Women's Sexual Health

Sex is an important part of life. For some women, thinking about sex starts early, often before puberty, and lasts until their final days on earth.

On one level, sex is just another hormone-driven bodily function designed to perpetuate the species. On another, it's a pleasurable activity. It's also a connection that can help cement the bonds between two people. 

Sexual health refers to a state of well-being that lets a woman fully participate in and enjoy sexual activity. A range of physical, psychological, interpersonal, and social factors influence a woman's sexual health.

Sex requires amazing connections between the sex organs, hormone-producing glands, the brain, and the rest of the body. If one part is out of whack, the desire for sex may fade, or the ability to have sex may be compromised. In addition to the physical and biochemical forces at work, a woman's experiences, expectations, mental health, and emotional health shape her sexuality.

For many women, contraception is an important part of sexual health. Another is avoiding sexually transmitted diseases. These include gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, chlamydia, human papillomavirus, and HIV/AIDS. Using a condom is a key way to protect against getting a sexually transmitted infection.

Women's Sexual Health Articles

Study finds weak link between birth control and breast cancer

A new study shows that hormonal birth control could raise a woman’s risk of breast cancer, but only by a small amount. However, women over age 40 who use hormonal birth control may want to ask their doctors about whether they should shift to nonhormonal contraception. (Locked) More »

Sexually transmitted disease? At my age?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the rise in people of all ages. There were more than two million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in 2016, with significant increases in cases among middle-aged and older adults. For example, among people ages 55 to 64, reports of chlamydia cases nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, from 4,950 to 9,321. The most common types of STDs include genital herpes, human papillomavirus, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and human immunodeficiency virus. (Locked) More »

Should you have an annual pelvic exam?

Expert groups disagree over the value of an annual pelvic exam for healthy women without symptoms of pelvic diseases. Women should discuss the potential risks and benefits as well as their personal preferences with their doctors. (Locked) More »

When an SSRI medication impacts your sex life

The popular medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs (see box) can help lift people out from under a dark cloud of depression. But there are some side effects from antidepressants, including those that can affect your sex life. In addition to reducing interest in sex, SSRI medications can make it difficult to become aroused, sustain arousal, and reach orgasm. Some people taking SSRIs aren't able to have an orgasm at all. These symptoms tend to become more common with age. If you experience any sexual problems while taking an SSRI medication, talk with your doctor or therapist. About 35% to 50% of people with untreated major depression experience some type of sexual dysfunction prior to treatment. So, in some cases, sexual difficulties may stem not from the SSRI, but rather from the underlying depression. If medication is the problem, sexual side effects sometimes subside with time, so it's worth waiting a while to see if problems diminish. This is a particularly good strategy if the medication is easing your depression significantly. But if side effects from antidepressants persist, your doctor or therapist may suggest one of the following strategies, as found in the Harvard Special Health Report Understanding Depression: More »

Nonhormonal treatments for menopause

Menopause—medically defined as the absence of a menstrual period for a year—is due to a decline in estrogen and progesterone production by the ovaries. About 60% to 80% of women experience menopause symptoms, most commonly hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Studies indicate that menopause symptoms can last a decade or longer, affecting substantial numbers of women in their 60s. Although randomized clinical trials indicate that hormone therapy can be safe and effective way to control most menopause symptoms, it's not considered a first-line approach. Dr. JoAnn Manson, Michael and Lee Bell Professor of Women's Health at Harvard Medical School, suggests trying lifestyle modifications for at least three months after symptoms begin before trying hormone therapy. The following have been found effective in reducing the discomfort from hot flashes—both those that interrupt daily life and those that disturb sleep: More »

Screening tests you probably don’t need

Expert groups don’t advise some widely offered tests for screening generally healthy people because they may lead to unnecessary procedures. Women are advised to develop a personal screening schedule with their doctors. More »

What is vaginal steaming?

There is no scientific evidence to support vaginal steaming, in which a woman sits over a bowl of steaming herb-infused water. (Locked) More »