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What It's Like Having Sex While in Recovery from an Eating Disorder

After Laura Hearn left a residential treatment facility for an eating disorder, she didn't just need to reset her relationship with food: she had to learn how to exist as a sexual being in the world.
Illustration by Soofiya Andry

My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?

This week, survivor and activist Laura Hearn of Jiggsy's Place talks about her experiences of sex and dating whilst in recovery for an eating disorder. You can catch My First Time on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts.


I remember feeling really self-conscious about my body from the age of around ten or 11. I’d pinch the rolls of fat around my waist. Then, when I was 18, my stepfather was killed in a car crash. I’d just gone travelling around Australia, and I remember going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and having this overwhelming desire to go to the toilet and purge everything I’d eaten. The bulimia continued from there, but after a while I decided it was easier to just not eat, as it was less obvious than having to go to the bathroom all the time.

When I returned from Australia I’d lost a lot of weight. Everyone told me that I looked great. A normal person might have stopped there, but I couldn’t, and I rapidly lost weight and started over-exercising. It was like a monster took over my head. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was lying and throwing food over the garden fence. I even crashed my car. Eventually my family said, “you need to get help.” I did private treatment, as I wasn’t ill enough to get treatment on the National Health Service—even though I felt like I was dying in my head—but nothing ever inspired me to get well.

Somehow I got through college and got a job in London. At college I had a boyfriend, but my eating disorder really got in the way of my relationship, and probably was the ultimate reason we split up. You can’t be in a relationship when you have an eating disorder, because you’re not present. There are three of you in the relationship: you, your partner, and your illness.


After the break-up, I slept with a lot of people, but I couldn’t tell you their names. I wasn't a part of any sexual encounter I had back then. I just wanted to please my partner, and never thought about my own pleasure. I never enjoyed sex, ever. Looking back on it, I would never allow my body now to be treated with so little respect. I didn’t even have an orgasm until I met my current boyfriend, Matt. That feels so crazy to me now.

I was an existing anorexic, just barely holding down a job. I had no confidence: My identity had become my eating disorder, and I was totally lost. I had a really ingrained sense of self-hate and punishment and guilt around my step-father’s death. I hated myself. I was a walking zombie, really lonely and lost.

At 28 I relapsed badly and my family crowdfunded enough money to pay for me to go to a treatment center in the US, where I stayed for seven months. Many of the staff there had recovered from eating disorders themselves, so they spoke my language and understood all the monsters that were in my head. They helped me get my life back.

Photo courtesy of Laura Hearn

After I recovered, I got my periods back, and my hormones went back to normal. I started desiring sex, and getting these feelings I’d never really had before. I met my boyfriend Matt at a work event. Before we went on our first date I texted him and told him that I was still having treatment for an eating disorder, because I didn’t want to feel like I was keeping secrets from him.


He’s always accepted me as I am and been so supportive. I’ve never experienced sex like I have with him. Before, when I had sex I’d be trying to hide my body and make sure he was okay. Now, I’m present and in the moment. In my previous sexual experiences, I always felt like the lesser one, but now I’m in a relationship where I’m on equal ground, and feel like I’m valued as a human and desired for who I am.

When you’re in the grips of an eating disorder, you can’t be in a relationship, because you’re so self-centred. You don’t have time to think about anyone else, because your brain is occupied by everything to do with you and your eating disorder. When you’re crying over every meal, that’s draining for your partner. It’s hard for someone else to deal with. One person can’t be your carer. They can be a part of your support system and love you, but depending on how ingrained the eating disorder is, there will come a point where they’re not enough. It takes an army to treat and kill an eating disorder.

I run a platform for eating disorder survivors called Jiggsy's Place, and it feels quite freeing, now, to be able to talk about sexuality whilst in recovery. I wish somebody had talked to me about this before, because sex is a big part of life, and it’s a no-go area when you have an eating disorder. I feel like I’m making up for lost time now, not just in terms of having sex, but also in terms of feeling comfortable in my body and as a woman. For the longest time, I wanted to be a child, because I was scared of all the things that being a woman would entail. But actually, being a woman is so much better. Just being in life is so much better.

If you’re in recovery for an eating disorder, and wondering how to begin to date, my advice to you would be to come to a place where you’re in tune with yourself. You have to be careful that you’re dating that person for the right reason, not just because you’re needing to fill a void. In relationships, you’ll sometimes have set-backs and rejection, and if you’re not ready, that can put you into a relapse.

Before I met my boyfriend, I didn’t even know what it was to have sexual pleasure for myself. He’d ask me, “What do you like?”, and I wouldn’t even know. He’s one of the biggest gifts I’ve had in recovery: someone who’s so supportive, and never made me feel strange.