How to Heal: The Intersection of Eating Disorders and Sexuality
When I met August McLaughlin at a conference in 2015, we bonded over being two of the only sexuality writers there. Later, we discovered we were sisters (her words) in something else too: having a history of an eating disorder (ED). Since then, our conversations cover everything from being #HeelFree to the intersections of eating disorders and sexuality.
One of my favorite parts of her book, GirlBoner: A Good Girl’s Guide to Sexual Empowerment is how she weaves her histories with both sexual empowerment and mental health struggles through even the most mundane topics, like anatomy. August gets that each of these topics impacts the other. She embodies finding freedom in pleasure. And I’m so excited to share our conversation with you.
Throughout your book and other work, you discuss how sex and pleasure helped you heal from your eating disorder and other mental health struggles. For those unfamiliar with your story, can you tell us more?
In my late teens and early twenties, I struggled with a severe eating disorder. Where conventional treatments failed, sexual empowerment brought healing. And it was a total fluke. I was taking college classes between treatment sessions and one day a professor prompted a discussion around sex. It struck me that I’d never really talked about sex. This led me on a path of self-discovery.
I have no doubt that I would have better thrived from adolescence onward if I’d learned positive messages about sex and sexuality.
I started asking myself questions, such as why had I never discussed this? Shame I hadn’t even realized existed gradually lifted and I began to see myself and my body as beautiful and worthy of pleasure. It was a game changer that I believe helped save my life and inspires my work to this day.
Prior to that, I also struggled with body dysmorphia and depression, which I now know derived largely from undiagnosed ADHD. Regardless, I have no doubt that I would have better thrived from adolescence onward if I’d learned positive messages about sex and sexuality. Sexual pleasure wouldn’t have been a cure-all, but it would have helped me tremendously. Instead, my sex education was limited to an awkward class or two that instilled fear, confusion, and dread—and zilch about pleasure.
How can those healing from eating disorders embrace their sexuality?
All sexual self-embracement begins with awareness. We have to be willing to look inward and ponder the messaging we’ve gleaned around sex throughout our lives as well as the manifestations.
If you’re in treatment for an eating disorder, your healthcare provider will ideally help guide or initiate this process, but not all therapists, dietitians, or physicians are well-versed in the correlation between sexuality and EDs.
Once you have awareness around sexual issues, take steps to address them. Depending on the specifics, helpful steps might include masturbating to better understand your body, journaling about your thoughts and feelings and, if possible, working with a qualified expert, such as a trauma-informed sex therapist*.
Go gently on yourself and realize that this work tends to take time. It isn’t a race, but a journey you commit to.
Rewards you probably haven’t even fathomed yet will crop up along the way, sexually and otherwise. For now, focus on baby steps you can take now. And celebrate them.
Surround yourself with people and other influences that lift you up and know that you’re not nearly as alone as you might feel.
What sex advice would you pass along to those struggling with eating disorders? How about their partners?
Many people who reach out to me about sex in the context of having an eating disorder want to know how to better please a partner. They worry that they’re somehow failing by being ‘less sexual,’ or overly self-conscious.
If you’re in such a place, know that you are not a failure. You have an illness that requires healing. It’s perfectly OK to put sex on the back burner or engage in sex differently while you prioritize healing.
Doing the important work of addressing your eating disorder will invite better body image and more pleasurable sex.
A supportive partner will care more about your healing than any particular sexual thing. If they’re particularly eager for sex, it may be because they miss feeling close to you. This makes sense, given that the disorders can really hinder emotional intimacy.
If you do want to enjoy sexual pleasure throughout your healing process, carve out time for solo play. Masturbation is a powerful form of self-care and a way to experience pleasure without concern over measuring up for a partner (even if it’s only you who’s criticizing yourself).
You don’t have to be gaga for your body or appearance to have a great sex life. Pleasurable sex can help boost body image and enhance healing. Similarly, doing the important work of addressing your eating disorder will invite better body image and more pleasurable sex.
What advice would you give to their partners?
