personality profiles marked by emotional dysregulation and under-control report more impulsive and self-destructive sexuality profiles [1].

This shows an interesting commonality between the ways an individual may experience their eating disorder as well as their sex life.

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The Relationship

When there is an invisible yet domineering and dangerous third party in your relationship, it is difficult for either partner to connect. Significant others often describe feeling like they “come second” to their partner’s eating disorder.

The challenges that an eating disorder can create in a relationship understandably flow into the sex life of those involved. Women struggling with Anorexia Nervosa not only report difficulties with their sexual relationships but also discord between them and their partners [1].

Re-Igniting the Fire

Young couple who overcame issues with Sex and Eating DisordersWeight and sexual satisfaction are correlated in that lower weight is positively correlated with reduced sexual satisfaction [1]. The good news is that the reverse is also true: weight restoration is positively correlated with increased sexual enjoyment [1].

The bad news is that negative attitudes toward sex linger long after treatment [2].

While the physical often improves, the emotional impacts of constrictive personality traits, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction take longer to combat.

Sex is a natural way for humans to connect with one another, and it is nothing of which to be ashamed.

Yet, it is rarely spoken about in eating disorder treatment, often leading to individuals not addressing the impacts above and feeling alone and depressed as a result.

Improving this aspect of treatment and recovery first involves taking the advice of Salt-N-Pepa – “Let’s talk about sex!”


Resources:

[1] Pinheiro, A. P. et al. (2010). Sexual functioning in women with eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 43: 123-129.

[2] Unknown, (2016). Eating disorders and sexuality. Mirror, Mirror: Eating Disorder Help, retrieved from https://www.mirror-mirror.org/sex.htm.


Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: 

Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 24, 2019.
Reviewed & Approved on May 24, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.