Sexual Dysfunctions and Disorders

By: Jackson McCarthy

Sexual Dysfunctions and Disorders

Sexual dysfunction -- having a problem with sexual desire or response -- covers a wide variety of problems. In men, they include erectile dysfunction (ED) and premature or delayed ejaculation in men, and in women, spasms of the vagina and pain with sexual intercourse. For both sexes, they can include other problems with sexual desire (libido) and response.


Sexual dysfunction is broadly defined as the inability to fully enjoy sexual intercourse. Specifically, sexual dysfunctions are disorders that interfere with a full sexual response cycle. These disorders make it difficult for a person to enjoy or to have sexual intercourse. While sexual dysfunction rarely threatens physical health, it can take a heavy psychological toll, bringing on depression, anxiety, and debilitating feelings of inadequacy. Sexual dysfunction takes different forms in men and women. A dysfunction can be life-long and always present, acquired, situational, or generalized, occurring despite the situation.

Causes and Symptoms

Many factors, of both physical and psychological natures, can affect sexual response and performance. Injuries, ailments, and drugs are among the physical influences; in addition, there is increasing evidence that chemicals and other environmental pollutants depress sexual function. As for psychological factors, sexual dysfunction may have roots in traumatic events such as rape or incest, guilt feelings, a poor self-image, depression, chronic fatigue, certain religious beliefs, or marital problems. Dysfunction is often associated with anxiety. If a man operates under the misconception that all sexual activity must lead to intercourse and to orgasm by his partner, and if the expectation is not met, he may consider the act a failure.

Dysfunctions and Disorders in Men

With premature ejaculation, physical causes are rare, although the problem is sometimes linked to a neurological disorder, prostate infection, or urethritis. Possible psychological causes include anxiety (mainly performance anxiety), guilt feelings about sex, and ambivalence toward women. However, research has failed to show a direct link between premature ejaculation and anxiety. Rather, premature ejaculation seems more related to sexual inexperience in learning to modulate arousal. When men experience painful intercourse, the cause is usually physical; an infection of the prostate, urethra, or testes, or an allergic reaction to spermicide or condoms. Painful erections may be caused by Peyronie's disease, fibrous plaques on the upper side of the penis that often produce a bend during erection. Cancer of the penis or testes and arthritis of the lower back can also cause pain.

Dysfunctions and Disorders in Women

Dysfunctions of arousal and orgasm in women also may be physical or psychological in origin. Among the most common causes are day-to-day discord with one's partner and inadequate stimulation by the partner. Finally, sexual desire can wane as one ages, although this varies greatly from person to person.

Pain during intercourse can occur for any number of reasons, and location is sometimes a clue to the cause. Pain in the vaginal area may be due to infection, such as urethritis; also, vaginal tissues may become thinner and more sensitive during breast-feeding and after menopause. Deeper pain may have a pelvic source, such as endometriosis, pelvic adhesions, or uterine abnormalities. Pain can also have a psychological cause, such as fear of injury, guilt feelings about sex, fear of pregnancy or injury to the fetus during pregnancy, or recollection of a previous painful experience.


Treatments break down into two main kinds: behavioral psychotherapy and physical. Sex therapy, which is ideally provided by a member of the American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), universally emphasizes correcting sexual misinformation, the importance of improved partner communication and honesty, anxiety reduction, sensual experience and pleasure, and interpersonal tolerance and acceptance. Sex therapists believe that many sexual disorders are rooted in learned patterns and values. These are termed psychogenic. An underlying assumption of sex therapy is that relatively short-term outpatient therapy can alleviate learned patterns, restrict symptoms, and allow a greater satisfaction with sexual experiences.

In many cases, doctors may prescribe medications to treat an underlying physical cause or sexual dysfunction. Possible medical treatments include:

  • clomipramine and fluoxetine for premature ejaculation
  • papaverine and prostaglandin for erectile difficulties
  • hormone replacement therapy for female dysfunctions
  • Viagra, a pill approved in 1998 as a treatment for impotence