Are there certain points in history when something like sexual anorexia -- which, after all, we used to call purity -- is more appealing? "Whenever there is a major cultural trauma or natural disaster -- the Black Plague, for example -- it's followed by a wave of extreme asceticism," notes Carnes. "And a book called Holy Anorexia made the case that many of the medieval saints were young adolescent women revolting against male authority; they got tremendous attention by not eating, shutting down, drinking the pus from lepers' sores.... "
Even today, it's easiest to imagine sexual anorexia in the context of celibate religious orders. Indeed, many are beginning to explore these issues -- seeking healing, not for the purpose of becoming sexually active but to unstick anxieties that can block spiritual energy. But even more often, sexual anorexia crops up behind the privacy fence of a marriage. A wife might strategize a different bedtime to avoid sexual overtures, then spend all her free time dreading the next encounter. Or a husband might combine addiction and anorexia, having frequent sex with prostitutes but strenuously avoiding his own wife, who's too close for comfort.
Often someone who "acts out" winds up marrying someone anorexic, hoping the "other half" will provide balance, adds Carnes: "Like heat-seeking missiles -- the shut-down person finds the out-of-control person." Sometimes sexual anorexics are repeating family history, or punishing themselves with further trauma. Sometimes it's a healthy but misguided attempt to heal themselves. And sometimes it even works. "I have this Jewish couple from New York, both descendants of Holocaust survivors," Carnes says, his voice softening. "What has happened for them is a kind of loosening-up that has been genuinely beautiful to watch. They're flirting with one another, becoming more assertive ... they're blossoming."
On the dark side of that coin, you'll find the face of the woman whose first husband played Russian roulette with a gun in her vagina. She left him and married a very nice man who masturbated a lot. She found this disgusting, but he had her convinced that it was her fault because they only had sex a few times a year. "Turns out he'd had a (compulsive) problem since he was 5," reports Carnes. "She had unerringly found another man who was not quite reliable."