Just as for men, women's sexual health plays an important role in overall emotional and physical wellbeing. A fulfilling sex life can boost a woman’s general health, improve sleep quality and reduce stress. Achieving a healthy and satisfying sex life doesn't happen automatically though; it takes good self-reflection and communication with your partner.
Women’s sexual health is influenced by a wide range of emotional, psychological and physical factors. As a consequence, when sexual problems arise, it is more difficult to separate the underlying causes for women than for men. Sexual health experts agree that women and men differ widely in their sexual response, and the advice given to men will not necessarily apply to women. However, there are still areas of common interest, such as taking good care of your general health and eating well.
According to the Mayo Clinic, many women – particularly those who are older than 40 or who have gone through menopause – physical desire isn't the primary motivation for sex. A woman may be motivated to have sex to feel close to her partner or show her feelings.
What it means to be sexually satisfied also differs for everyone. For example, some women say the pleasure of sexual arousal is sufficient, while others want to experience orgasm. If you have concerns about your sex life, or you just want to find ways to enhance it, a good first step is talking with your partner. Sharing your thoughts and expectations about your sexual experiences can bring you closer together and help you experience greater sexual enjoyment as a couple.1
Women’s sexual health problems are more easily resolved if both partners approach them prepared to make changes in the way they relate to each other sexually. Many therapists believe a woman’s sexual dysfunction is best treated as a couple, not just by the woman alone.
Both men’s and women’s sex lives will benefit from more open communication with their partner, centering on a positive and constructive dialogue which focuses on what is working well.
Women are motivated to have sex for a variety of reasons, not just because they feel sexual desire. This may include a desire to express love, to receive and share physical pleasure, to feel emotionally closer, to please her partner or to increase her sense of wellbeing.
Unlike men, women don’t spend much time thinking about sex and are not generally motivated by sexual fantasies. While women in new relationships are more frequently motivated by sexual thoughts, women in established relationships think about sex infrequently, or rarely.
The physical biology of desire and arousal works differently for women compared with men. While for men it may be a rising barometer of sexual excitement – from desire to arousal, erection and climax – a woman’s pattern is far less linear. This is one reason why some argue that men’s sexual models cannot be used to diagnose female sexual dysfunction.
For women, sexual desire does not necessarily precede sexual arousal. Arousal can often occur before desire, or arousal and desire occur simultaneously. And a woman can be aroused sexually without being aware of it or noticing any physical change.
The principle of ‘use it or lose it’ applies to women as equally as men. For example, women who are sexually active after menopause have better vaginal lubrication and elasticity of vaginal organs than women who are sexually inactive.
According to sex expert Professor Barry McCarthy, author of Rekindling Desire: “Contrary to the myth that ‘horniness’ occurs after not being sexual for weeks, desire is facilitated by a regular rhythm of sexual activity. When sex is less than twice a month, you can become self-conscious and fall into a cycle of anticipatory anxiety, tense and unsatisfying sex and avoidance.”
For women – and even for some men – intercourse is not essential for satisfactory sex. Many couples who try increasing sex play may discover they can satisfy their sensual and sexual desires with fondling, caressing and kissing. This form of intimacy has been dubbed ‘outercourse’.
A woman’s sexual response varies naturally at different times and at different life stages. It is influenced by a host of factors, including physical changes – such as during menopause or pregnancy – as well as the quality of the relationship with her partner.
Women do not necessarily feel distressed when they lose interest in sex unless this is causing distress in her relationship and putting it in danger. At this point, she will need to decide how important the relationship is to her and how much adjustment she is prepared to make to secure it.
Low desire is the most common sexual ‘problem’ that women experience; so common that Australian sex therapist Dr Rosie King suggests it’s a ‘normal’ female condition. A desire mismatch can drain intimacy and positive feelings from a relationship and can affect one in three couples.
‘Guilt sex’ – sex agreed to under emotional pressure from the partner with the higher sex drive – can be very damaging to a relationship. On the contrary, healthy sex can play a positive role in any marriage or long-term relationship. According to Barry McCarthy, a ‘non-sexual’ marriage – defined as having sex less than 10 times a year – has a profound effect on a couple’s quality of life. However, ‘bad’ sex is more likely to ruin a relationship (up to 70 percent more) than good sex is to improve it (15 percent).
With age, both women and men may need more time to become sexually aroused. Research shows men’s and women’s sexual needs tend to converge after the age of 50. Research also shows that older couples tend to spend longer making love than younger ones, simply because they need more foreplay. They’ve learned how to adjust to their physical changes and ‘go with the flow’, without feeling anxiety or pressure.
