Eating Disorders, Objective Disorder, and Gay in the Church

If you believe "homosexual desires" are "disordered desires," then you're not helping gay friends by insisting that the point be belabored. You're probably trying to avoid one disorder by creating another.

In this analogy, a desire for same-sex intimacy (which might include, but is not limited to, libido) is analogous to a desire for food (which might include, but is not limited to, hunger).

A few days ago nine Catholic bishops and a Cardinal, in partnership with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, released a statement in support of LGBT youth. It said, “The Catholic Church values the God-given dignity of all human life and we take this opportunity to say to our LGBT friends, especially young people, that we stand with you and oppose any form of violence, bullying or harassment directed at you.”

What is conspicuously missing is any reference to the Catholic Catechism’s characterization of “homosexual desires” as “objectively disordered.”

Some will criticize the omission, arguing that this indicates an openness to dissent from the Church’s “harder teachings.” This is a constant critique when gay people are referenced but those two words (“objectively disordered”) are not. Such a preoccupation, however, may be a sign of another disorder, and certainly would contribute to it.

Eating Disorders and Diets

One thing to know when talking with friends who have struggled with eating disorders is to avoid the word “diet.” For some people, a “diet” can a way of mixing up food routines, trying something new to see how your body responds, or refocusing eating habits to meet certain goals. Diets can be done casually by some, and may be helpful in changing bad habits. For others, however, “diets” can exacerbate disordered relationships to food, eating, and the body.

Eating disorders can take many forms. One form involves an obsession with “health.” People with this form of eating disorder might track every calorie, measure every bite, and scrutinize every plate to such a degree that enjoyment is drained from eating. They are always internally scrutinizing others’ food choices, and they are barred from many experiences of virtue, by, for example, being unable to receive friends’ hospitality through meals at their homes. Food ceases to be food and, instead, becomes labor and anxiety.

(Note: I am not a psychologist, and only have limited experience in the realm of eating disorders, largely from working with friends who have struggled with them and who have worked with individuals with such struggles. If you know more than I do and identify something incorrect or incomplete in my discussion here, I’m always open to corrections, critiques, etc. If you struggle with an eating disorder and I have mischaracterized your experience, I apologize. Please know that you have my respect and admiration for your continued struggle to find deeper acceptance and self-love. You can also find resources here.)

For people with eating disorders in this way, an over-preoccupation with “being healthy” can lead to a vicious relationship with “health.” They obsess over food in such a way that food becomes a vehicle through which to become a self which does not (and never will) exist, a self which has total control, which has a body shape always out of reach, or which can ignore the needs and desires of the body altogether through a detached “rational” plan. It can involve a dissociation with the body, such that you unlearn that hunger means you should eat, and you are subject to a schedule or eating plan that, if forgotten, will result in starvation.

Because this sort of eating disorder is largely driven by an obsession with “health,” overcoming this type of eating disorder often involves abandoning concerns with “health” altogether and relearning how to respond to the body’s promptings and how to just enjoy food. Eventually, new understandings of health may emerge, but for a time (or possibly for the rest of their lives), people who have struggled with this disorder will have to turn away from concerns about “healthy food” so that they can learn to see food as food, as something to enjoy and receive nourishment from daily. They need to abandon the “plan” so that they can learn to treat their bodies as bodies, as full of promptings and desires that are indications of proper functioning and needs to be fulfilled. For those who struggle with eating disorders in this way, concerns about “diet” and “health” are inimical to health. They will need to let go of “health” and learn to like food again, learn to love their desires for food, and, in doing so, learn to love themselves.

Purity Culture

We’re now finding that relationships to sexuality can operate similarly to relationships with desire for food. From the research in Linda Kay Klein’s Pure to accounts of psychologists, individuals, and couples, stories now abound of adults (largely women) who grew up in Evangelical “purity culture” and later have PTSD responses to sex with their husbands. Klein shared, “Based on our nightmares, panic attacks, and paranoia, one might think that my childhood friends and I had been to war.” She drew on medical studies finding that, among participants, evangelical adolescents are the least likely “to expect sex to be pleasurable, and among the most likely to expect that having sex will make them feel guilty.” Married women who grew up in “purity culture” often struggle with vaginismus. One woman shared how, even when she had rejected “purity culture,” its effects led to anxiety attacks when she tried to date.

