A Guide to Sexual Dysfunction

Medically Reviewed By Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
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Sexual dysfunction is when you have difficulty at any stage of sexual activity that prevents you, your partner, or both of you from enjoying or performing the act.

Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. This article uses the terms “female” and/or “male” to refer to sex that was assigned at birth. 

Learn more about the difference between sex and gender here.

This article will define sexual dysfunction. It will also discuss the different types of sexual dysfunction, the causes, and treatments.

What is sexual dysfunction?

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Sexual dysfunction is when you have difficulty having or enjoying sexual activity, and it concerns you. It is the result of an issue within your response cycle. The sexual response cycle has various stages:

  • excitement, which includes arousal and desire
  • plateau
  • orgasm
  • resolution

Sexual dysfunction affects people of both sexes assigned at birth. It is also fairly common, affecting over 40% of females and 30% of males. While it can occur at any age, sexual dysfunction is more common among those ages 40–65 years.

Many people avoid talking with their doctor about sexual dysfunction out of embarrassment and discomfort. However, treatments are available to help the issue. If you are experiencing sexual dysfunction, contact your doctor and be open with them so they can suggest the most effective treatment for you.

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What are the types of sexual dysfunction?

There are four main categories of sexual dysfunction. These categories include:

  • Desire disorders: These involve your desire and interest in sex. They are also known as low libido or libido disorders.
  • Arousal disorders: This type of disorder means it is difficult or impossible for you to become sexually aroused.
  • Orgasm disorders: These disorders involve delayed or absent orgasms.
  • Pain disorders: These disorders involve pain during intercourse.

There are various types of sexual dysfunction disorders within each category. Some are more common than others.

Hypoactive sexual desire disorder

Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) is one of the most common sexual dysfunction disorders. HSDD is sometimes a lifelong condition. It can affect anyone.

If you are experiencing HSDD, it means you have little to no sex drive and do not have much interest in sex in general. Someone with HSDD typically shows the following signs:

  • having little to no thoughts or sexual fantasies
  • having no response to sexual suggestions or signals
  • experiencing a loss of desire for sex in the middle of it
  • avoiding sex completely

Erectile dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is when you have difficulty getting or maintaining an erection. It is the most common sexual dysfunction males visit their doctor for, affecting more than 30 million people.

It is not uncommon for most males to experience ED from time to time, especially after age 40. However, it becomes an issue when it is progressive or begins to happen more routinely.

ED can be a warning sign of cardiovascular disease. It can also cause:

  • low self-esteem
  • depression
  • distress within the individual and their partner

ED is treatable. Contact your doctor if you are experiencing ED and it is affecting your life or relationships.

Orgasm disorder

It is not uncommon for people, especially females, to have difficulty orgasming from time to time. However, it is more of an issue when:

  • you do not have orgasms
  • it takes a long time for you to orgasm
  • you do not orgasm as often as you would like
  • your orgasms are not as strong as you would like or expect
  • you feel sad, anxious, or concerned

Genital arousal disorder

Genital arousal disorder is when you have difficulty becoming or staying aroused. In females, this often means that the desire to become aroused may be there. However, your body, mind, or both do not react as expected.

These issues with arousal may come from emotional issues, behavioral issues, or an underlying medical condition. Speak with your doctor to help discover the underlying issues and get treatment.

Vulvodynia

Vulvodynia is persistent pain in the vulva that is not due to an infection or other medical condition. The pain typically lasts for at least 3 months. However, it can become a long-term issue as well.

Pain in the vulva area is the main symptom of vulvodynia. This pain may be:

  • burning, stinging, or throbbing
  • sore
  • triggered by touch
  • worse when sitting
  • constantly present in the background
  • widespread

If you are experiencing unexplained pain, contact your doctor.

Premature ejaculation

Premature ejaculation is when you ejaculate sooner than you would like or expect during sexual activity. In the United States, 1 in 3 males between the ages 18–59 experience premature ejaculation.

Premature ejaculation is not always a cause for worry. However, if it is happening routinely, is causing issues in your relationship, or concerns you, contact your doctor.

What are the symptoms of sexual dysfunction?

The symptoms of sexual dysfunction vary depending on the person and the cause of the dysfunction. Some common symptoms do occur, however.

Signs in both males and females

Both males and females may experience:

  • difficulty becoming aroused
  • a lack of sexual desire
  • pain during intercourse

Signs in males

Males with sexual dysfunction may experience:

Signs in females

Females may experience:

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What causes sexual dysfunction?

Many possible issues can contribute to the development of sexual dysfunction. These include:

How do you treat sexual dysfunction?

Treatment for sexual dysfunction mostly depends on its type and cause. Speak with your doctor to diagnose the underlying cause and find the most effective treatment for you.

Treatments for sexual dysfunction include:

  • Medication: Medications to treat underlying medical conditions can help sexual dysfunction as well. Certain medications, such as viagra or hormone replacements, may also help. The effectiveness of certain medications depends on the cause.
  • Mechanical aids: Vacuum devices, penis pumps, and penile implants are all possible options if you have trouble achieving or maintaining an erection. For females who experience muscle tightening or spasms, special dilators may help.
  • Therapy: Both psychotherapy and sex therapy can help treat the psychological causes of sexual dysfunction.

Self-help tips for sexual dysfunction

Ways you can help yourself with sexual dysfunction include:

  • being open with your partner
  • masturbating
  • limiting your use of alcohol or drugs
  • stopping smoking
  • using lubricants
  • exploring using sex toys
  • limiting your stress
  • exercising regularly
  • practicing kegel exercises

Summary

Sexual dysfunction is not uncommon. Both males and females experience it. Many find it embarrassing and uncomfortable to talk about.

However, many issues that cause sexual dysfunction are treatable. Therefore, speaking with your doctor can help. Being open with your partner about the issues can help your sexual dysfunction and your relationship.

Sexual dysfunction may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Contact your doctor if you are experiencing signs of sexual dysfunction and it is causing you concern or affecting your relationships.

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Medical Reviewer: Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 28
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.