Sexual anorexia is a compulsive avoidance of sex. People may go to great lengths to avoid sex and have obsessive thoughts about avoiding it.

People may also refer to sexual anorexia as sexual avoidance, sexual aversion disorder (SAD), or inhibited sexual desire.

This article examines sexual anorexia, what may cause it, treatments, the outlook, and more.

A person watching TV in their bedroomShare on Pinterest
Grace Cary/Getty Images

“Sexual anorexia” is a term that describes having obsessive thoughts about avoiding sex.

The term is not present in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), so this is not a diagnosable sexual dysfunction or medical condition.

However, the concept of sexual anorexia may help people understand their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

Some people describe sexual anorexia as the reverse of compulsive sexual behavior, which some people refer to as sexual addiction. These two disorders have many of the same characteristics, and people may use the same coping mechanisms for both.

Sexual anorexia may affect people’s physical, mental, and emotional states, and their focus on avoiding sex may dominate their life.

Sexual anorexia can affect people of any gender. People with sexual anorexia may still engage in sexual activities, but they may feel a sense of fear or dread around any intimacy.

Sexual anorexia may affect people mentally, emotionally, and physically. According to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), people with sexual anorexia may experience:

  • fear of intimacy and intense feelings
  • fear of being attracted to someone
  • fear of their own sexuality
  • self-judgment or self-belittling
  • sexual self-doubt

Many people with the disorder feel that they must deprive themselves of sexual and emotional pleasure and connection.

Some people may engage in compulsive behaviors to hide or compensate for the disorder. These can include:

  • sexual behavior with emotionally unavailable people
  • vivid fantasies
  • isolation from others
  • excessive use of pornography
  • voyeurism and excessive masturbation
  • other addiction-based compulsive behaviors such as hoarding or drug use

According to SLAA, sexual anorexia can be a result of childhood trauma.

In a survey of people with sexual anorexia, many of the people who responded said that they had experienced trauma during childhood, including:

  • emotional neglect
  • deprivation
  • sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
  • sexual shaming
  • death of one or more family members

Sexual repression may also play a part in creating mental health issues and negative feelings about sex.

Sexual repression happens when a person cannot express their sexuality. This may be because of abuse, religious or cultural expectations, homophobia, or internalized shame.

However, sexuality and mental health are complex topics, and the cause of sexual anorexia is not always obvious.

Learn more

Learn more about childhood trauma and abuse:

People who have experienced childhood trauma are at a higher risk of developing sexual anorexia.

According to SLAA, people are also at risk if they have other addictions, such as addictions to:

  • food
  • money
  • TV
  • internet use
  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • hoarding

A person may also be more vulnerable to developing sexual anorexia if they live with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

Treatment for sexual anorexia or SAD may involve counseling or therapy.

A person may find it helpful to discuss the feelings, trauma, and fears associated with sexual anorexia. A counselor or therapist may work with the person to devise steps toward overcoming sexual anorexia.

People may also learn desensitization techniques, which can help reduce anxiety in response to sexual activities.

People may undergo gradual exposure by imagining triggers, beginning with the least threatening and building up, while practicing relaxation techniques.

A person may then be able to apply these techniques while they are on their own or with a partner.

People may also find it helpful to discuss their experiences of the disorder in a group setting with others who have had similar experiences.

A person may be able to find specific groups or 12-step programs that can help people recover from sexual anorexia or other sexual disorders.

Sexual anorexia is not an official diagnosis in the DSM-5.

According to The BMJ, clinicians require the following criteria to diagnose a sexual disorder:

  • Symptoms have been present for at least 6 months.
  • A person has experienced symptoms in all or at least 75% of their sexual encounters.
  • Symptoms have caused clinically significant distress.

To diagnose a sexual disorder, a healthcare professional may assess the following:

  • symptoms leading to distress
  • absence of pleasure around sex
  • negative emotions during or at the thought of sex

Sexual anorexia may have some similarities to other sexual disorders that have a psychological cause.

Other conditions, such as low sex drive, may have a physical cause, such as an underlying medical condition.

Sexual anorexia and sexual addiction

Sexual anorexia and sexual addiction may have similar characteristics.

According to a small 2016 study, sex addiction is an excessive engagement in sexual behaviors that have a significant, negative impact on a person’s everyday life.

Some people think these conditions are intrinsically linked. Some research suggests that sexual anorexia is at one end of a spectrum and sexual addiction is at the other.

A person can experience both disorders. For example, a person with a sex addiction may feel a sense of control if they have a period of abstaining from sex, and this may lead to obsessive thoughts about avoiding sex.

People with sexual anorexia may engage in sex with unavailable partners in an addictive and compulsive manner, displaying characteristics of sexual addiction.

Both conditions may lead people to have obsessive thoughts about sex, may link to trauma or negative beliefs about sex, and may have a similar emotional impact.

Sexual anorexia vs. low sex drive

Low sex drive, also called low libido, is a low or nonexistent desire for sex.

Whereas sexual anorexia is a complex psychological condition, low sex drive is usually a symptom of another physical or mental condition.

A person with sexual anorexia can experience a low sex drive.

Many factors can contribute to low sex drive, including:

Sex drive can fluctuate throughout a person’s lifetime. Low sex drive becomes an issue only when it causes concern or relationship issues.

Low sex drive may disappear when someone addresses and treats the underlying causes.

If a person is concerned that they or someone they know may have sexual anorexia, they can contact a healthcare professional, counselor, or sex therapist.

The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health provides a list of resources for people experiencing sexual health issues or sexual disorders, which people can find here.

People can also learn about support groups and 12-step programs for sexual anorexia through SLAA.

There is little evidence on the effects and outlook of sexual anorexia, but treatment programs and support groups for sexual anorexia suggest that treatment can be effective.

By seeking help, such as through a 12-step program or through working with a qualified therapist, people may be able to recover and form healthy and fulfilling relationships.

Sexual anorexia is a compulsive avoidance of sex.

The effort to avoid sex may dominate a person’s life and negatively impact their relationships.

People may find counseling, psychotherapy, or a 12-step program helpful in recovering from sexual anorexia.