Women’s Sexual Health ‘Not About Erections’

Women’s sexual health varies in very important ways from men’s – and sexual health experts are beginning to acknowledge that the models and treatments that have been promoted over the last 20 years for men may have little benefit for women.

In particular, the boffins now realise women’s and men’s sexual responses function differently – and are beginning to understand something women have been trying to tell them for years - that it’s not all about erections.  

In the words of one medical text, “the idea of a straight linear progression of genitally focused events (typical of men’s progression to erection and climax) is not helpful in discussing women’s sexual health.” (The Science of Orgasm, Barry Komisaruk and others, John Hopkins University Press, 2006)

Similarly, women’s sexual response is not consistent throughout her life, but varies naturally at different times and life stages, influenced by a host of factors including pregnancy, menopause, and the quality of the relationship.

However many women enjoy happy active sex throughout life and report sex even improves with age. And there is a growing body of scientific evidence to support the view that sex is beneficial to your health.

How Men’s And Women’s Sexual Response Differs

Sexual medicine has been so dominated by men’s erectile dysfunction treatments over the last 20 years that it’s important to focus on how women’s sexuality is expressed.
Increasingly research studies are showing:
  • Women’s sexual problems often involve multiple personal physical, emotional and relational factors and can’t be simply sorted into “physical” and “psychological” causes. 
  • Women’s sexual response is highly complex and not simply motivated by sexual fantasies or sexual thoughts. 
  • For women, sexual desire may often not precede sexual arousal, the two often occur almost simultaneously.
  • Unless a woman is distressed by her lack of sexual desire, it’s not a health problem. It only becomes a problem if she is concerned.

What Affects Women’s Sexual Health

Women’s sexual response and libido levels are influenced by hormonal changes or discomfort relating to
  • The Pill
  • Female infertility treatment
  • Pregnancy
  • Painful menstruation
  • Pre-menopause and menopause
  • Other life events – raising small children, working long hours, and the quality of her relationship with her partner.

It’s not unusual for women who are busy trying to combine family and work commitments to find having an active sex life comes at the end of a very busy “to do” list.

The Doing it Down Under survey of 20,000 Australians found 60 per cent of women aged 3o to 39 reported a lack of interest in sex for at least one month in the previous year. Over half of the 29 to 59 year olds felt the same way.
For many women, improving their sexual health involves taking sensible steps to:
  • Reduce stress
  • Take better care of their physical health by
  • exercising more
  • eating better
  • and getting quality sleep
  • Creating time and space for sex – in other words making sex more of a priority.
Following some of the Top Tips for a Better Sex Life and taking steps to increase and enhance libido can make a big difference. Taking time for sex can help prevent womens sexual health problems.

Common Causes of Women’s Sexual Problems

Some women may feel their sexual problems have deeper underlying causes, and may seek treatment from a doctor or counsellor to get a better understanding of what is happening.
Some of the most common causes of poor sexual health for women include:
  • Declining testosterone with aging
  • Low libido
  • Side effects of medications like anti-depressants or heart /blood pressure meds
  • Psychological issues – depression, stress or anxiety, burn out
  • Relationship issues – not feeling supported, or lacking non-physical intimacy
  • Chronic illness -  diabetes, arthritic joint pain, heart disease
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Past sexual abuse

Women’s Sexual Health Trends

With the growth of erectile dysfunction treatments for men, there is a trend to “medicalise” women’s sexual health, turning a “normal” state into a disease.

Critics say the pharmaceutical industry is creating  new category of female sexual dysfunction – dubbed FSSD (Female Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder) – and diagnosing ‘normal’ women as in poor sexual health because they don’t want frequent sex.

It’s become a hot topic as doctors and women’s groups question how much of this is motivated by a drive to sell a female version of Viagra from the same pharmaceutical companies who have made billions out of erectile dysfunction drugs.

Groups like the New View campaign argue the FSSD model is based on the same old framework of men’s sexuality and ignores women’s experience.

Best Treatments for Women’s Sexual Health

There is no “little pink pill” for women to match Viagra’s “little blue pill” for men (yet), and because of the more complex nature of women’s sexuality many sexual health experts doubt a single pill will ever prove to be the answer for women’s sexual health.

However a range of womens sexual health treatments are available to
  • Increase libido
  • Alleviate menopause symptoms
  • And improve sexual response

Some of these include:
Hormone treatment: Testosterone or estrogen supplementation – for menopausal women, or women who have had their ovaries removed.

Medication Side Effects: Change medication or seek alternative medication. Ask your doctor for a sexually beneficial or benign anti-depressant.

Most of the drugs that cause sexual problems increase serotonin levels – and serotonin has been shown to delay or inhibit orgasm. There are alternatives to these SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) medications.

Improving vaginal lubrication: Vaginal dryness can make sex painful and difficult, and is common during menopause because of hormonal changes.  Find a topically applied intimate gel you like or get hormonal treatment like an estrogen cream to help.

Counselling:  If you are dealing with deeper relationship issues or emotional distress from past sexual abuse, it’s certainly worth seeking therapy to work through the issues.

Kegel Exercises to improve pelvic muscle tone: Men and women both have a pelvic floor muscle – the PC muscle (also known as the “love muscle”) which can be strengthened through simple exercises to increase orgasm. 

Originally developed to help women suffering from mild incontinence after childbirth, Kegel exercises require no expensive equipment and done regularly can greatly improve sexual response.

Improving Relationship Intimacy and communication

Sydney sex expert Dr Rosie King says everything that happens in a woman’s life influences her attitude to sex and she is only partly joking when she says women need “24 hours of fore play.” 

That’s because a woman is far more likely to feel open to sex if her partner has shared in non-physical intimacy - with hugs, small comments, and by being supportive in other ways – in the previous days.

Both partners committing to improving communication will do wonders for their relationship – and lead to quality sex.

Herbal Supplements for Women’s Sexual Health

Women healers have long used herbs for women’s reproductive and sexual health. And since major trials revealed the health risks of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), the use of supplements containing natural products like black cohosh, soy isoflavones and red clover has surged.

Many women prefer to seek natural holistic solutions for their sexual health, and science is now beginning to take herbal remedies more seriously and investigate active ingredients. 

Some of the most popular herbs for women’s reproductive health include: dong quai, tribulus terrestris, damiana, horny goat weed, avena sativa, chasteberry, evening primrose oil, wild yam, ginko biloba, ginseng, yohimbe and cranberry.

(Not all of these herbs are legal for sale in Australia under the Therapeutic Goods Act regulations). Ignite for Women is a popular supplement for women’s sexual health that improves sexual response, helps hormonal balance during menopause.