A new study suggests sex researchers have been overestimating the prevalence of sexual problems in women for years - perhaps because they have been looking at things from a man's point of view.
The Kinsey Institute study found that a quarter of American women are significantly distressed about their sex lives - far less than the 43 percent a 1999 study labeled as suffering from sexual dysfunction.
Research on the topic has tended to focus on physical aspects of sex, such as orgasms and arousal. But the new study found that the best predictors of a woman's sexual satisfaction are her general emotional well-being and her emotional relationship with her partner.
"This study emphasizes the importance of non-physiological components of sexuality as well as the general importance of mental health," said John Bancroft, director of the Indiana University-based Kinsey Institute. "It's not conclusive, but it counterbalances what I believe to be the rather extraordinary conclusion that 43 percent of women suffer from sexual dysfunction."
The Kinsey study, which will appear in the June issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, was a random telephone survey of 853 women, ages 20 to 65, who had been in a heterosexual relationship for at least six months.
Among other things, it found that 24.4 percent of those women reported "marked distress" about their sexual relationship, their own sexuality or both, within the previous month.
That contrasts with a University of Chicago study that questioned more than 1,700 women, ages 18 to 59. That 1999 study found 43 percent of women reported having one or more persistent symptoms of sexual dysfunction, such as a lack of desire for sex, during the previous year.
University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann, who led the 1999 research, said the new work cannot be directly compared to his study. While that study involved face-to-face, 90-minute interviews with women, he said the Kinsey study was an impersonal, random telephone survey.
He also said the Kinsey study excluded women who had not had a regular sexual partner within the preceding six months, potentially eliminating women with serious sexual problems.
Other researchers said science has for decades disregarded the fact that some women's sexual lives are encumbered not by physical problems, but relationship or emotional turmoil unrelated to sexual performance.
Beverly Whipple, president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, based in Allentown, Pa., said researchers who have studied women in the past based their findings on what is important to men: desire, arousal and orgasm.
"I don't think we should try to lock women into a male model of what's important. Women are not men; there's so much we don't know," she said.
Patricia J. Aletky, a clinical psychologist with the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology, noted that decades ago women were labeled "frigid" if they had little or no sexual desire. It was a diagnosis that often disregarded factors such as domestic violence or overwork from caring for children, she said.
"There has been a long history of over-pathologizing women, and in that regard I think it's very encouraging that we're starting to look at the bigger picture," Aletky said.
By Rick Callahan