Sexual intimacy and pleasure play a huge role in the lives of many women and their partners, whatever their sexual orientation. When sexual function changes as a result of the ageing process, injury, disease, disability, surgical or medical interventions, some seek help from a healthcare professional (HCP) such as their GP.
Through my work I get to talk to women about a wide range of sexual health issues that impact upon their sexual function and pleasure, many of whom say they struggle to get the right advice and are often being dismissed by healthcare professionals, who tell them it is simply part of being a woman.
New findings from the All Party Parlimentary Group on Womens Health (WHAPPG) found that nearly half of women need to visit their GP 10 times before being diagnosed with common gynaecological complaints, with doctors often telling patients their symptoms are ‘all in their head!
Many women are left with chronic painful symptoms after being told there is nothing wrong by their GPs
So many women are told that, as a result of childbirth, surgical and medical interventions and the menopause, your sexual health issues are normal when they are destroying the quality of many lives of women and their families.
I have heard the phrase, “it’s normal” being said on so many occasions, yet what is normal about not being able to enjoy pleasurable sex because it is so painful, it impacts upon your physical and mental wellbeing and your relationships.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard women say they were lucky their HCP had attended a conference/talk or read a research paper so they could help them. Just how many women get the right advice or treatment because they were “lucky” rather than the HCP being informed about their issue? They cannot be expected to know everything, but a simple online search or asking a colleague is more proactive than saying, “I cannot help you”.
A friend was “lucky” to finally get diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysmorphic Disorder (PMDD) after 35 years of living in hell with mental health and physical issues that destroyed her relationships, employment prospects so living on benefits and the chance to have children. Her GP had been to a talk by leading expert Peter Greenhouse and referred her to him. Even after being diagnosed, getting the right treatment took 9 months and not without a fight with her local NHS trust and the wrong operation being performed and then not properly!
So many gynaecological symptoms and conditions impact upon sexual function and sexual pleasure, yet HCPs fail to help many women enjoy a good sex life due to dismissing their sexual health problems.
A 2012 paper, “Why don’t healthcare professionals talk about sex?”, found that only 6% of practitioners initiated discussions about sexual health problems on a regular basis.
Sex is often medicalised by some HCPs as they cannot think beyond their training, or see beyond their own sexual preferences and prejudices. Training seldom includes talking about sexual issues in depth or offering practical solution
Talking and listening to womens groups, including Womb Cancer Support, I hear how relationships often break down when sexual intimacy is affected with some even ending in divorce because there is little or no sex advice on offer from GPs and other HCPs.
Many GPs, including mine, tell women to have a glass of wine before having sex after childbirth, yet telling them to use a pH balanced sexual lubricant is much better advice. Many people do not realise that breastfeeding impacts on vaginal secretions, and sexual intercourse may feel uncomfortable or painful.
Often the sexual advice offered is outdated and can be detrimental to sexual health, including prescribing sexual lubricants that contain glycerin, known to cause thrush.
As someone who write about sexual health and pleasure I have written over 200 articles offering practical advice for women. These include sex after gynaecological cancers and breast cancer, sex should never be painful, sex and the menopause and normalising sex whoever you are and whatever your age.
As a mother of three children, and having had gynaecological issues that have affected my sex life, I have felt patronised at times by both male and female doctors and midwives and have been given very poor advice.
As women, we are encouraged to be more proactive about our health, seeking medical advice if we have a problem, yet I speak to women every week who have been dismissed by their GP for their gynaecological problems, for wanting to enjoy a good sex life after medical interventions or just because they are in their 70’s.
So many women give up on their sex lives and continue to endure painful sex, heavy bleeding, painful periods and urinary incontinence because of the way they have been treated.
I work with many amazing proactive HCPs, such as womens’ health physiotherapists, gynaecological cancer nurses and doctors who work hard to help women enjoy good sexual function and pleasure, including a consultant gynaecologist, with whom we created our health brochure, who says he treats women so they can enjoy sex, which is such a refreshing attitude but not a commonly held view.
I hope, through the work I do and love, we can change the attitude of some HCPs to support women and help them overcome the sexual health problems they face just for being female. Many are doing an amazing job but advice is so varied across the UK, such as giving the right menopause advice which can transform a woman’s life, including her sex life.
We need to continue to raise awareness to get all HCPs to listen to women discuss the many gynaecological problems that cause sexual health issues impacting upon their daily lives, relationships and general wellbeing. I will continue to offer practical sexual advice, which will hopefully lead to more women enjoying a happy and healthy sex life.
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