While the discussion of erectile dysfunction and the array of solutions available is widely publicized—and advertised—women’s sexual problems have long been considered a taboo topic—even among girlfriends. However, sexual dysfunction in women is far more common than you might think.
Thankfully, of late, greater attention has been given to women’s sexual health and shows like “Sex and the City” and “Grace and Frankie” have helped many women (of all ages!) become more aware of and comfortable with their bodies and sex. And this shift is a good thing, as it is empowering more women to engage in conversations with not only their friends but also their health care providers about their sexual health.
So, what exactly is sexual dysfunction?
“Sexual dysfunction refers to any problem in a person’s sexual response cycle, be it desire, motivation, orgasm or resolution, and it is very common in both men and women,” said Debra Wickman, MD, an OBGYN and sexual medicine specialist with Banner – University Medicine Women’s Clinic. “In fact, 43 percent of women report having a sexual dysfunction.”
What causes sexual dysfunction in women?
Sexual dysfunction in women arises from a variety of causes – both medical and psychological. Major illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease can also contribute. But most women with a sexual problem have multiple issues rather than one isolating cause, Dr. Wickman noted. As well, many men and women may be reluctant to seek help until their sexual dysfunction starts causing relationship difficulties.
“There are a lot of underlying medical conditions that persist and end up causing sexual problems down the line, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, antidepressants and substance abuse,” Dr. Wickman said. “So, it can be a gradual progression until it can’t be ignored anymore.”
What are common sexual problems women can experience?
As a result of these underlying issues, some women may experience some of the following symptoms:
1. Vaginal dryness. This is one of the most common causes for women over the age of 50 due to menopause—and even for women who are breastfeeding.
2. Low desire (sex drive). Low libido is very common but there may be many interrelated causes, such as relationship issues, stress, juggling kids/job/family/household duties, medication side effects, depression, poor self-image and even lack of knowledge or education.
“Many couples don’t have clarity around the anatomy and physiology of their sexual response – for themselves or their partner,” Dr. Wickman said. “Lack of communication is another common cause because people don’t talk about what they want or like, and this lack of communication reduces successful interactions.”
Another common cause is prior sexual or relationship trauma that triggers anxiety or a shutdown in intimacy.
3. Pain during sex. “Sexual pain is the No. 1 blocker to desire, orgasm and arousal, because your body can’t relax and enjoy any activity that’s painful,” Dr. Wickman said. Pain can be caused by vaginal dryness (as mentioned above), a medical condition such as endometriosis or use of certain medications and contraception. The most common cause for painful sex in young women is oral contraceptive use.
“About a quarter of women may experience sexual pain as a result of their oral birth control, which can cause inflammation and soreness in the opening of the vagina,” Dr. Wickman said. “As a result, sex can become more and more painful as time goes on. This pain can even cause secondary effects, tightening and spasming of the pelvic floor muscles, which can feel like a deep ache.”
4. Troubles with arousal and orgasms. The inability to become turned on and experience an orgasm can be related to hormonal changes, such as menopause, anxiety, certain medications and inadequate foreplay.
It’s time to prioritize your sexual health
“Sexual intimacy is a basic human drive, and it’s essential for individual well-being as well as relationship satisfaction,” Dr. Wickman said. “There are many ways to unpack it, but little by little, any aspect of sexual dysfunction can be improved by addressing it.”
Here are some strategies to help improve your sexual health:
Communicate with your partner: To set the stage for greater intimacy, get comfortable talking about your likes and dislikes with your partner. This type of communication with your partner may feel awkward at first but gets easier the more you do it. Practice talking about things that sound fun when you’re not in an intimate moment, so it’s more of a collaboration to discuss together and contribute ideas.
Utilize tools. There’s no shame in using some over-the-counter vaginal lubricant or other sexual enhancement products to make sex more enjoyable.
Ask for outside support. Talk to your health care provider, so they can appropriately address any underlying medical conditions or hormonal changes. As well, talk with a behavioral health specialist who specializes in sexual and relationship problems. Together, they can help optimize your sexual response and enhance your intimacy.
Embrace your body—at every age. Women are usually much more concerned about their own body flaws than their partner. It helps to desensitize your body shame by sharing your insecurities and bringing them out in the open. Then you can focus more on enjoying connection and pleasure, rather than worrying about some extra weight or wrinkles.
“Sex evolves through life, and this is normal,” Dr. Wickman said. “Our bodies and minds change through life experience, and things like sensation, desire and response change as well, so we need to be tuned in to our sexuality in order to access it when we want and to get help early on when we need it.”
Sexual dysfunction can be frustrating, but it’s nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. Sex may look different at age 25 than it does at 55 or even 85, but sexual intimacy is a basic human drive and essential to well-being and relationship satisfaction. Talk openly with your partner and don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider for help.
To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.