Purity culture has been held up, in part, by Josh Harris’s book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which forbids physical intimacy and rejects the practice of dating before marriage. The book sits within a culture that is obsessed with getting sexuality “right,” with proscribing sex (and sexuality) before marriage. It focuses especially on proscribing women’s sexuality, often through strict rules on how to dress, how to feel, and how to be responsible for managing (reducing) the sexual desires of men. Those involved in purity culture generally agonize about “what is allowed” before marriage and are taught that sexual feelings are evil and shameful outside of the marital context. They are then expected to make an immediate switch on their marriage night, of suddenly enjoying sex and sexuality. This switch (and the expectations leading up to it) can be jarring, confusing, and seemingly impossible for many. An obsession with getting sexuality “right” has, for many, led to an inability to even have sex after marriage. This obsession with getting sexuality “right” has resulted in a relationship to sexuality that is very, very wrong. After realizing the ways in which his rules-driven Christian book had been harming himself and others, Harris pulled I Kissed Dating Goodbye from publication. He has since divorced and no longer identifies as Christian.

Rachel Asproth has shared some of the ways in which purity culture can be linked to eating disorders. She writes for CBE International, a Christian nonprofit working towards gender equity and against abuse: “Because eating disorders often flow out of a desire for control and because patriarchy grants women so little control over their lives and bodies, it’s no surprise that many see a link between the purity movement and eating disorders… When girls are taught that their bodies are moral threats, they will likely seek to contain them in whatever way they can. Further, because purity culture—built on patriarchy—grants women so little agency or autonomy, they may look for other ways to exert control such as policing food intake/weight gain.”

Friends I know who participated in purity culture, and are now struggling with their own trauma responses to sex and sexuality, hate the word “purity” altogether. However it might be reframed or redefined, the word is too closely tied to their deep-seated feelings of shame and self-hatred that it evokes anxiety, fear, and anger.

For these people, “purity” operates similarly to “diet.” Those with eating disorders, and those with a relationship to sexuality similar to what I have described, have both developed vicious relationships to their bodies and desires. Obsessions with doing things “right,” constant preoccupations with one’s appearances, and fear of desire which can lead to self-hatred all contribute to the creation of disorder. In the name of avoiding disorders, they have developed disorders. I would argue that, just as those with eating disorders may need to reject the idea of “diet” altogether (even if just for a time), those with these disordered sexualities may need to reject the idea of “purity” altogether.

The same can be said for many gay Christians struggling to relate to themselves in a positive way in the Church. Many gay Christians (myself included) lived in contexts where sexuality was obsessed over, where the only way to do your sexuality “right” was to reject it. Of course, our desires couldn’t just be put away in a box like a present quietly under a Christmas tree for a Christmas that would never come. Sexuality is not like an appendix that can be removed when it bursts. It is, rather, something intrinsic to the human person and which can only be well when it is integrated into one’s personhood. When rejected, it often just reasserts itself, demanding, like the need for food, to be addressed, to be recognized, to be fulfilled. The means of a disordered fulfillment can vary: avoidance-anorexia leading to emaciation, hookup-confession-binge-and-purge leading to resentment, suicide.

The Messiness of Living Well

Those who have come out of eating disorders know that the resolution involves a willingness to get messy. The disorder of eating and of sexuality often involves an obsession the the proper rules and never doing anything wrong. Getting over it often involves learning to accept that what you thought was wrong, as you go on your journey to live well.

Statements like that of the Tyler Clementi Foundation seem to understand this. When someone has an eating disorder, it doesn’t help to tell them, “You’re not following the rules of health, and thus you have an eating disorder!” This will only make things worse. It may have been an obsession with the “rules of health” that created the disorder in the first place. Instead, they need a suspension of belief, and a radical acceptance, so that they can journey into a deeper place of love.

I reject the idea that being gay is like having an eating disorder. But if you believe that “homosexual desires” are “disordered desires,” then you’re probably not helping your gay friends by belaboring the point. You’re probably hindering them. You’re probably hurting them. You’re probably trying to avoid one disorder by creating another.

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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