Arousal Disorder

When a woman becomes sexually aroused, her body will respond with physical changes—vaginal lubrication, swelling and tingling in the genitals. Typically, she'll experience emotional or mental excitement as well. For some women, though, this arousal response doesn't happen as expected. The desire may be there, but the body or the mind (or both) don't respond.

What causes arousal disorder?

This type of sexual difficulty, referred to as sexual arousal disorder, can happen for many reasons. Some of these are emotional in nature, such as stress and anxiety, or problems in a relationship. Behavior factors like alcohol or smoking could also be to blame, as could certain medications. For example, some antidepressants have been linked to sexual difficulties including decreased desire or sexual arousal.

Sometimes an underlying medical condition may contribute to the problem. Vascular and neurological problems can create issues with arousal, so women with diabetes or multiple sclerosis may experience arousal disorder related to their chronic illness. Hormonal changes that come with aging may also play a role.

How can it be treated?

Whatever the cause, problems with sexual arousal can be addressed. A trusted healthcare provider can help determine what may be behind the problem and indemnify any underlying medical issues that could contribute. (Click here for some questions that can help start a conversation with a provider). Therapy may also be an answer. Couples therapy can aid with relationship issues. A sex therapist can help with finding and fixing sexual problems. And one-on-one therapy can work to build sexual confidence and explain how past or recent sexual experiences may be affecting you currently.

In addition to seeking professional help, there are some steps that you take that may help your ability to become sexually aroused:

  • Experiment. It may be helpful to try new stimuli such as sex toys or erotic videos to see if they help with arousal.
  • Spend more time on foreplay. Couples can concentrate on pleasurable touch and stimulation that doesn’t involve penetration.
  • Use lubricant. Some women may benefit from additional lubricant or estrogen therapy, if recommended by a provider.
  • Focus on intimacy and trust. Strengthening the bond between partners can be helpful as you work toward new ways to provide pleasure and stimulation.

Dr. Pepper SchwartzListen to ASHA’s three-part conversation with sociologist and sexual health expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz on female sexual difficulties. She discusses the range of female sexual difficulties, the impact of sexual difficulties on a relationship, and offers practical advice and resources for women (and their partners). You can listen on ASHA’s website or via iTunes.