anorexia and sex survey: pulling it all together

what’s the fascination of internet surfers with pictures of scantily clad or nude anorexic women? last december, i put together a survey to get some answers. this is part 4, the last instalment and summary of my report on the results.

some numbers to start with
by the time i closed the survey, 2,884 readers had read the post and 106 had taken the survey.

44% of the participants were female, 56% male. over 60% of them were under 30 years old.

the survey asked multiple-choice questions, which i evaluated statistically. participants were also invited to provide comments to open-ended questions, and 60% commented.

did they like the images or didn’t they?
when asked to provide comments, about one-third of the commenters said they did not like the pictures. this was despite the fact that the vast majority of the readers had arrived at the post by explicitly searching for it (“anorexic porn”, “anorexic nudes” and “anorexic sex” were the most frequently used keywords). i don’t know how many of the people who searched for those keywords took the survey (something to improve upon if i ever do something like this again) but since around 14% of the people who had arrived at that post via search engine showed an interest in the rest of the blog, i presume that at least some of them also took the survey.

is thin sexy, and does it matter?
another frequent type of comment (although not nearly as many as those who professed that they didn’t like the images) went in the other direction and talked about how sexually attractive these pictures were. they were simply seen as a turn-on, or readers were fascinated by their unusual body shape or seeming fragility. this was even more pronounced in the statistical part of the survey, where an average of 66% felt that thin was “sexy” or “very sexy”.

however, when asked about their ideal sexual partner, being thin was not nearly as interesting. an average of 33% wanted him or her to be “thin” or agreed with the statement “i want to see bones”.

so here’s a question: why did so many people say that thin was sexy but then turned around and proclaimed that thin wasn’t that important in their ideal sexual partner? is being sexy not that important in the ideal sexual partner? what do you think?

fascination with unusual body shapes
the fascination with unusual body shapes that i alluded to above played an important role in all the comments. however, a reaction that is related to that – a general sense of thrill – constituted the largest part of all comments. the idea and images of nude or barely dressed anorexics evoked a lot of emotions, which ranged from excited to disgusted to concerned to “fascinated.” this was borne out by the multiple-choice questions: 59% of respondents were at least “somewhat” fascinated by pictures of anorexic women

the thrill of it all, and is health boring?
i imagine that this sense of thrill might be the reason why so many more people google “nude anorexics” than “recovering from anorexia.” generally, we are both hard-wired and socially conditioned to seek out quick stimuli rather than the long-term consideration of what can appear to be the hard slogging and boredom of a healthy life.

there might also be a connection here regarding the discrepancy between the high percentage of those who said that thin is sexy and the much lower percentage of those whose ideal sexual partner is thin. the question, “what is sexy?” requires only a quick scan of our ideas and emotions and it would make sense that the part of our brain that looks for instant, easy gratification has the upper hand in providing an answer. however, a question about an ideal sexual partner requires a much more complex and measured response.

caring and concern
however, there was also a number of comments showing concern and caring. others talked about the beauty of the human body, and how this beauty can be enjoyed in all shapes, including the anorexic form.

ANA and thinspiration
it is also clear both from the comments and from the multiple choice questions that some of the readers were either anorexic themselves or interested in the concept of anorexia aside from any sexual connotations. 18% of the readers listed their weight as “below average”, 5% “well below average”. about 10% made comments that indicated directly or indirectly that they were anorexic. some of the comments were “ANA” (affirming anorexia as a lifestyle not a problematic health issue). this makes sense, both because sexuality is part of lifestyle and because viewing such images is often inspirational to ANAs. one reader explained,

anorexic nudes expose the supreme control that they have over their bodies, that their bodies propose no limitation. they are not held back. in some ways i find this so beautiful.

so what?
one of the most important questions one can ask in any such investigation is: “so what?” by poring over these answers, what was learned, what is it that we’re contributing to the understanding of the topic?

i’ll repeat again that this was not a scientific study; there are many holes in this research process. this aside, i think there are some interesting tidbits here – the most intriguing were a number of discrepancies: between what readers thought was sexy and what their actual preferences were for sexual partners and between the amount of people who found this survey by googling phrases like “nude anorexics” and the relatively high number of readers who expressed distaste for the pictures.

however, there are other observations that peak my interest even more. one is the process of attempting some sort of research in a blogging context. the other is not an actual discovery but rather some absences:

what we didn’t find
one thing that was almost absent was an understanding that the interest in these images is a type of objectification. it is, after all, a form of pornography. only one reader addressed that as an aside.

none of the participants gave an indication that they were recovered/recovering from anorexia. i cannot help but think of this absence as mirroring the absence that is so important to people in the full grip of anorexia. anorexia is, after all, often an absence of voice.

how can this study help?
research is rarely as objective as it is always portrayed. the manner in which questions are asked, analyses are carried out and results presented is always coloured by whatever interests the investigator wishes to serve, knowingly or unknowingly.

as a therapist, my wish is to ultimately help people live better lives. in what ways can this little study help people dealing with anorexia? i hope to get some ideas from my readers …

this post is part of a series of articles:
understanding internet users

anorexia and sex
anorexia and sex: survey results are in
anorexia and sex: survey results, part 2
anorexia and sex: survey results, part 3
on blogging and research
anorexic porn – the TV sequel

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

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