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ORIGINAL RESEARCH—EPIDEMIOLOGY: What can Prevalence Studies Tell Us about Female Sexual Difficulty and Dysfunction?


Richard D. Hayes, BSc(Hons), Department of Public Health, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, 3010, Australia. Tel: 613 9341 6241; Fax: 613 9347 6757; E-mail:


Introduction.  Many recent studies have investigated the prevalence of female sexual difficulty/dysfunction.

Aim.  Investigate female sexual difficulty/dysfunction using data from prevalence studies.

Methods.  We reviewed published prevalence studies excluding those that had not included each category of sexual difficulty (desire, arousal, orgasm, and pain), were based on convenience sampling, or had a response rate <50% or a sample size <100.

Main Outcome Measures.  For each study we used the prevalence of any sexual difficulty as the denominator and calculated the proportion of women reporting each type of difficulty. For each category of sexual difficulty we used the prevalence of that difficulty lasting 1 month or more as the denominator and calculated the proportion of difficulties lasting several months or more and 6 months or more.

Results.  Only 11 of 1,248 studies identified met our inclusion criteria. These studies used different measures of sexual dysfunction, so generating a simple summary prevalence was not possible. However, we observed consistent patterns in the published data. Among women with any sexual difficulty, on average, 64% (range 16–75%) experienced desire difficulty, 35% (range 16– 48%) experienced orgasm difficulty, 31% (range 12–64%) experienced arousal difficulty, and 26% (range 7–58%) experienced sexual pain. Of the sexual difficulties that occurred for 1 month or more in the previous year, 62–89% persisted for at least several months and 25–28% persisted for 6 months or more. Two studies investigated distress. Only a proportion of women with sexual difficulty were distressed by it (21–67%).

Conclusions.  Desire difficulty is the most common sexual difficulty experienced by women. While the majority of difficulties last for less than 6 months, up to a third persist for 6 months or more. Sexual difficulties do not always cause distress. Consequently, prevalence estimates will vary depending on the time frame specified by researchers and whether distress is included in these estimates. Hayes RD, Bennett CM, Fairley CK, Dennerstein L. What can prevalence studies tell us about female sexual difficulty and dysfunction? J Sex Med 2006;3:589–595.