Anyone who's heard of viagra knows that male sexual dysfunction is a widespread and overwhelmingly-researched issue. On the other hand, we know far less about female sexual dysfunction, even though its incidence is 'alarmingly high', especially among young people.
New research now suggests roughly half of all Australian women aged 18 to 39 experience some form of personal distress related to their sex lives, whether that be guilt, embarrassment, stress, or unhappiness.
Around 20 percent of all participants reported at least one sexual dysfunction, including issues with arousal, desire, orgasm, sexual self-image, and responsiveness in the bedroom.
"It is of great concern that one in five young women have an apparent sexual dysfunction and half of all women within this age group experience sexually-related personal distress," says clinical epidemiologist and senior author of the paper, Susan Davis from Monash University.
"This is a wake-up call to the community and signals the importance of health professionals being open and adequately prepared to discuss young women's sexual health concerns."
Female sexual dysfunction - or FSD as it's known for short - is a complex, multifaceted disorder that is not well-defined or understood. Today, it is usually diagnosed when someone experiences pain during sex, has a persistent decrease in arousal or desire, or has trouble achieving an orgasm.
FSD can stem from a variety of issues including anatomical, psychological, physiological and social-interpersonal factors. And yet today, it is primarily treated with psychological therapy - that is, when it's treated at all.
Currently only a small percentage of those with FSD actually seek medical attention for the disorder. And while things are gradually getting better - for instance, there's a female viagra drug in the process right now - there's still plenty of room for improvement.
In the United States, similar research suggests over 40 percent of women at the turn of this century had some form of sexual difficulty, while just over 30 percent of men experienced something similar.
Overall, however, the data on FSD, especially in young people, is extremely limited and far from up-to-date. The 1999 study cited above is the most recent study on the prevalence of FSD in the US general population we could find.
What's more, the little research we do have is usually based on heterosexual women who actively engage in penetrative sex, and many of these surveys fail to consider the full spectrum of sexual dysfunctions.
"The prevalence of low sexual self-image has not been reported in a large community-based sample, nor is the prevalence of sexually associated distress without a specific dysfunction known," the authors of the new study write.
"Consequently, there is a need for research to fill gaps in the understanding of sexual functioning of young women."
To do this, the team surveyed a group of 6,986 young females living in Australia, scoring them on their sexual wellbeing in terms of desire, arousal, responsiveness, orgasm and self-image, as well as their levels of sexual distress.
A third of the group was single and nearly 70 percent had been sexually active in the month leading up to the study.
While nearly half the group reported distress in their sex lives, a concerning 30 percent experienced that distress without dysfunction at all.
Most people with an FSD had only one dysfunction, and this was usually related to sexual self-image and self-consciousness during intimacy, which was often tied to being overweight, breastfeeding, or living together with a partner.
Of those who had two sexual dysfunctions, the most common combo usually involved issues with arousal and orgasms, as well as arousal and sexual self-image.
What's more, psychotropic medication like antidepressants had the most pervasive impact on sexual function, although, the authors warn, this may have more to do with the mental health issue itself than the pharmaceuticals.
When a whopping three dysfunctions were present, the trio usually included issues of desire, arousal, and self-image. And while issues with responsiveness were the most uncommon disorder, over half the people who did suffer from this issue also had three or four other dysfunctions involved.
Compared to older people, the authors say, younger people are less likely to experience low arousal or orgasmic dysfunction, but it seems as though this newer generation might be more distressed by such issues.
Nevertheless, research on this topic is still in its infancy, and there's little context in which to place these findings.
For instance, the team discovered for some unknown reason that Asian women were significantly less likely to have an FSD compared to white women. And, for the first time, they also turned up a link between breastfeeding and sexual self-image dysfunction.
Today, evidence shows men are nearly two times more likely to orgasm during sex than women, and meanwhile, the safety and efficacy of new female viagra drugs have remained controversial.
Clearly, more solutions are needed other than what we are currently offering.
"That approximately one-half of young women experience sexually related personal distress and one in five women have an FSD, with sexual self-image dysfunction predominating, is concerning," the authors conclude.
"The high prevalence of sexually related personal distress signals the importance of health professionals, particularly those working in the field of gynecology and fertility, being adequately prepared to routinely ask young women about any sexual health concerns and to have an appropriate management or referral pathway in place."
Sexual wellbeing, they say, is a fundamental right for all people.
The study was published in Fertility and Sterility.