What Are Sexual Disorders?
A sexual disorder is characterized as any ongoing issue with sexual pleasure, desire, or function that causes distress. There is a wide range of conditions that can be classed as sexual disorders. These come under four categories: desire disorders, arousal disorders, orgasm disorders, and pain disorders.
Sexual disorders aren’t uncommon, with one 2000 study finding they impact 43% of women and 31% of men. (1) However, people can be embarrassed to discuss sexual issues with health professionals, making these disorders more likely to go undiagnosed and untreated.
The different types of sexual disorders include:
- Fetishism: Recurrent and intense sexually arousing fantasies involving non-living objects
- Pedophilia: Constant arousing fantasies and urges involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children
- Paraphilia: Sexual interests that involve situations or activities that aren’t typical
- Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD): Little to no interest in thinking about or having sex
- Genital arousal disorder: Unwanted sexual arousal that isn’t relieved by orgasm
- Orgasm disorder: Inability to orgasm, or orgasms that are delayed or less intense than desired
- Erectile dysfunction (ED): Trouble achieving or maintaining an erection during intercourse
- Premature ejaculation: An orgasm that occurs earlier than the person expects or wants during intercourse
- Vaginismus: Inability to relax vaginal muscles to allow intercourse
People may have lifelong sexual disorders. Others may acquire a sexual disorder later in life, or find the condition only impacts them in certain situations. In all cases, steps can be taken to decrease symptoms and find sexual satisfaction.
What Causes Sexual Disorders?
There are many different causes of sexual disorders, and they can be emotional, psychological, or physical. For most people, there’s more than one cause.
Certain medical conditions can impact a person’s sexual life. As arousal relies on blood moving to the genitals, any health issue that affects blood flow can lower sexual desire. This includes diabetes, heart problems, and cancer. Bladder issues can also be the cause of sexual disorder, especially among people assigned male at birth.
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A change in hormone levels can also affect the libido. Hormone levels often drop in older adults, and around one-third of seniors have at least one complaint about their sexual function. (2) For those assigned female at birth, the physical rigors of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding can lead to a loss of sexual desire. Similarly, the changing hormone levels during menopause can also alter a person’s level of sexual desire.
As sexual arousal relies on the brain, anything that has an impact on mental health can cause sexual disorders. (3) Stress and overwork can both lead to a lower libido, as can relationship problems. (4) Fear and anxiety about sex can also lower sexual satisfaction. (5)
Many substances also impact sexual performance. Alcohol and tobacco use can both lower blood flow, leading to an inability to have intercourse. Some prescription medications lower sexual desire. Talking to a healthcare professional about adjusting the dosage or trying a different medication may help.
What Are the Symptoms of Sexual Disorders?
There are many potential sexual disorder symptoms to be aware of. Some common symptoms include:
- Difficulty getting aroused
- Lack of interest in having sex
- Pain during intercourse
- Inability to achieve or maintain an erection
- Premature or delayed ejaculation
- Inability to achieve orgasm
- Vaginal dryness
- Inability to feel sexual arousal
Anyone who has concerns about their sexual health can talk to a medical professional to discuss their experiences and possible causes. Symptoms must cause distress for a doctor to consider the problem a sexual disorder. If a patient doesn’t feel distressed, a doctor may still consider the physical causes of symptoms but won’t treat them as sexual dysfunction.
Do I Have a Sexual Disorder? How Are Sexual Disorders Diagnosed?
When a sexual disorder is suspected, a healthcare provider will talk to the patient about their medical history, sexual experience, and current symptoms. Other causes, such as medications or a physical illness, will be considered as well.
Next, the doctor looks at the criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This guidebook lists the symptoms of different conditions and the guidelines practitioners can use to diagnose a disorder.
The DSM-5 states that to be officially diagnosed with a sexual disorder, symptoms must have persisted for at least six months. Those symptoms must also be experienced in 75%-100% of sexual encounters during this time. (6) Lastly, the symptoms must have caused clinically significant distress. It's important to remember that a sexual disorder is only present if there are problems with sex that are impacting the individual's life, mental health, or relationship.
What Is the Best Treatment for Sexual Disorders?
The best treatment for a sexual disorder depends on the type of disorder it is. A healthcare professional can identify both the cause of the disorder and possible treatment options. Types of treatment can include:
- Medical treatment
- Mechanical aids
- Behavioral treatments
- Education and communication
How to Cope With a Sexual Disorder Diagnosis
As sexual performance is so often tied to both relationship success and ideas of masculinity and femininity, a sexual disorder diagnosis can be difficult to accept. There's nothing to be ashamed of, so it can be helpful to maintain open lines of communication between sexual partners. Keeping a diagnosis a secret can make individuals approach sex with trepidation, which can make symptoms worse.
