Sexual Dysfunction

Sexual dysfunction - a couple in bed, back to back, looking angry and frustrated

What is sexual dysfunction?

Sexual dysfunction describes any difficulty that hinders you from wanting or enjoying sexual activity. People of all genders, ages and sexual orientations can experience sexual dysfunction; and they become more frequent with increasing age.

Pretty much all couples have problems with sex at some point in their relationship. And we all have times we are not in the mood, feel distracted, or don’t achieve orgasm. However, if the difficulties persist, you might have sexual dysfunction. 

Symptoms of sexual dysfunction

Some of the common symptoms of sexual dysfunction include:

  • little or no desire for sex
  • difficulty becoming aroused
  • pain or discomfort on penetration
  • reaching orgasm too quickly
  • having difficulty achieving orgasm at all
  • trouble getting or keeping an erection
  • vaginal dryness
  • vaginismus (when the vaginal muscles won’t relax enough to allow penetration)

It can also be a problem when couples have mismatched expectations or when one person wants sex a lot more often than the other.

What causes sexual dysfunction?

Some difficulties have a physical cause. Conditions such as heart and vascular disease, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, and neurological disorders can cause sexual problems. Some medications (such as antidepressants) can also interfere with our sexual function, as can smoking and the use of recreational drugs and alcohol.

Psychological issues can also affect sexual performance. Things like work-related stress, anxiety and depression can all impact our sexual function. Performance anxiety, concerns about body image, and past sexual trauma can have a massive impact too. 

Sometimes sexual difficulties within a relationship can be a symptom of other, more fundamental, relationship issues. If you are experiencing more extensive problems in your relationship, addressing these might resolve the sexual difficulties too.

Self-help for sexual dysfunction

While self-help cannot prevent or undo the process of ageing, there are some things you can try that might help improve your sex life. These include:

  • learning about your body, and your partners, and how they work
  • speaking with your doctor or pharmacist about the side effects of any medication you take
  • reducing your alcohol consumption or drug use
  • stopping smoking
  • eating healthily and getting regular exercise
  • talking with your partner about the things you do and don’t enjoy sexually
  • practising sensate focus
  • adding variety to your sex life (different times, locations, positions or activities)
  • taking about (and maybe exploring) your fantasies with your partner

Sometimes simple, practical things can make a difference too. Thinks like going to bed at the same time and avoiding mobile phones, ebook readers and such can help you connect and could improve your sex life.

When to seek help

If you are having persistent sexual problems or difficulties achieving orgasm, it’s worth seeking professional help. Your GP can investigate the cause of your sexual issues and offer useful advice or treatment. You can also talk with a counsellor. Counselling can help you overcome issues such as stress, anxiety and relationship issues. Some seemingly physical problems (e.g. vaginismus and orgasmic difficulties) often have a psychological component which counselling can address.

But I’m embarrassed — it’s difficult to talk about sex.

Many people find it hard to talk about sex and especially sexual difficulties. While you might feel uncomfortable about it, your doctor, pharmacist or counsellor will have come across similar issues many times before and will help you feel at ease. Getting help can make all the difference in the world, so, maybe, it’s worth the discomfort in bringing it up?

What is the next step?

Speaking with your GP is often a good first step. Counselling can help too, even if your problems have a physical cause. If you would like to speak with a counsellor, please call us on 0151 329 3637 or email enquiries@counselling-matters.org.uk. We would love to hear from you. 

Further reading

NHS (2019) Male sexual problems.
NHS (2019) Female sexual problems.