Let’s talk about sex! That was my first thought when I was approached by the Museum of Motherhood to write an article related to women’s health my immediate thoughts were of the big three—breast cancer, heart disease, and cervical cancer. Then my mind wandered over to the other big ones—fertility issues, thyroid disease and auto-immune diseases. I started doing research on what I had picked to write about, but my mind was dissatisfied with my choice. It kept wandering over to the problem that many women face, both before and especially, after, motherhood. The one we don’t talk about, the one without its own black lace ribbon magnet showing support. Sexual dysfunction.
Since the onset of the women’s movement, sexual freedom—prompted in large part by the ability for women to control their own reproductivity with hormonal birth control—has become a banner which many women wave proudly. In theory women were no longer laying awake after an unsatisfying encounter with their now-snoring husbands. In essence, the dissatisfying sexual relationships of my grandmother’s era were to be replaced by mutually enjoyable experiences between consenting partners. Right?
Wrong. A survey conducted by the American Medical Association in 1999 indicates that sexual dysfunction affects approximately 43% of women in the United States. In general, data related to sexual dysfunction, especially for women, are limited. The medical and pharmacological communities have made strides in treating this problem—for men—who hasn’t seen the commercial of a loving couple in side by side bathtubs gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes? And for the heterosexual women whose dissatisfaction stemmed from a problem with their partner, this is great news.
Well, what about the rest of us? Specifically, what happens to a woman with normal function after they have children? I know very few women who jump back into their normal relationships after they have given birth. Is it all related to body image? After all, the end result of carrying a child for 10 months is not kind for many of us (no accounting for awesome genetics, personal trainers and babysitters; though I am super jealous of all of you, too.) Is it all mental—the transition to a sexual being after fulfilling that mother role all day? Is it physiological—the result of decreased blood flow or other vaginal changes as the result of getting aforementioned baby out of one’s body? Or—more likely—is it a combination of the three?
Becoming a mother adds new layers on to a woman’s psyche—layers that we can neither predict nor control. That none of us believes that will happen to me until we are a mother for the first time is part of the transition from a sole entity to a mom. I remember being really tearful when my OBGYN gave me the go ahead to “resume relations” (her words) after the birth of my first child. Secretly I was hoping for another reprieve—a medical excuse whose validity could not be disputed by my husband.
We were both to find out that being a mother reduced my desire a hundred-fold from our pre-parent days. After spending both day and night nursing a baby I was less than excited about the prospect of someone else getting to my body. So I did what lots of women do—I faked it.
Thankfully my libido righted itself as the months progressed; I regained ownership of my breasts, my baby started sleeping through the night, and the 75+ pounds I had gained began to finally come off. Ironically with the reintroduction of my libido I got pregnant again, which restarted the entire cycle.
However, my approach was different the second time. Instead of faking it—both initial desire and the outcome—I was honest with my husband about what I felt (and didn’t feel). All of the advice in parenting magazines—“renew your intimacy”, “go on dates together”, “just hold each other”—didn’t work for us. What worked was time, but during the interim we had to deal with the fall-out of my lack of desire.
I’m very lucky that I married a mostly-understanding man. I’m lucky that my issues largely resolved themselves after a year or so. I’m lucky that my problems weren’t a symptom of a bigger medical problem. But what about the women who aren’t so lucky? What about the women for whom these issues cause long-lasting rifts in their partnerships? Or worse, what about those rifts that become chasms so wide that the relationship ends, forever altering the family unit?
Why don’t we talk about this more, amongst ourselves or with our doctors?
Personally, I think that 43% of women reporting some sort of sexual dysfunction to be a far lower figure than is truly accurate. My feeling is that there are many other women who don’t even view it as a problem, perhaps never accounting for how important sex is in maintaining a healthy partnership. I worry that there are too many women who don’t realize that sexual dysfunction can be a true symptom for other diseases—like diabetes, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, vaginismus, endometriosis, uterine fibroids and others.
If my concerns are correct that means embarrassment is leading too many women to suffer silently. Will undiagnosed sexual dysfunction lead to death the way heart disease and cervical cancer might? Probably not. But life isn’t just defined by longevity; it is also defined by quality. Women should demand the same quality of life for themselves as they demand for their children and their partners.
So don’t be embarrassed…talk about it. I’ll bet you find out that 1) you aren’t alone and 2) you don’t have to suffer silently.