Who isn’t interested in sex? We’re all curious about the kind of sex other people are having and maybe even what that looks like across different demographics. It’s normal to be intrigued by sex, after all we are sexual activity is one of many things our bodies are naturally wired to do. Whether it’s condom use, sexual partners, sexual positions, foreplay activities, or something else, it’s definitely going to spark some level of curiosity. But has it sparked the interest of science? The short answer is yes, but it’s complicated, especially when it comes to women.
According to James Brown, it’s a man’s world. And when it comes to the study of sexuality, this sentiment rings especially true. You will find plenty of research regarding the sexual wellness, health, and performance of men. You will see advertisements in all types of media that claim to increase a man’s virility, potency, and penis size. There’s a pill for this, a supplement for that, and a contraption to fix another thing. It seems as though science has forgotten all about the fairer sex. Luckily times are changing, and there are more and more studies being conducted about the sexual health of women. The science of women’s sexuality, sexual pleasure, and sexual activity is moving beyond Freud’s theory that clitoral orgasm is immature and adolescent.
Research & History
Human sexuality is often synonymous with male sexuality, but there have been several strides to begin to critically asses and understand women’s sexuality. You may be surprised to learn that much of the study surrounding sex and sexuality is deeply tied to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Although this is very important work, it does little to actually solve sexual issues for women. For instance, low libido is problematic whether you’re a man or a woman; however, there are several government approved drugs and treatments available to men, but not women.
Another issue that arises when sex and science jump in the sack together is sexual bias. Of the few studies that examine women’s sexuality, most of them are geared toward heterosexual women. There is little work concerning lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. But all hope is not lost if you belong in any of these groups. Sometimes science is a little behind the times. A tiny spark can set an entire forest ablaze.
There has been extensive research regarding menopause, endometriosis, fibroids, and reproductive system cancers, but it seems that a woman’s sexual wellness is a lot farther down on the to do list. As women, we often give so much of ourselves to others, and we are well within our rights to have the chance to improve our sexual experiences.
Models of sexuality that are based in biology often focus on hormonal issues, and the majority of this data is based on men. A 1993 study done by Alexander and Sherwin showed that there was no correlation between free testosterone in ladies and sexual thoughts and desires or anticipation of sexual activity. More recent studies have considered the role sexual fantasy plays in female sexual desire. Studies regarding performance anxiety and general anxiety surrounding sex and pleasing a partner are generally based on men, but women can also experience this same sexual anxiety.
The Kinsey Institute for Research and Sex is one of the more well known and long standing researchers when it comes to sex, but as far as women’s sexual health goes, maybe not so much. What’s unique about women’s sexuality is biology and biological processes, life experiences, and socio-cultural aspects. Masters & Johnson are another well recognized name in the field of sexual science. But the earliest studies, conducted in the early 20th century, focused on sexuality within the confines of a heterosexual marriage. The Kinsey interviews considered sexual experiences from masturbation to experiences with animals to sexual complaints about their partner. While Masters and Johnson focused more on the physiological phases before and after orgasm. These early studies did very little to take into account the many factors that affect female sexual health and sexuality.
Common Sexual Complaints
The International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH) put together a panel of experts to look into the physiology, epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). HSDD is the most common female sexual health problem. It is characterized by a persistent or recurrent deficiency or absence of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity. This disorder can be “primary or secondary, lifelong or acquired, or generalized or situational. The broadened definition of HSDD may include any of the following: (1) lack of motivation for sexual activity as manifested by either reduced or absent spontaneous desire (sexual thoughts or fantasies) or reduced or absent responsive desire to erotic cues and stimulation or inability to maintain desire or interest through sexual activity or (2) loss of desire to initiate or participate in sexual activity, including behavioral responses such as avoidance of situations that could lead to sexual activity, that is, not secondary to sexual pain disorders, and is combined with clinically significant personal distress that includes frustration, grief, incompetence, loss, sadness, sorrow, or worry.” At the moment, flibanserin is the only pharmacological treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Sexual therapy and mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy are also suggested remedies for HSDD.
The second most common female sexual problem is difficulty or inability to orgasm. Science call it anorgasmia. Some frequent medical contributors to this issue include a weak pelvic floor, fibromyalgia, kidney disorders, and narrow arteries. Psychological factors include a poor body image, past abuse, and guilt surrounding sexuality. A 2003 study of female orgasm and arousal tested Zestra (a botanically derived oil) on 20 participants. Although the results seemed promising, such a small study sample is not enough to make any definite claims.
Another common problem is dyspareunia, or painful sex. Dyspareunia can be cause by a variety of things, including vaginal infection or dryness, uterine abnormalities, endometriosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease. There are many factors or even a combination of factors that contribute to pain. Some of these are biological, interpersonal, socio-cultural, medical, etc. Due to the wide array of reasons behind experiencing pain during sex, there are few studies on the matter. Solutions are offered on an individual basis.
Current Studies & Solutions
The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior conducted by Indiana University in 2009 was an extremely comprehensive study that surveyed over 5,500 people from adolescence into old age. It covered 40 combinations of sex acts, same sex encounters, and condom usage. Although this survey is very thorough and provides some very interesting data, it doesn’t focus solely on women’s sexual health. One interesting piece of data that is worth noting and delving deeper into concerns female orgasm. “About 85% of men report that their partner had an orgasm at the most recent sexual event; this compares to the 64% of women who report having had an orgasm at their most recent sexual event. (A difference that is too large to be accounted for by some of the men having had male partners at their most recent event.)”
Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion has published many papers on women’s use of sex toys, sex after breast cancer, the use of and attitudes towards lubricants, and vulvovaginal pain and discomfort. You will see this in several of their studies that look at women’s use of lubricants, sex toys, and sexual function after breast cancer treatment. Research is also being done here to understand the social and behavioral factors of vulvovaginal pain.
Northeastern University added a Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies program to its College of Social Sciences and Humanities in 2015 with the intent of exploring “the social location of women and men and the ways in which gender and sexuality are embedded in and structure our everyday lives.” Yale has a similar program that began in 1979. Its purpose is to look at gender and sexuality within the context of culture and and society. Other universities have theses same programs, but the research coming out of these institutions is.
There are studies being conducted that study women’s sexuality within various social constructs. A 2015 Queens University study showed that women tend to be aroused by diverse sexual stimuli regardless of sexual orientation. This is all good research and helpful in understanding the vastly multifaceted female sexuality, but it barely scratches the surface of physiological sexual health issues for women. There is more research to come.
It’s true, we as women are so wonderfully and uniquely made. It is also true that there is not a large volume of research geared specifically to women’s sexuality, and there are many questions that are still unanswered, but you are your own best advocate. If you are experiencing trouble, anxiety, pain, low libido, etc. you should consult your doctor and or reach out to a sex therapist. It may seem a little uncomfortable at first, but if you sincerely want to better your sex life, it may be a necessary first step.
Here are a few things to consider before seeing a professional:
- Are you sexually attracted to your partner?
- Do you like the way your partner touches you?
- If you are experiencing pain or discomfort, are you sexually aroused before having sex?
- Are you afraid to express yourself sexually?
- Have you experienced any sexual traumas?
- Are you physically healthy?
- Are you currently taking any medications?
- Have you consulted a therapist?
- Do you communicate well with your partner?
And here some questions to ask your medical provider.
- Could my medications be causing my sexual problems?
- Am I healthy enough to sustain a full sex life?
- Are there any medications or remedies that are safe for me to try?