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By Emma-Louise Boynton
’ve decided to start sex therapy. Perhaps it seems like an odd time to see a sex therapist, given this past year in lockdown has been utterly barren of sexual exploits and I’m beginning to feel like a born-again virgin. My most pressing issue right now is less about sex per se than it is about a total lack thereof.
But if this miserable year of enforced isolation and romantic deprivation has granted anything in the way of a silver lining, it is that a prolonged confrontation with myself has led to one or two epiphanies.
The removal of life’s usual cacophony of noise and distractions has produced clarity. For me, that has come in the form of the now unavoidable realisation that my adolescent eating disorder never really went away.
Moreover, the mindset that led to my eating disorder, the issues around my relationship with my body have – left almost entirely unresolved - unsurprisingly festered. They are now manifest in a series of new, more insidious, behaviours – one of which is not being able to orgasm during partnered sex.
I guess in a way it makes sense. Orgasming in the context of sex requires that you are fully present in your body, that you’re fully “tuned-in” to how you feel, to how that person is making you feel, where you’re being touched… As everyone reminds me when I bring up my pattern of orgasm-less sex – it’s all in the mind.
But growing up with an eating disorder requires exactly the opposite relationship with your body. You learn to disconnect from how you feel because what you feel is pain, and pain is uncomfortable. You learn to ignore your body’s desperate cries to be nourished. You ignore the attendant headaches, stomach pains, lightheadedness. You focus on getting through the day, on surviving, despite giving your body none of the tools for survival.
Like so many, self-confidence was something with which I’d always struggled. I was a precocious child and never stopped talking, giving the impression of being perfectly happy with taking up a lot of space, but behind closed doors I was in a constant battle with paralysing self-doubt. I felt bumbling and awkward and stupid.
Ensconced in a fair amount of puppy fat, I felt like my body betrayed my uselessness, as if my rolls of fat were shouting out to the world that I was a failure, that I was greedy and ugly and out of control. I was too much. So, when I eventually stopped eating, it felt like a small victory. I was reining in my excess.
And so for years I just existed. Sapped of all energy, sad, depleted, empty. I had effectively channelled everything I hated about myself into my body and proceeded to destroy that body with all the energy I could muster, too eviscerate every last reminder of why I was so inadequate. Sometimes I drank to escape the crushing pain of disappearing. Pumping my already beaten body with cheap vodka until eventually I’d pass out. Everything hurt. Everything was sad and painful. I just wanted to escape.
My eating disorder started when I was 12, at the height of the size-zero Hollywood trend. I discovered then that if I stuck two fingers down my throat I could throw up everything I’d just guiltily eaten – food, I’d already learned, was bad. Eating provoked guilt. And so the disconnect started.
I’d eat in an increasingly distracted way, thinking with each bite what this particular piece of food would feel like to throw up, and then rush with a rising sense of panic straight to the toilet to be sick.
Sometimes the force with which I thrust my fingers or toothbrush down my throat drew blood and I’d watch strands of blood drip from my mouth and mix with my tears as they landed in the toilet bowl. I revelled in the comfortingly grotesque chaos of it all, the perfect projection of my disordered mind.
Over time, I started to eat less. And less. And less. Until eventually I wasn’t throwing up much because there wasn’t much to throw up. By this point, my bones had begun to jut out at my hips and I could, to my perverse satisfaction, count my ribs. I was successfully shrinking myself into a shadow, leaving behind a hollow echo in the wake of the chatty, loud, centre-of-attention girl I had taken it upon myself to destroy, to make disappear.
‘I can see now that many of these early sexual experiences weren’t consensual.’
Eventually, I began to ‘get better’ in a very rudimentary sense – aka I began to eat again. Numerous factors played into my deciding to choose life over this limbo. But choose life, I did. Yet while I began to look visibly ‘better’ I remained more disconnected from my body than ever.
Witnessing fat emerge on places where previously there had just been bone presented a new kind of pain that demanded a new kind of detachment. I started going to the gym with the same zeal with which an Evangelical attends church, punishing my body in new ways as I developed shin splints, sprains and muscle pains.
I also started having sex. Not because I particularly wanted to or felt in any way ready to, but because I was 16 and already way behind my friends whose sexual exploits had been the subject matter of school gossip for years now.
During sex, I again felt disconnected from my body. It was just something else that was happening to me, often painful, something to be endured. With the benefit of hindsight and with the linguistic tools provided by the Me Too movement, I can see now that many of these early sexual experiences also weren’t consensual. If you’re so drunk that you’re slurring and out of it, by law you don’t have the capacity to consent. But that wasn’t a conversation then. You just got on with it.
And so it is that over a decade later – one filled with some good sex and lots of bad sex – that I am beginning to see that my inability to orgasm and general ill-ease when it comes to intimacy may have something to do with the ever-present residue of my eating disorder, not to mention the litany of negative experiences that shaped my early relationship with sex.
And so, in pursuit of an orgasm, I have started sex therapy. Throughout this column, I’ll relay the conversations I have with my therapist and all that I learn as I explore the topic of sex.
After adolescent years spent with a eating disorder, one woman feels a disconnect with her body, putting up with bad sex and an inability to orgasm – through this column, we will find out if sex therapy can help.
By Emma-Louise Boynton