Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Orgasms and attitudes about female genitals

An Indiana University study published in the September issue of the International Journal of Sexual Health found that women who feel more positively about women's genitals find it easier to orgasm and are more likely to engage in sexual health promoting behaviors, such as having regular gynecological exams or performing vulvar self-examinations.

"These are important findings about body image," said Debby Herbenick, associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. "Our culture often portrays women's genitals as dirty and in need of cleaning and grooming. Some women may have had greater exposure to such negative messages or may be more susceptible to their impact."

Herbenick's study created a scale for measuring men's and women's attitudes toward women's genitals. Such a scale, she wrote in the study, could be useful in sex therapy, in medical settings to help better understand decision-making that goes into gynecological care and treatment, and in health education settings involving women and their sexual health. The study also found that men had more positive attitudes about women's genitals than women.

"Women are often more critical about their own bodies -- and other women's bodies -- than men are," Herbenick said. "What we found in this study is that men generally feel positive about a variety of aspects of women's genitals including how they look, smell, taste and feel."

Herbenick, also a sexual health educator for The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, offers the following suggestions regarding the findings:

Body image. Parents might consider how they can help their daughters to feel more positively about their bodies, such as by teaching them accurate names for their body parts, including their genitals (e.g., "vulva" rather than "down there") and responding in supportive ways to their self-exploration. "Rather than saying, 'don't touch down there -- it's dirty,' parents might let their children know that it's OK for them to touch their genitals, but in private spaces such as their own bedroom or the bathroom," Herbenick said.

Advertisements and marketing. Health educators might consider ways that they can teach women and men about their bodies in positive, sex-positive ways by openly discussing how some products or marketing campaigns make people feel about their bodies.
The survey component of the study involved 362 women and 241 men, most of whom were white/Caucasian and between the ages of 18 and 23.

"Our study builds on previous research that demonstrates that the mind and body are highly connected in regard to sex," said Herbenick. "When women feel more positively about female genitals, they likely feel more relaxed in their own skin, more able to let go and thus more likely to experience pleasure and orgasm."

Sexually satisfied women have more vitality

Older women have higher well-being scores than younger women

Pre- and post-menopausal women who self-rated themselves as being sexually satisfied had a higher overall psychological well-being score and scores for "positive well-being" and "vitality," compared with sexually dissatisfied women in a study of 295 women sexually active more than twice a month. The study, published today in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, also uncovered a positive association between age and well-being, but a negative association for general health.

The most commonly reported sexual problems in the area of consensual sexuality in women relate to sexual desire and interest, pleasure and satisfaction, and for most women these are part of the overall sexual experience, and are inextricably related. In contrast to studies of interventions for male erectile dysfunction, benefit of treatment in women with sexual dysfunction cannot be measured simply by the frequency of sexual events, as women frequently continue to be sexually active despite a high level of sexual dissatisfaction. Thus the frequency of self-reported satisfactory sexual events has been used as the primary outcome in recent studies.

To assess whether there was a correlation between sexual satisfaction and well-being, the team of Australian researchers recruited women from the community aged 20-65 who self-identified as being satisfied or dissatisfied with their sexual function. Participants were also asked questions which identified whether they were pre- or post menopausal, with recruitment closed when there was an equal number of women in each of the four subgroups.

"We wanted to explore the links between sexual satisfaction and wellbeing in women from the community, and to see if there was any difference between pre- and postmenopausal women," said lead author Dr Sonia Davison, of the Women's Health Program at Monash University, Australia. "We found that women who were sexually dissatisfied had lower well-being and lower vitality. This finding highlights the importance of addressing these areas as an essential part of women's healthcare, because women may be uncomfortable discussing these issues with their doctor."

"The problem with interpreting this finding is that it is impossible to determine if dissatisfied women had lower well-being because they were sexually dissatisfied, or if the reverse is true, such that women who started with lower well-being tended to secondarily have sexual dissatisfaction," added Davison. "As such, pharmacotherapies aimed to treat sexual dysfunction may have secondary effects on well-being, and the reverse may be true."

As over 90% of women in this study reported their sexual activity involved a partner, and was initiated by the partner at least 50% of the time, the sexual activity of the women may have been affected by partner presence (or absence), partner health, and sexual function, which were not addressed in this study. "The fact that women who self-identified as being dissatisfied maintained the level of sexual activity reported most likely represents established behaviour and partner expectation," said Professor Susan Davis, senior author of this study, also based at the Women's Health Program at Monash University, Australia. "It also reinforces the fact that frequency of sexual activity in women cannot be employed as a reliable indicator of sexual well-being."

"We are proud to publish this extremely important study in women's sexual health" said Dr. Irwin Goldstein, Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Sexual Medicine. "This large study performed in the community emphasizes the role and importance of women's sexual health in women's overall health and well-being. Previous criticism equated physicians' efforts to improve a woman's satisfaction with her sexual life as medicalization. Dr. Davison's and co-workers' research will help health care professionals appreciate the need for overall women's healthcare to include women's sexual health care."