If you expect ‘orgasmic peaks’ each time you have sex you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Sex therapists estimate:
Says Barry McCarthy: “Couples who accept occasional mediocre or dysfunctional experiences without guilt or blame and try again when they are aware and receptive have a vital, resilient sexual relationship. Satisfied couples use the guideline of ‘good enough’ sex with positive, realistic sexual expectations.”
Maintaining good vaginal health is important for a woman’s general confidence, sexual satisfaction and physical health. Just like the intestinal tract, a healthy vagina carries a variety of beneficial bacteria to protect against infection and maintain a healthy PH level.
When beneficial bacteria are disrupted – for example, by the use of antibiotics which can kill internal flora, or when immunity is low – yeast infections like candida (thrush) flourish, causing itchiness and discharge.
Modern lifestyles have created an ideal environment for thrush infections, due to the following, which can all contribute to an increase in vaginal infections:
In her book Candida, A Twentieth Century Disease, Dr Shirley S. Lorenzani says before antibiotics were introduced in 1947, “only one out of four vaginal infections was due to candida. Today candida is the cause of nine out of 10 infections.”
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Itchiness and discharge can result when the PH balance in the vagina is disturbed. To help prevent this, don’t use harsh soaps or cleansers, and avoid douching. If you notice a strong or unpleasant odour you may be tempted to use these to mask it; this will only upset the mildly acidic levels that are a sign of good vaginal health. Instead, consult a health practitioner to identify the cause of the symptoms and take sensible lifestyle steps yourself, for example by cutting down on refined sugars.
If your vaginal health is out of balance, start by taking a good look at what you are eating and drinking. Make sure you are drinking plenty of fluids and preferably not a lot of coffee or alcohol. Nutritionist John Appleton says one cup of coffee can kill off 75 percent of beneficial bacterial in the gut, which can impact on the health of the genital tract too.
Some foods are recognised as being helpful for vaginal infections, including cranberry juice and yoghurt. Vaginal dryness can lead to infections as well, so try and eat more soy, which is full of phytoestrogens and which can aid natural lubrication. Include plenty of green vegetables and fruit in your diet. And remember that factory-farmed meats may contain traces of antibiotics.
Using condoms during sex helps protect against HIV, genital herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, genital warts and chlamydia. Some of these diseases, like HIV and genital herpes, have no cure. Others, like the human papillomavirus that causes genital warts, are known to cause cancer or lead to other diseases. You also should change condoms when switching from oral or anal to vaginal sex, to prevent the introduction of harmful bacteria into the vagina.
Good vaginal health depends upon having regular health checks. Have Pap smears at the recommended frequency for your age group – usually every couple of years if you’ve had no adverse results previously – to ensure you are keeping track of any changes in vaginal cells that could indicate a pre-cancerous condition.
Every woman should have a vaginal health check at age 21, or within three years of becoming sexually active. Get anything unusual – like painful sex – checked out.
Pain experienced during sex may spread to the labia and pelvic areas during or after intercourse, and may be caused by a range of disorders. These include menopausal or pre-menopausal vaginal dryness, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) caused by chlamydia, or spasms of the vaginal muscles caused by a fear of being hurt.
The most common vaginal infections are yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis.
Lubrication is an important aspect of intercourse. Without it, the skin of the labia and vagina can become irritated and chafed. Normally, natural lubrication occurs when a woman is sexually aroused, but hormonal changes, stress or menopause can affect this process. Don’t hesitate to use a personal lubricant cream or sex gel to help with lubrication, but give preference to a natural, water-based lubricant such as Ignite Intimate Gel. Avoid mineral oils which can damage the latex in condoms and may cause infection.
Synthetic fabrics and tight-fitting underwear or pants can increase heat and moisture in the genital area, increasing the likelihood of bacterial or yeast infections. Give preference to loose-fitting styles, avoid G-strings and use natural fabrics like cotton wherever possible. Change out of wet swimsuits and sweaty workout clothes as quickly as possible.
Commonsense goes a long way in helping maintain vaginal health. After a bowel movement, wipe from front to back to avoid bacterial contamination of the vagina and lower the risk of bladder infection. Change sanitary pads and tampons regularly during your period. When you're not having your period, don’t use pads or panty liners to absorb normal vaginal discharge; they keep moisture and warmth near your vagina, which can result in infection.
It’s important to understand that sexual health issues can be treated and it’s worth doing something about. If your sexual health is suffering from physical or emotional problems, take stock of your situation, talk to your doctor and your partner and make a checklist of things you can do to address them.
Some practical options include:
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Disclaimer. This information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not substitute for the advice provided by your medical professional. Always seek specific medical advice for treatment appropriate to you. Individual results may vary and are not guaranteed.
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