Placebo Elicits Improvements In Women’s Sexual Satisfaction

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A recent study found that a placebo effect significantly improved women's sexual satisfaction.

Woman

Photo: svenwerk on Flikr

Sculpture of a woman by Colombian artist Fernando Botero in Berlin, photo captured by Svenwerk

A study recently published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine by Meston and colleagues from the University of Texas Austin had some very interesting findings about women’s sexual satisfaction and functioning.

The research says…

Their sample consisted of 50 women, age 35 to 55, who received a placebo rather than a drug treatment meant to treat low sexual arousal. Women were asked to report on their sexual problems, such as low sexual desire, problematic arousal, and difficulty with orgasm. Participants were followed over 12 weeks.

Through measuring the frequency of satisfying sexual encounters, the researchers found that about one-third of the women who took the placebo showed a significant improvement. I’d be interested to know how many of the women who took the real drug showed a significant improvement, but that wasn’t the focus of this study.

What about the little pink pill?

With all the talk of finding a little pink pill for women, a topic that I’ve blogged about here, and Debby Herbenick has blogged about here, and can be read more about here, this study comes at a time that I have no doubt was strategic.

The FDA recently rejected the application to have filbanserin approved as a potential treatment for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (a highly contested diagnosis in itself). Yet pharmaceutical companies continue to hunt for the solution to women’s sexual problems.

This study lends support for the idea that solutions women’s sexual problems may not involve a trip to the pharmacy. A non-physiological problem just won’t benefit from a physiological solution. Women’s sexuality has been thought of as a complex interplay between a number of contextual factors including relationship dynamics and life situations. Of course, biology does play a role for some women, but it isn’t all there is to it.

In the words of the incredible Leonore Tiefer (a researcher and activist against the medicalization of women’s sexuality), women’s sexuality shouldn’t be treated like digestion when it is so much more synonymous to dancing.

Why the placebo effect?

Well, as the researchers noted in their discussion, perhaps opening the lines of communication with your partner about sexuality can be a treatment in itself (something therapists have been saying for years).

In this study, the majority of improvements to satisfaction were found in the first 4 weeks of participation. Participating in a study where you are constantly monitoring your sexual functioning and satisfaction (something many women may ignore regularly) is bound to make you more mindful of your sex life. This increase in mindfulness in turn likely improved partner communication, thereby improving sexual satisfaction.

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH

completed her PhD in Health Behavior and her MPH in Biostatistics, both at Indiana University. Kristen is an Assistant Professor in Health Promotion at University of Kentucky. Kristen's research focuses on sexual pleasure, sexuality in long term relationships, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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