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A health foundation that will help – or hinder?

January 19th, 2006

Dr Petra

Recently the Cincinnati Business Courier reported on funds being sought for the Women’s Sexual Health Foundation (WSHF).

This is a group seeking to get money to promote a ‘health’message and fund research. Their plans are ambitious, they want to raise millions and spread the message that female sexual dysfunction is a major problem that affects women and requires assistance and treatment. And they want to use the media to do it – which they managed successfully with the Cincinnati newspaper.

Predictably in the Cincinnati report there’s the “sexual dysfunction affects more than 40 percent of U.S. women at some time in their lives” statement. Whilst most scientists know this is a highly misleading figure unfortunately the media persist in using it and the WSHF are happy to use it to gain support for their cause.

Other messages they emphasised in the piece included:
* female sexual dysfunction is a medical condition requiring clinical treatment.
* sexual problems aren’t caused by psychological factors, but by physical ones – they’re equivalent to diabetes or heart disease.
* although this is a terrible problem facing women, there’s currently no medical help available
* the medical community isn’t prepared to deal with this problem
* there aren’t any self-help groups around for women
* and that no research has been carried out on this condition.

It all sounds very scary and you can see why the press – who love to write about sex – will leap on this. It’s got science, medicine, sex, and women being denied treatment! On a more subtle level it keeps straight male audiences interested since these reports suggest wives and girlfriends can be ‘fixed’ to like sex.

And that’s part of the problem. Women do have sexual problems – but these are far more often caused by a lack of privacy, stress and overwork, sex education, confidence, communication skills, awareness of the body, and an understanding of how to give themselves pleasure – or ask for it. Partners aren’t taught to communicate effectively; whilst women are constantly being told they should want to be sexual and when they’re not there’s something wrong with them. Sometimes it’s quite normal not to want to have sex at all, with no reason underlying this aside from just not feeling like it.

Whilst some psychological and physical conditions can lead to women having problems getting aroused, wanting to have sex or being able to reach orgasm, that’s not the same as saying women who have sexual problems are ill.

Their claims are also inaccurate. There’s been plenty of research carried out on female dysfunction and large numbers of researchers and healthcare staff explaining that the medicalising of women’s sexual behaviour is very dangerous. There are many self-help, advocacy and activist groups for women (although many of them oppose medicalisation so have been excluded by the WSHF). Medicalising women’s sex lives is far more of a scourge than the idea that women have a medical condition. And for women with sex problems related to a lack of knowledge, confidence, contraception or health conditions there is help available.

Whilst the WSHF undoubtedly believe they need to help women, their approach could mean that we medicalise behaviour that is normal, encourage women to feel further inadequate and to reach for pharmaceutical ‘cures’. It may also conflate this condition as being more important than other genuine diseases facing women – like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Or worse still detract attention from these diseases.

There is a need to campaign for women’s health. But we need to be confident that health groups are independent and not backed by pharmaceutical companies with a conflict of interest. And the challenge should be against medicalising sexual behaviour, and increasing our sexual knowledge, confidence and ability to choose the sex lives we want – not be convinced if we don’t have sex we’re sick.

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