Is Sexual Distress Indicative of Sexual Dysfunction?

According to the International Consensus Development Conference, female sexual dysfunction (FSD) must be characterized by anxiety about sexual performance together with feelings of distress and other symptoms of dysfunction. However, according to a new study led by A. Burri of the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College in London, many women who experience sexual distress are not sexually dysfunctional. To understand why distress is present in some women with FSD and some women without, Burri examined data collected from 930 British female twins. The twin model was chosen because it allowed the research team to examine similar environmental and genetic risks. Based on questionnaires filled out by the twins, Burri also assessed the participants for history of abuse, relationship status, obssessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety, emotional functioning, personality, and sexual distress.

The results revealed that only one-third of the participants had any sexual difficulties. Specifically, 319 women in the study reported sexual dysfunction, yet only one-third of those women actually experienced sexual distress. However, of the other sexually functioning women, nearly 20% of them reported sexual distress. Burri also found that environment and genetics played a significant role in the development of sexual dysfunction and distress.

Burri believes that these findings have important clinical implications. Clinicians treating women with FSD might consider teasing apart the sexual distress from the dysfunction. Additionally, women with sexual distress, although they may not meet the criteria necessary for a traditional diagnosis of FSD, may still benefit greatly from treatments aimed at sexual impairment. Physiological conditions such as menopause, menses, or low desire should be addressed as possible reasons for sexual distress as well. Burri emphasizes the importance of isolating the conditions, whether genetic, environmental, or psychological, to effectively treat issues relating to sexual functioning. Assessing anxiety is another critical aspect of recovery. Specifically, Burri believes that worry and anxiety contribute significantly to a woman’s sexual state, both physically and emotionally. Burri added, “If confirmed in further research, mental health professionals may want to consider including generic therapeutic interventions for anxiety as part of a package of treatment for women presenting with FSD symptoms so as to reduce maladaptive thinking patterns related to sexual responses.”

Burri, A., Rahman, Q., Spector, T. Genetic and Environmental Risk Factors for Sexual Distress and Its Association With Female Sexual Dysfunction. Psychological Medicine 41.11 (2011): 2435-445. Print.

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  • Chris P

    Chris P

    February 1st, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    How is distress not also characterized as dysfunction?
    If they are in distress over something as easy and natural as sex then there is something not quite rigth with that scenario.

  • W.Philips


    February 1st, 2012 at 11:48 PM

    @Chris P:sometimes mental and psychological states play a bigger role in stress than sexual dysfunction itself,thereby resulting in sexually functioning individuals having stews regarding the same.its not all hunky dory if you’re functional sexually,there could be a variety of things that can still make things difficult.

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