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Distress About Sex: A National Survey of Women

The Kinsey Institute's survey on the sexual well-being of women is yielding at least two papers on the subject, co-written by Institute Director John Bancroft, sociology graduate student Jeni Loftus, and IU Professor of Sociology Scott Long. The first article, entitled "Distress About Sex: A National Survey of Women," will appear in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. It offers clinically relevant analyses regarding women's worries about their sexual lives. The second paper will examine determinants of sexual attraction and sexual well-being, and will have a more sociological focus.

What are the implications for the study and treatment of women's sexual difficulties?

The survey was directed at women in heterosexual relationships, and asked questions about their sexual lives in the previous month. Information was gathered through a computerized telephone survey with questions that did not pose preconceived notions about what is or is not problematic in a woman's sexual life, and did not impose categories that were applicable to men.

"An important lesson we have learned in this study," says John Bancroft, "is that the physical issues medical professionals focus on when dealing with 'sexual dysfunction' in women seem, in fact, to be less imporant than emotional or more subjective aspects of their sexual lives." From a representative national sample of 987 women, 24 percent reported "marked distress" about either their relationship or their own sexuality, and the most important predictors of distress were the woman's state of emotional well-being (whether she was depressed or stressed, for example), and the quality of emotional interaction with her partner during sexual activity. Physical aspects such as arousal or orgasm were actually poor predictors.

What are the implications for the study and treatment of women's sexual difficulties? A recent JAMA study (based on the national survey "Sex in America") reported that 43 percent of American women experience sexual dysfunction. Bancroft asserts that it is essential to re-think concepts of female sexual "dysfunction" and look more closely at a woman's own description of her problem and her overall quality of life -including emotional and mental health, economic pressures, and relationship difficulties. "We aren't necessarily saying anything that hasn't been said before. We're saying it in a new way."

Kinsey Today, November 2002


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