It can help to focus on what’s possible and positive. Rather than thinking about physical limitations, concentrate on giving a partner pleasure. Don’t use frequency of sex as a measure of the health of a relationship. Also look at other ways to create intimacy.
How to Help Someone With Sexual Disorders
The partner of a person diagnosed with a sexual disorder should try to be nonjudgmental when discussing the condition. Focus on accepting the whole person, rather than just a person’s sexual abilities. During physical encounters, provide intimacy to the whole body. This can include massage, kissing, or simply holding each other.
If the person isn’t already getting help, encourage them to speak to a professional. A primary care physician is a good place to start. Urologists and psychiatrists are other specialists who often help with sexual disorders. If it's difficult to discuss the issue, couples therapy can facilitate healthy dialogue and make it easier to navigate a sexual disorder diagnosis as a team.
Maintaining Relationships and Intimacy
Emotional Connection: Strategies for Building Intimacy Despite Sexual Disorders
Sexual disorders can challenge the dynamics of a relationship, emphasizing the need for alternative forms of intimacy and connection. Building an emotional connection is paramount. Couples can explore and establish intimacy through non-sexual activities that foster closeness and understanding. Here are some strategies:
- Communication: Open, honest dialogue about feelings, desires, and concerns can strengthen the bond between partners. Regular check-ins on emotional well-being and discussions about physical intimacy preferences can help both partners feel heard and valued.
- Quality Time: Spending time together engaging in mutually enjoyable activities outside the bedroom can reinforce the companionship aspect of the relationship. Whether it's shared hobbies, date nights, or simply spending quiet moments together, these activities can enhance emotional intimacy.
- Physical Affection: Non-sexual touch, such as cuddling, holding hands, and hugging, can promote closeness and a sense of security. Physical affection is a powerful way to communicate love and affection, helping maintain a bond despite sexual challenges.
- Appreciation and Affirmation: Regularly expressing appreciation for each other and affirming the other's value in the relationship can boost self-esteem and reinforce the emotional connection.
Partner's Guide: Advice for Supporting Loved Ones with Sexual Disorders
Supporting a partner with a sexual disorder requires patience, understanding, and empathy. Here's how partners can provide support:
- Educate Yourself: Understanding the nature of your partner's sexual disorder can help you empathize with their experiences and challenges. This knowledge can also guide appropriate support and expectations.
- Open Communication: Encourage open discussions about your partner's needs, preferences, and comfort levels. This can help in navigating the disorder together and finding satisfying ways to maintain intimacy.
- Seek Professional Help: Encourage seeking help from healthcare professionals or therapists who specialize in sexual health. Offer to attend appointments together if your partner is comfortable with it.
- Focus on Non-Sexual Intimacy: Explore and initiate non-sexual ways to maintain intimacy, such as through emotional support, shared activities, and physical affection.
- Be Patient and Reassuring: Recognize that dealing with a sexual disorder is a process, and progress may be slow. Offer reassurance and support, emphasizing your commitment and love beyond the sexual aspect of the relationship.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are sexual disorders?
Sexual disorders are conditions affecting sexual desire, arousal, orgasm, and/or causing pain during sex. They can significantly impact an individual's quality of life and relationships.
2. What causes sexual disorders?
The causes are varied and can include psychological factors (such as stress and anxiety), physical conditions (like diabetes or heart disease), hormonal imbalances, and the side effects of certain medications.
3. Can sexual disorders be treated?
Yes, treatment options vary depending on the disorder but can include medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, or a combination of these. Consulting with a healthcare provider can help determine the best approach.
4. How do I know if I have a sexual disorder?
If you're experiencing persistent problems with sexual desire, arousal, orgasm, or pain during sex that cause distress, it may be indicative of a sexual disorder. It's important to consult a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis.
5. Will talking to my partner about my sexual disorder affect our relationship?
Open communication about sexual health is vital for a healthy relationship. Discussing your condition honestly can help your partner understand your experiences and how you can work together to maintain intimacy and satisfaction.
6. Where can I find support for sexual disorders?
Support can be found through healthcare providers, therapists specializing in sexual health, support groups, and educational resources. Online forums and communities may also offer advice and comfort from others with similar experiences.
7. Can lifestyle changes improve sexual disorders?
In many cases, yes. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, quitting smoking, and reducing alcohol consumption can improve overall health and well-being, which may positively impact sexual function.
8. Is it possible to have a fulfilling sex life with a sexual disorder?
Absolutely. With proper treatment, support, and communication, many individuals with sexual disorders can enjoy satisfying sexual relationships. Exploring different forms of intimacy and understanding each other's needs are key.
9. How do I approach a healthcare provider about my sexual concerns?
It's important to be open and honest with your healthcare provider about your symptoms and concerns. They are trained to handle such topics with sensitivity and confidentiality, offering you the appropriate guidance and treatment options.