Understanding Female Sexual Health
Sex, as important as it is for the continuation of life, is considered taboo, especially in Indian culture. People shy away from the topic of sex and there is very little knowledge about sexual health in the country. On account of that, the second week of September has been recognised as World Sexual Health Week and thus we bring to you this article on the sexual health of females.
According to the World Health Organisation, healthy sex life is more than just an absence of sexual disease. It means enjoying your physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being when it comes to sex. It emphasises a positive approach to sex keeping in mind the safety to pursue whatever is pleasurable for oneself.
It’s a common belief that the body’s physical desire for sex, motivates sexual activity which leads to sexual arousal and then orgasm. However, this is not always the case, especially for females. A number of factors together contribute to making a woman feel aroused and desire sex. Sexual health also means understanding your body and how it works. Women who understand their bodies can make better choices about their sexual and personal life. With that being said, misconceptions surrounding sexual health, particularly of women abound. Let’s debunk some of them.
Myths About Female Sexual Health
Myth 1 – Douching is necessary for vaginal hygiene
Absolutely not. In fact, doctors recommend against it. Douching or washing the vagina with liquids such as vinegar to clean it or remove odour disturbs its pH balance which can lead to a number of infections and diseases. These range from vaginal dryness and infection and pelvic inflammatory disease to cervical cancer and HIV.
Myth 2 – The “Pull-Out” or “Withdrawal” method is safe to prevent pregnancy
Pull-Out or withdrawal method is when the penis is pulled out or withdrawn from the vagina before ejaculation. This is one of the most notorious causes of unwanted pregnancies. First, accuracy cannot be relied on given the heat of the moment. Second and more importantly, it has been proven in a study that the ‘pre-cum’ released by the penis before ejaculation can contain sperm and make you pregnant.
Myth 3 – Unprotected sex during periods cannot cause pregnancy
This is another infamous reason behind unwanted pregnancies. Understanding that the female body is inhospitable for a sperm to fertilise the eggs while she is on her period, many couples indulge in unprotected sex. However, research suggests that sperm can live inside the female’s body for up to 5 days and even fertilise an egg after it has been released in ovulation. This is more common among females with shorter menstrual cycles.
Myth 4 – Double condoms equals double protection
Count this as incorrect use of condoms. Using two condoms can actually increase your risk of pregnancy. It causes friction that can weaken the material and result in the condoms getting torn during intercourse.
Myth 5 – Condoms are only for males
Voila, ladies! Female condoms exist and are as reliable as male ones. They serve the same purpose as well i.e. prevent the semen from entering the vagina.
Fun fact: Female condoms can be inserted into the vagina hours before intercourse and can even be unnoticeable if used correctly.
Sex demands a healthy connection between organs, hormone-producing glands, and the brain. Even if one of them is out of sync the whole experience feels compromised. Furthermore, sexual health is a complex topic which is affected by a range of factors which we will talk about in our next section.
Factors Affecting Sexual Health
It’s important to understand that sexual health is not a stand-alone aspect of one’s life but is correlated with several facets like your mental and physical being, your current state of mind, emotions and even your lifestyle. Your past experiences and relationships along with your cultural beliefs can influence how you feel about sex. Furthermore, sexual satisfaction is a subjective term and may have different meanings and levels for each individual. Sexual response, again, is impacted by your feelings towards your partners and yourself.
Dietary choices also have a role to play here. They regulate the production, release and interaction of hormones including the sex hormones, oestrogen and testosterone. While some foods boost sex drive in women, others may have a negative impact. According to a study, daily consumption of an apple leads to better sexual health in young women. Another study suggested the use of fenugreek for improving female sexual health.
Stress, impacts many aspects of your health, including your sex drive. Research has established a direct correlation between stress and female sexual dissatisfaction. Thus, an increase in stress can have a negative impact on your sexual experience.
In nutshell, what really matters is how you feel. If you feel happy and are satisfied with your sex life, then it’s healthy. But if sex causes you distress or makes you anxious or sad then you possibly have a sexual health problem that needs to be addressed. Persistent issues with ‘pleasure’ during the sexual response are medically called Female Dysfunction. It is a common disorder and can be easily corrected.
