February 18, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 10

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    Researchers publish new study on sexual dysfunction

    By William Harms
    News Office

    About 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men experience sexual dysfunction, a rate much higher than previously believed, according to a new study by researchers at the University and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

    The study––co-authored by Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology at the University; Anthony Paik, a researcher with the University’s Ogburn-Stouffer Center; and Raymond Rosen, professor of psychiatry and co-director of the Center for Sexual and Marital Health at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School––was published in the Feb. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

    It is the first study to be done on the prevalence of sexual dysfunction among the general population of the United States. A few studies of men have been done to look at specific problems such as impotence, but virtually no research has been done on women and sexual dysfunction, researchers said. The study found that social and psychological factors as well as medical problems influence sexual dysfunction for both men and women.

    “The strong association between sexual dysfunction and impaired quality of life suggests that this problem warrants recognition as a significant public health concern,” the researchers write in their paper, “Sexual Dysfunction in the United States: Prevalence and Predictors.”

    “We show that experience of sexual dysfunction is associated with many indicators of low personal and relational well-being among men, but even more so for women,” Laumann said. “Thus, contrary to much of the titillated debate over Viagra, sexual dysfunction is a serious psychological phenomenon that is socially organized and generated.”

    In their paper, the researchers look at a wide variety of sexual problems, including lack of desire, arousal problems, inability to climax or ejaculate, climaxing or ejaculating too rapidly, physical pain during intercourse, not finding sex pleasurable and anxiety about sexual performance.

    The respondents were asked if they experienced any of the problems over an extended period of several months. The researchers found large differences in sexual dysfunction based on social and economic status. The following statistics are among the findings reported in the paper.

    • Sexual dysfunction is highest among younger women, with 21 percent of women aged 18 to 29 reporting physical pain with intercourse. Twenty-seven percent reported experiencing non-pleasurable sex, and 16 percent reported sexual anxiety.

    • Women aged 50 to 59 are one third as likely as younger women to experience pain during sex and half as likely to report non-pleasurable sex and sexual anxiety.

    • Men experience great difficulty as they age, with men aged 50 to 59 being three and a half times more likely to experience erection problems than the 18 to 29 age group. However, age is not a factor for men who report climaxing too early, anxiety about performance and non-pleasurable sex.

    • Married men and women report fewer problems with sex than those unmarried. Unmarried women are one and a half times more likely to have trouble climaxing than married women. Unmarried men are more likely to report lack of desire or erection problems than married men.

    • High school dropouts are the most likely to have sexual problems. Among women, 42 percent who did not complete high school reported lacking the desire for sex, while only 24 percent of female college graduates had such an experience. Among men, college graduates were two-thirds as likely to report climaxing too early as compared to men who did not complete high school.

    The researchers based their work on data from the National Health and Social Life Survey conducted in 1992 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University. The survey, the most comprehensive of its kind, included a national sample of 1,921 American women and 1,511 men aged 18 to 59.

    Sexual experience varies by educational level because of health and financial security, the researchers suggested. More educated people generally have better access to health care and less stressful, more lucrative employment.

    The researchers found that falling household income increases sexual problems for both men and women. Women in homes where income fell 20 percent were one and a half times more likely to experience low desire and arousal disorders, while men in such households reported increased problems having an erection.

    The study shows that people who were molested as children report higher rates of sexual problems. Medical conditions also influence sexual dysfunction––urinary tract infections, for example, cause arousal problems and sexual pain for women and erection problems for men.

    The study also shows that people report a much higher rate of sexual problems than is reflected in the number of people who seek medical attention. In general, women, who see doctors for reproductive health issues, are more likely than men to seek medical attention, the authors said. Men generally expect sexual problems as part of aging, they added.