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BBC Woman’s Hour tackles the Female Sexual Dysfunction Debate

January 22nd, 2007

Dr Petra

Today’s Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 discusses the issue of Female Sexual Dysfunction.

Female Sexual Dysfunction (or FSD for short) is a phrase that covers conditions including pain during/after sex, vaginismus, and orgasmic or arousal dysfunction. The most common problem facing women in this list is pain but increasingly drug companies are focusing on lack of desire/arousal and to a lesser extent inability to orgasm as the areas where treatments are being developed and promoted.

Women and men both experience problems with sex. Often in the media, pharmaceutical company promotions and medical professions we see men’s sexual functioning described as ‘plumbing’ whilst women’s sexual responses as ‘more complex’. Analogies include men are like microwaves women like Aga cookers are frequently used to imply men’s responses are simple whilst women’s are overly complex. This can be unhelpful since it blames women for not being straightforward whilst oversimplifies men’s problems.

Sex difficulties (in both men and women) can be caused by a number of factors including:
- Physical or mental health problems (such as diabetes, heart disease or depression, cancer)
- Gynaecological or urinary problems (including thrush, cystitis, sexually transmitted infections)
- Relationship problems (such as arguments, jealousy or communication difficulties)
- Stress (from too much work or workplace problems, being overloaded with housework, a lack of partner support, or financial worries)
- Not knowing or being able to effectively explore or communicate what turns you on
- Lack of privacy for sex
- Concerns over pregnancy (worries about getting or not getting pregnant)
- Past or current physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Body image or confidence issues
- Lack of sex education or holding negative beliefs about sex

If you are experiencing problems in your sex life it’s worth checking the list above (or using this resource) to see whether you can pinpoint where you may need help and support. I’ll provide some additional sources of help at the end of this blog for those who need advice.

For many people their lack of sexual enjoyment can be traced to a number of factors. Often people are dissatisfied with their sex lives because they’ve been led to believe they should be having sex several times per week with multiple orgasms, porn-star positions and all kinds of kinky additions from panties to handcuffs to spice things up. Of course there’s nothing wrong with great sex, orgasms, porn-star positions or kinky antics. But if that’s what you’re sold as ‘normal’ you’ll always feel you don’t measure up. And since many of us get our benchmark of normality from the media we’re already on the back-foot since aspirational media sex is never the sex most of us have.

Added to this is the main problem our sex lives are facing. Pharmaceutical companies have seen the success of sex drugs for male sex problems (specifically erectile dysfunction) and are keen to tap into the large and lucrative female market. If they can convince us that sexual dissatisfaction is in fact a dysfunction and that not wanting sex is a disease then they can sell us products to ‘fix’ things. Two ways they work towards this is to convince medics to prescribe their products and use direct to consumer advertising.

Currently the media has given a lot of coverage to two sex drugs for women – Intrinsa may become available later this spring. The second, Flibanserin may become available by the end of this decade. The media has reported both as products about to be on tap and not reported how current medications for women are only designed for a small proportion of women with a medical condition – so we’re being led to believe that there are a number of sex drugs coming available soon that will cure everything from boredom in the bedroom to boosting desire. That’s just not true.

If you want to find out what sex drugs are being developed click here – within this document it’s interesting to note how pharmaceutical companies see a potential market in women who are on the oral contraceptive pill or who are breastfeeding who they feel could be persuaded they need testosterone to boost their sex lives.

The Woman’s Hour discussion highlights that women with sex problems such as pain, sexually transmitted infections, thrush or other health problems should always consult with their doctor. But it also makes things clear that general sex problems need sorting out via lifestyle changes, talking therapies or other support – not reaching for a pill or patch first.

To my knowledge Woman’s Hour is the first programme in the UK to discuss this issue. Whilst there’s been a lot of media coverage on sex drugs none have taken a critical stance and most have replicated pharmaceutical company press releases without question. Let’s hope Woman’s Hour sets a new standard in media coverage of this important issue.

For further help and information

FSD-Alert highlights problems with medicalising female sexual functioning
Sexual Dysfunction Association provides confidential information on male and female sex problems
British Association of Sex and Relationship Therapy and Relate offer sex/relationship therapy and NHS direct have general health information
Women’s Aid provides advice and support for those experiencing domestic violence
Vulval Pain Society and Women’s Health have advice on gynaecological problems.
PloS Medicine has a number of free journal articles on disease mongering.

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