Sex scientists stumped by women

Experts conclude: "Maybe we don't know what we're talking about."

Published February 26, 2007 9:40PM (EST)

Looking for signs of life on other planets seems a simple task in comparison with sex scientists' attempt to understand the inner workings of the Venus-born species. They're stumped and admitted as much during the sixth annual meeting of the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health.

In fairness, their mission has faced a major setback: The subject of women's sexuality was largely restricted to the social sciences until Viagra hit the market in the late '90s, sparking interest in a similar drug for women, according to the Chicago Tribune. Despite medical interest, no drugs have been approved for treating female sexual dysfunction, which scientists aren't even sure exists. Of course, the downside to women's sexual lives being promoted to the medical sphere is the risk that their sexual complaints could be be medicalized and seized upon by Big Pharma. After all, as sexologist Michael Sand told the Tribune, "We don't understand normative, healthy sexuality well enough to make judgments about what's dysfunctional."

One of the greatest mysteries -- to scientists and inexperienced Romeos alike -- is the process of female sexual arousal. According to one of the governing models, it "starts with desire, progresses through excitement or arousal and ends with orgasm." Sand received a prize for his research on female sexuality, which, unusually, factored in women's accounts of their own sexual responses. He found that 57 percent of women identified with this previous model, while 29 percent reported that they sometimes start a sexual encounter before desire even registers.

But here's the interesting -- if not surprising -- finding: Women who reported this somewhat backward approach to sex (summoning desire in midact) were also more likely to report sexual problems. "We need to go back to the drawing board and come up with models that explain why some women have different sexual experiences, find out which models fit which women, so we can serve women more effectively when they have sexual concerns," Sand said.

Other interesting news from the meeting: There's a nasal spray in development for postmenopausal women that may increase sexual desire; the antidepressant bupropion has proved to improve menopausal women's sex lives; and a study found that physically active women report better orgasms. Still, gather a cross-disciplinary group of more than 300 experts in the field of women's sexuality and the general consensus seems to be, as psychophysiologist Ellen Laan put it, "maybe we don't know what we're talking about."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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