Female Sexual Dysfunction Prevalence

Few studies have examined the prevalence of female sexual arousal disorder. However, prevalence data are available on female orgasmic disorder, which is more readily defined and assessed. For example, I. P. Spector and Carey (1990) concluded that the prevalence of female orgasmic disorder was 5%-10%, but that insufficient evidence was available to provide an estimate of the prevalence of female arousal disorder. In contrast to this finding, Laumann et al. (1994), in a national probability sample conducted in the United States that assessed the experience of sexual problems in the last 12 months, found that 24.1% of women were unable to experience an orgasm and 18.8% had trouble lubricating. Interestingly, women who were married were less likely to experience difficulties in achieving orgasm (21.9%) than those who were never married (26.6%) or divorced (28.6%). Women with higher levels of education also experienced fewer problems in achieving orgasm (13.3% of those with a master’s or advanced degree) than those with less formal education (30.0% of those not completing high school). Similarly, women with high incomes experienced fewer problems in their orgasmic functioning (20.8%) than those with low incomes (27.4%).

The reverse of these findings was obtained for women who experienced problems with sexual arousal. Married women experienced more problems (21.6%) than never-married (15.0%) or divorced (16.6%) women. Women with a master’s or advanced degree experienced more problems (23.7%) than those with less than a high school education (14.0%). Finally, problems in sexual arousal were experienced by 23.7% of high-income women versus 13.9% of low-income women.

It is difficult to know how to interpret these findings. Married women and women with higher levels of education and income were found to experience fewer problems with orgasmic functioning but greater arousal problems than divorced or never-married women and women with lower educational levels and incomes. A major difficulty in interpreting these findings relates to the subjective nature of the terms used to describe orgasmic and lubrication problems. Similar experiences may be reported as a problem by one woman and not by another. Perception of what constitutes a problem is not objectively defined; rather, it depends on the woman’s perceptions of normality, which in turn are shaped by her sexual knowledge, information provided by her partner, and other sociocultural influences.

These factors may vary from one group of women to another. Perhaps the findings are attributable to higher expectations of arousal response but lower expectations for orgasmic response among married, educated women with higher incomes. More research is necessary to determine the nature of these demographic factors and their influence on orgasmic and arousal responses. It is also important to evaluate the specific experiences of arousal and orgasm and the interpretation placed on these experiences by different groups of women. It will then be possible to clarify whether the findings reported by Laumann et al. (1994) reflect real differences in the sexual functioning of different groups of women or merely different interpretations of the meaning of the terms “unable to experience an orgasm” and “having trouble in becoming aroused.”

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Revision date: June 11, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD