We usually associate sexual dysfunction with men and women as they age. Most studies of sexual dysfunctions examine older adults,1,2 but studies rarely ask young people, “Does everything work as you think it should?” “Does it feel good when you have sex?” or “Is sex as good as you expected it to be?” This is the first study to examine sexual problems among young people. The data answer a lot of questions, including whether and to what extent young people experience problems in functioning. That alone is important, but this information also helps untangle the questions about whether our sex lives start out good but get progressively worse for some as they age. It also helps us to understand whether, for some, our sexual lives start out as problematic and just never get better.
A study of problems in sexual functioning (desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and pain) among sexually active young people (16-21 years) tracked rates of sexual problems over two years.3 Researchers only noted problems that persisted for at least four weeks and that caused distress. (Some people may have difficulty with some type of sexual functioning, but if it isn’t distressing, well, the researchers didn’t count it as a problem).
Overall, 79% of male and 84% of female adolescents reported one or more persistent and distressing problems in sexual functioning over the two-year period.
The most common problems for males were overall low sexual satisfaction (48%), low desire (46%), and problems getting or keeping an erection (45%).
The most common problems for females were trouble reaching orgasm (59%), low satisfaction (48%) and pain (47%).
So, do these problems continue into adulthood? It’s not clear. But in this study at least, odds of reporting a distressing sexual problem actually decreased over time for female but not male adolescents.
Who was most at risk for sexual dysfunction? Males who endorsed more traditional beliefs about men’s sexual functioning, such as “A real man is always ready for sex,” were at higher risk for problems than were males who didn’t hold these views. Quite a few men reported no or low sexual satisfaction and desire. This is notable because in the past, researchers have assumed that young men always want and enjoy sex—given the opportunity—and only experience the occasional erectile or ejaculation problem (e.g., getting an erection, keeping one, ejaculating too early). These data indicate that researchers have been as biased as everyone else in their views about men. Sex isn’t always that great for them.
Very clear from other work with young people is that sexual problems are very disruptive to one’s sexual and relationship functioning.4 Definitely talk to a health care provider, counsellor, or other clinician if you are having a problem. You have a right to a healthy, positive, and fun sexual life.
1Mercer, C. H., Fenton, K. A., Johnson, A. M., Wellings, K., Macdowall, W., McManus, S., Nanchahal, K., & Erens, B. (2003). Sexual function problems and help seeking behaviour in Britain: National probability sample survey. BMJ, 327, 426-427.
2Laumann, E. O., Paik, A., & Rosen, R. (1999). Sexual dysfunction in the United States: Prevalence and predictors. JAMA, 281, 537-544.
3O’Sullivan, L. F., Byers, E. S., Brotto, L. A., Majerovich, J. A., & Fletcher, J. (2016). A longitudinal study of problems in sexual functioning and related sexual distress among middle to late adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 59, 318-324.
4O’Sullivan, L. F., & Majerovich, J. (2008). Difficulties with sexual functioning in a sample of male and female late adolescent and young adult university students. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 17, 109-121.
Dr. Lucia O'Sullivan
Professor of Psychology - University of New Brunswick
@LuciaOSullivan on twitter
Lucia’s research centers primarily around sexual communication and decision-making among young people, sexual health, functioning, and changes in the roles and interactions defining the intimate relationships of adolescents and young adults. A particular focus of her work in recent years has been the impact of technology and social media on intimate relationships, and has studied topics as far reaching as infidelity, fandom, romantic scripts, pornography, oral sex, and kissing. She is the Canada Research Chair in Adolescents’ Sexual Health Behaviour and has a long history of international collaborations on issues relevant to youth sexual and reproductive health.