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What Is Female Sexual Dysfunction?


Updated June 20, 2014

Even though many of us have faced it, female sexual dysfunction — or not being able to derive pleasure from sex — is not an easy topic to discuss. The stigma surrounding it can be so strong that leading sex therapists met at a national convention and agreed to replace the word “dysfunction” with “function.” They hoped that more people would come forward, get treatment, and get better. The terminology changed briefly, but it has now reverted to “sexual dysfunction.”

The good news is that there is a trend towards dealing with sexual dysfunction in a less judgmental way, and many more people are getting help and having an improved sex life.

Who is most likely to report female sexual dysfunction?

Most people who seek help for sexual dysfunction do so in their early adult years,in the years before, during, and after menopause, and with the onset of chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and multiple sclerosis.

Other people who may live with sexual dysfunction include people who abuse alcohol and drugs, have psychological problems in relationships, or have a history of sexual abuse, or are being abused sexually.

Types of Female Sexual Dysfunction

There are several types of female sexual problems. Doctors tend to diagnose them according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV, the standard manual for health insurers and physicians, such as psychiatrists. Female sexual dysfunction refers to one or more of the following issues:

  • Sexual desire/interest disorder

    Women with this disorder have little or no interest in having sex, have few sexual thoughts or fantasies, and a lack of sexual response.

  • Arousal disorder

    There are four types of arousal disorders, which can occur alone or in combination with other disorders.

    Subjective sexual arousal disorders mean that no matter how much you are stimulated—even if your vagina shows increased lubrication—you don’t feel aroused.

    Genital sexual arousal disorder means that you have little or no vaginal lubrication or swelling of the vulva.

    Combined genital and subjective arousal disorder refers to lacking or minimally feeling both sexual and genital arousal.

    With persistent genital arousal disorders, women have continuous, unwanted genital arousal without sexual interest and desire. Arousal can sometimes go on for hours or days, and it is not relieved by orgasm.

  • Orgasmic disorder

    Orgasm is the highly satisfying sensation that occurs when a woman reaches a sexual climax. Women’s orgasmic disorder is the technical term for not being able to reach a climax or orgasm. You might experience high sexual arousal and excitement, but you have either no orgasm at all, extremely diminished orgasmic sensations, or delay from any kind of stimulation.

  • Vaginal Pain Disorders
  • Women can experience recurrent and persistent pain when their partner attempts to place his penis or finger into the vagina. Another pain disorder, characterized by extreme tightening of the vagina that can block entry of the penis, is vaginismus. With vaginismus, you may want to have sex, but your vaginal muscles cramp up and cannot relax. The exact cause of vaginismus is unknown, but some research suggests past sexual trauma, such as rape or abuse may play a role. Another pain disorder involves the vulva and is known as vulvodynia.

  • Sexual Aversion Disorder

    Women with sexual aversion disorder typically have extreme anxiety or disgust at the prospect or attempt at any sexual encounter.

Other Characteristics of Female Sexual Dysfunction

Female sexual dysfunction has also been described in terms of whether it is:

  • Lifelong
  • Acquired
  • Situational (specific to a particular partner)

Medications and Sexual Dysfunction

The medications most commonly associated with sexual dysfunction are antidepressants, particularly the SSRIs and antipsychotics, and cholesterol-lowering drugs or statins. They have been linked to loss of libido, inability to achieve orgasm and other problems.

Researchers have been actively searching for a female Viagra. In fact, some studies have examined the benefit of Viagra and other ED medications on improving female sexual dysfunction. Thus far, there is no consistent data showing ED medications help women. In fact, many researchers have maintained that female sexual function function is not a parallel entity to men's and that other approaches are desperately needed.

For postmenopausal women and suffer from vaginal dryness, estrogen creams have proven beneficial in lubricating the vagina.

Where to Go for Help

Consult with a trusted medical professional if you are experiencing sexual dysfunction. Women often consult with their gynecologist, a urologist, or a urogynecologist, who has training in both urology and gynecology. Sex therapists and psychotherapists may also be helpful.

Consult with a sex therapist and bring your partner into the discussion. To find a certified sex therapist in your area, check with the American Association of Sex Counselors, Educators, and Therapists.


Basson R. Sexuality in chronic illness:no longer ignored. Lancet 2007 369:905-6.

Basson R, Althof S, Davis S, Fugi-Meyer K, et al. Summary of the recommendations on sexual dysfunction in women. J Sex Med. 2004 1(1):24-34.

Kinzl JF. Major depressive disorder: antidepressants and sexual dysfunction. Neuropsychiatr 2009 23(2):134-138.

Malatesta VJ. Sexual problems, women and aging: an overview. J Women Aging. 2007 19(1-2):139-54.

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