When a partner has an eating disorder, it’s important to know that no matter how much you may wish to or try, you cannot ‘fix’ or cure them. Offer support. Be there to listen, as needed. And take care of yourself, too. Eating disorders, like most severe illnesses, can be really difficult for partners.
Keep in mind that eating disorders can impact sexual intimacy pretty profoundly. If heavy dietary restriction is happening, malnutrition and hormonal imbalances can cause fatigue, low moods, sleep problems and a complete lack of sexual desire.
Saying, ‘Wow, babe. You’re really looking healthy,” while observing changes in body weight are likely to hurt. Instead, compliment things like their vibrancy, their smile or the light in their eyes.
Eating disorders tend to involve a huge amount of shame, about one’s body and self. So your partner may not feel comfortable being seen naked. Tell your partner you find them beautiful exactly as they are, but don’t fixate on appearance—your partner’s or your own.
Don’t comment on weight at all, even if it feels like a compliment to you. Saying, ‘Wow, babe. You’re really looking healthy,” while observing changes in body weight are likely to hurt. Instead, compliment things like their vibrancy, their smile or the light in their eyes.
Eating disorders also take up a tremendous amount of time, thought and energy. In severe cases, the illness can feel like an additional party in the relationship.
Some people act out sexually when they have an eating disorder, becoming compulsive or using sex as a way to avoid difficult feelings or to somehow validate themselves. It’s perfectly fine to turn to sex for therapeutic benefits, but if the behaviors detract from your well-being, they’re more likely symptoms than remedies.
If things get rough, encourage your partner to seek professional support. Couple’s therapy is another great option, as is therapy for yourself.
Speaking of turning to sex for therapeutic benefits, when my eating disorder was the worst, I used masturbation to escape. I never experienced pleasure, but need to feel something. Did you have any similar experiences?
I probably would have done the same, if I were masturbating back then! Instead, I had a lot of sex with Mr. So-Not-Right-for-Me. I wanted so badly to escape my perplexing thoughts and feel good.
If you find yourself engaging in a sexual behavior that feels somehow off, remind yourself that you’re trying to cope with something really difficult.
While many people have more positive experiences [with partners], I had a really difficult time with intimate relationships throughout my eating disorder. I attracted people who were as insecure as I was and ended up in some very toxic situations. If a partner seems controlling or abusive in any way, it might not be the ideal relationship for you.
Feeling powerless to change unhealthy behaviors is a really common aspect of eating disorders. If you find yourself engaging in a sexual behavior that feels somehow off, remind yourself that you’re trying to cope with something really difficult. Attempting to cope is positive. It’s proactive. Now you just need to find healthier ways of doing so.
This is when a third party can come in handy, whether that’s a therapy or a trauma- and eating disorder- informed sex coach, a self-help book or an alternative treatment option such as EFT that really speaks to you. If you don’t know where to start, consider calling the National Eating Disorders Association hotline. What’s important is starting somewhere.
You and I know that disordered thoughts can pop up months, years, even decades after we’re out of active healing. And sex is a prime time for that to happen since it’s so vulnerable. How can someone handle when this inevitably occurs?
When we feel vulnerable in any way, those old tapes can play in our heads. If that happens, know that it’s both natural and okay. Each time those old messages stir provides another opportunity for growth. Take some deep breaths and let yourself feel, and the negative feelings will pass. You may even come out stronger.
*Both August and I consider eating disorders to be traumatic. In addition, there’s a correlation between traumas such as sexual assault and EDs.
Author Bio Kait Scalisi, MPH, is an advocate for the revolutionary power of pleasure inside the bedroom and out. Through her public workshops, private counselling, and online platform Passion By Kait, she harnesses her science education, social justice insight, and radical empathy to empower folx to get more in tune with their bodies, discover what brings them pleasure, and integrate it into their lives and relationships in ways that are both practical and powerful. Learn more and find #freedominpleasure at PassionbyKait.com, Instagram and Twitter @PassionbyKait, and Facebook www.facebook.com/PassionbyKait.