Understanding Sexual Dysfunction
Sexual dysfunction is a term used to define consistent issues one may face during the sexual response cycle. The sexual response cycle is a sequence of physical and emotional changes a person undergoes when they become sexually aroused and participate in sexually stimulating activities, ranging from masturbation to intercourse. The four phases of the sexual response cycle are- desire, arousal, orgasm and resolution. Knowing how your body responds during the phases of this cycle can enhance your experience and help you pinpoint the cause of sexual dysfunction.
Around 30-40 per cent of women are affected by sexual dysfunction. It can be temporary or chronic.
The most common problems related to female sexual dysfunction are:
- Hypoactive Sex Desire Disorder – Having a low sex drive or lack of interest and willingness to involve in sexual activities.
- Anorgasmia – Difficulty or inability to get an orgasm even after adequate sexual arousal or stimulation. This is often accompanied by negative feelings like sadness, despair and worry.
- Sexual Arousal Disorder – Difficulty getting aroused or staying aroused during sexual activities.
- Genito-Pelvic Pain/ Penetration Disorder – Having difficulty or pain associated with sexual stimulation or vaginal contact. This is further classified into two separate disorders
- Dyspareunia – Pain during sex
- Vaginisusms – Muscle spasm that interferes with sex
There are various reasons behind these disorders. Let’s explore them.
Causes Of Female Sexual Dysfunction
- Blood Flow Issues
Certain conditions may prevent proper blood flow to parts of the body including the reproductive organs. The female reproductive parts such as the clitoris, labia and vagina need increased blood flow for sexual arousal and orgasm.
- Hormonal Imbalance
An imbalance of sex hormones in the body can cause issues such as vaginal dryness and vaginal atrophy (thinning and drying of the vaginal wall). Such conditions cause burning, itching, spotting and pain in and around the vagina making it less pleasurable for women. Pregnancy and menopause also cause a change in the body’s hormonal levels that affects the idea of sex for women.
The levels of oestrogen in the body fluctuate during and after menopause which has a direct impact on a female’s sexual desire. The drastic drop in oestrogen may make it difficult for you to get aroused. In addition, many women experience discomfort or pain during sex after menopause. This is due to vaginal dryness caused by loss of normal secretions and lubrication, decreased elasticity, and narrowing of the vagina. Menopausal vaginal changes are generally more severe if intercourse (or other activities that involve vaginal penetration) is less frequent.
- Gynaecological Conditions
Pain during sex can be due to disorders like PCOS, Endometriosis, Uterine Fibrosis etc. Furthermore, milestones like childbirth may have a temporary effect on your sexual health.
Childbirth may decrease your sex drive owing to physical fatigue caused by parenting in the initial days. Low estrogen levels after delivery and minor injuries to the genital area or abdominal wall during delivery may cause pain during sex. However, this should improve after a couple of days.
- Mental Health Issues
Mental health issues such as depression affect your health in a variety of ways, one of which can be causing a lack of interest in physical intimacy. It can also render you incapable of enjoying things you used to enjoy including sex. Low self-esteem and hopelessness, fueled by depression also contribute to sexual dysfunction.
Low sex drive or delayed sexual response can also be a side effect of various medicines. The antidepressant is known to reduce libido. Other treatments like chemotherapy also cause hormonal changes and can affect one’s attitude towards sex.
- Other Psychological Issues
Underlying psychological issues such as past trauma, sexual abuse or relationship issues can instil fear and anxiety in some females and lead to sexual dysfunction.
Treating Sexual Dysfunction
It is normal to experience occasional sexual issues. However, if you are bothered by your sexual health or feel you are suffering from sexual dysfunction, it’s best to consult your doctor for a medical diagnosis. The doctor will do a thorough evaluation of the physical and psychological factors tied to sex and recommend medication, corrective techniques or therapy if required.
Remember that sexual dysfunction can be frustrating but there’s absolutely nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. We understand that talking about your sexual needs and wants may not be easy but it’s best to let your partner know about them and access them together.
Sexual health is deeply intertwined with our physical and mental beings. Sexuality is a part of every woman’s life. Some women may choose never to be sexually active, but most explore their sexual desires in one way or another at some point in their lives. It is here that correct knowledge about sexual health becomes pivotal. You must be rightly informed to know what’s best for you. All of our bodies have the potential to feel physical excitement and pleasure. Remember that sexuality is one dimension of our ability to live passionately. Cutting it off may diminish our overall power to acknowledge and feel emotions.