A new study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, reports that 40% of women aged 18 to 102 have sexual problems. Previous surveys have reported similar estimates of female sexual dysfunction but this one also asked women if they were “distressed” about it. Only 12% of women seemed to care about female sexual problems.
The research on female sexual problems and health was funded by Boehringer Ingelheim International, the maker of flibanserin, a new drug for female sexual dysfunction that is currently being tested in clinical trials. They included 32,000 women over age 18 and found 39% reported diminished desire, 26% reported problems with arousal, and 21% problems with achieving orgasm. Only 12% of women had distress about those female sexual problems.
Older women had more sexual dysfunction, but they cared less. The most distress occurred at mid-life at ages 45 to 65. This is the time women are experiencing menopause and other life factors that may also come into play. The youngest women had the lowest number of sexual problems and associated distress.
The study asked women whether they experienced sexual dysfunction and also whether that sexual dysfunction bothered them enough to cause actual distress. The study’s lead author, Dr. Jan L. Shifren of Massachusetts General Hospital says, “The reason the study is important is that we read about 30 or 40 percent of women experience with sexual problems and we confirm that, yes, about 30% of women may note low desire or orgasmic response, but when you ask if it is a distressing problems, that is a much lower percentage of women.” In fact, suggested Shifren, “You could say that something affecting 40% is almost normative and not a medical disorder.”
This study brings up the question, “What is normal?” Certainly with human sexuality there is a wide range of behavior and “normal” has never been defined. It depends upon the social norms, culture, and the individuals’ religious beliefs and life stage.
Pop culture has had a major impact on what we think of as normal sexual behavior. People everywhere who are exposed to those images, songs, internet and TV may believe they can never “measure up”. All one needs to do is turn on MTV or VH1 and see how sexuality dominates the programming. Pop culture can create widespread sexual anxiety by making us believe great sex is occurring everywhere but in our own bedroom.
A high percentage of women in this study had some degree of sexual problem with desire, arousal or orgasm but only 12% were distressed. In this study “distress” was associated with unhappiness, guilt, worry, frustration, embarrassment or anger. If the symptoms are not bothersome to the person, is it a problem? The researchers may find that the market for their new product, fibanserin may not be as high as they originally thought.