Many more college women suffer from sexual dysfunction than you might think


A few weeks ago my boyfriend and I gushed to some close friends about a new lubricant we had tried out that warms on contact. Not only does it allow us to have sex longer, but it also increases certain sensations.

To our surprise, however, instead of immediately whipping out their phones to order the product on Amazon, our friends reacted with skepticism—and a little repulsion.

“We don’t need lube,” the female half of the couple told us. It was clear from her response that she believed using lube meant something was “wrong” with our sex life—that something needed fixing. In our particular case, we simply enjoy trying new products. But what if we did need it? Why should that be something to feel ashamed about?

The exchange points to a broader problem in our society: How we talk about female sexual dysfunction. Even the term feels steeped in shame—like an admission of being “broken.” Especially if you’re in your 20s or 30s, which our culture leads us to believe is a woman’s sexual prime, confronting a problem can feel alienating.

The truth is, many young women experience a wide range of sexual dysfunctions, as a new study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy confirms. Its findings are striking.

For the study, researchers from Stanford University and Palo Alto University looked at sexual dysfunction among 547 sexually active, college-aged women—a demographic the researchers say is “historically neglected,” despite the fact that “personal distress associated with sexual problems has been found to be higher among young female adults than older women.”

In order to assess potential dysfunction, the researchers asked participants, “Do you experience any of the following sexual problems at least 25 percent of the time during sexual situations?” Respondents could choose from a list of issues and circle as many that applied, including the following:

  • lack of sexual desire
  • lack of orgasm
  • pain associated with sex
  • difficulty getting or keeping adequately wet during sex
  • tightening of the vaginal muscles that interferes with sex

The participants were also asked about drug and alcohol use, hormonal contraceptive use, sexual victimization (i.e., being pressured into sex or forced to have unwanted sex), and sexual inhibition—all factors that can play a role sexual dysfunction.

The researchers found that nearly 70% of women reported having at least one issue 25% of the time or more—and 13.5% experienced two or more problems. In other words, women who never experienced some form of sexual dysfunction were in the minority.

The most common problems that the participants self-reported were lack of orgasm (nearly 50%), difficulty getting wet (22%), and painful intercourse (21%)—three issues that can go hand in hand.

Of course, the orgasm statistic echoes previous research suggesting that only around half of women climax during sex. While failing to orgasm may not always signify a disfunction, it can be symptomatic of other problems.

According to the authors, medical and mental health professionals should do more to address these issues. “Given the large percentage of female college students endorsing sexual dysfunction problems, inquiring about sexual functioning should be an integral part of a psychosocial assessment in college/university health services,” the authors write in the study.

They also point out that, while much attention has been given to sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence (as it should be), “very little attention” has been given to sexual dysfunction, despite the fact that it’s an important component of a woman’s overall health.

The study’s findings did not surprise Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., a sexologist and relationship expert based in New York City who was not involved in the study. Lack of orgasm and pain during intercourse, often attributed to vaginal dryness, is a common complaint among younger women, Levkoff told me. “That fact is shocking to a lot of people, because we equate vaginal dryness with older women.”

Women are taught to believe that if they’re aroused, they should be wet, and sex should be easy, Levkoff explained, but that’s not always the case. “Women start to think, ‘What’s wrong with me’?,” she said, in part because of cultural messaging about what sex “should” be like.

Last year, for example, ultimate fighting superstar Ronda Rousey made headlines when she shared her secret to “great sex” with Maxim, saying, “You should never need lube in your life. If you need lube, than you’re being lazy…and you’re not taking your time.”

As Levkoff told me, “Sometimes we don’t always produce a lot of lubrication,” adding, “it just goes to show you how little information we have out there.”

Female sexual dysfunction tends to be poorly understood by both the public and medical community because it’s so complicated, according to sex researchers—indeed, the authors of the study note, “health professionals are often not adequately trained to address sexual dysfunction problems.”

As Levkoff explained, a woman’s sexual dysfunction can be part biomedical, part psychological, and part related to emotional socialization—for example, how you learned about sex, or whether you were taught to feel guilt or shame around sex—making it challenging for professionals to address.

So what can women do to help themselves? Levkoff said the first step is to raise awareness about how common sexual dysfunction is among young women—and to encourage women to talk about what they’re experiencing.

“For some reason, there’s still some stigma about a young woman saying, ‘I’m having some trouble in this area’,” Levkoff told me. The key, she said, is for women to understand that they’re not alone, “by sharing our experiences in order to help and better the community.” She believes the more we talk about these issues, the more women will feel more comfortable with them—and be more likely to communicate what they need with their partners.

That said, some sexual issues do need medical attention—like chronic pain during sex, for example—which means health professionals also need to become better trained in working with patients who come to them with sexual dysfunction. “Even today, sexuality education in medical schools is sorely lacking. If anything, those classes are electives,” Levkoff said. “Until we recognize that sexual functioning is a part of our overall health, then we’re not doing enough.”

But the main takeaway from the study, said Levkoff, should be that sex is different for everyone—and different doesn’t mean bad. “There’s no such thing as having a ‘normal’ sex life,” she said. But if you find you’re having an issue that’s causing you psychological or physical distress, the best course of action is to speak up and seek out help.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion’s love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

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