There was a moment early on in my doctoral career that has stuck with me. Presenting on my then-developing dissertation research at a small conference put on by my program, I expected, at best, a handful of budding scholars to attend.
My research — exploring eating disorders from a sexological purview — after all, is niche.
Even in a PhD program for Human Sexuality Studies, I was often met with curiosity when discussing my work. When we have such huge issues to tackle in the field of sexuality — from STI stigma and comprehensive sex education to intimate partner violence — why would I look at eating disorders?
But this conference forever changed my perspective.
As I began my presentation in front of dozens of students, their hands slowly started to rise. Calling on them, one by one, they each began their comment with a similar introduction: “With my eating disorder…”
I realized then that these students weren’t there because they were interested in my methods. Rather, they were there because they all had eating disorders and had never been given a space to talk about that experience in the context of their sexuality.
I was providing them a rare opportunity to be validated.
Eating disorders don’t only affect people’s relationship to food
It’s estimated that at least 30 million people in the United States will develop a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime — that’s nearly 10 percent of the population.
And yet, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health, eating disorder research is estimated to receive only $32 million in grants, contracts, and other funding mechanisms for research in 2019.
This amounts to approximately one dollar per individual affected.
Due to the medical urgency of eating disorders — especially anorexia nervosa, which has the of all psychiatric illnesses — much of that money will likely be prioritized in research that aims to uncover biological determinants of and solutions to these disorders.
As necessary as this work is, eating disorders don’t only affect people’s relationship to food. Instead, they interact with sufferers’ and survivors’ overall experiences in their bodies, including sexuality.
And sexuality is a broad topic.
The relationship between eating disorders and sexuality holds depth
When we take a layperson’s view of sexuality, it often seems simple. Many people, when hearing what I study, will jokingly ask, “Sexuality? What is there to know?”But seen through the perspective of an expert, sexuality is complex.
According to the Circles of Sexuality model, which was first introduced by Dr. Dennis Dailey in 1981, your sexuality is made up of five overarching, overlapping categories that contain several topics:
- sexual health, including reproduction and intercourse
- identity, including gender and orientation
- intimacy, including love and vulnerability
- sensuality, including skin hunger and body image
- sexualization, including seduction and harassment
Sexuality, in short, is interactive and ever-evolving. And it’s made even more complicated by our experiences in other realms of our lives, from our social locations to our health statuses.
And this is why I want to have this conversation.
Yet, those who need this information the most — sufferers, survivors, and service providers — don’t know where to find it.
The answers to folks’ commonly Googled questions are held in the annex of academia, out of reach. But they exist. And those who need the answers deserve to have them compassionately and expertly provided.
This is why I’m teaming up with Healthline to present this five-part series, “We Need to Talk About How Eating Disorders Affect Our Sexuality.”
Over the next five weeks, launching today during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we will tackle several topics at the intersection of eating disorders and sexuality.
My hope is that, at the end of these five weeks, readers will have gained a more nuanced understanding of how eating disorders and sexuality interact — affirming their experiences and motivating them to explore this intersection more deeply.
I want people to feel seen in their struggles, and I want to spark interest in this overlooked phenomenon.
— Melissa Fabello, PhD