October 18, 2002

Professor conducts female sexual dysfunction study

Pfizer Inc., the maker of Viagra, commissioned University professor Edward Laumann to search for evidence to prove that female sexual dysfunction is physiological. To its dismay, the study showed that depression and serious medical conditions have more negative effects on women's sexual functions than aging. This means that Pfizer can no longer develop another wonder-drug like Viagra, which earned the company $1.5 billion last year.

Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor and Interim Chair in the sociology department and the College, surveyed 27,500 men and women aged 40 to 80 in 30 countries, and revealed his findings at a conference of the International Society for Study of Women's Sexual Health in Vancouver on October 10.

"The cost per survey (each country) was between $300,000 and $400,000 and there were 30 countries. So you can only imagine how much money was spent on the first serious study on female sexual dysfunction," Laumann said.

The survey was designed to meet the criteria of different cultural and societal differences, according to Laumann. Among the problems Laumann encountered were technical issues such as language differences, as well as the fact that many women were reluctant to speak about their sex lives.

In areas where phone interviews were not available, personal interviews had to be arranged, something which, according to Laumann, made speaking about sexual dysfunction more awkward for women. "People are more likely to talk about sexual dysfunction over the phone, but when it is in-person then people are reluctant to speak about it to strangers," he said.

Additionally, the older age group was extremely selective because many elderly women are usually widowed, which means that they are ruled out for the study since they have no sexual partners, and those who have sexual partners generally seem to abstain from sex due to their age, according to Laumann.

In the study, 31 percent of all women lacked interest in sex, 22 percent were unable to have orgasms, 21 percent reported sex was not pleasurable, 20 percent had lubrication troubles and 14 percent experienced pain during sex.

Women ages 50 to 58 were 8 percent more likely to have problems lubricating than women 40-49; however, only 4 percent were more likely to lack interest in sex or be unable to have orgasms. In the older age group, 3 percent were more likely to find sex unpleasurable and 1 percent were more likely to experience pain during sex.

Laumann's research credited social and psychological causes with being the main reason for sexual dysfunction among women. Depression played a bigger role than aging. Depressed women were 10 percent more likely to lack interest in sex and nine percent more likely to have orgasms. Serious medical conditions accounted for seven percent of women lacking interest in sex.

"Depression has a high impact on dysfunction. This problem is involved in social psychology. Adverse life events have elevated rates of sexual dysfunction," Laumann said. "It is then a big mistake to medicalize female sexual dysfunction."

In contrast, Laumann's study found that men have a much higher chance of becoming impotent as age increases. In the United States, the impotence rate climbed from 11 percent in men 40-49 to 18 percent in men 50-59. For every year men age, the chance of erectile dysfunction increases one percent.

"Viagra is just a temporary fix which covers the physical aspect of erectile dysfunction, but anxiety about performance is a big reason for sexual dysfunction," Laumann explained.