A recent study found a significant association between lower sexual frequency and greater all-cause mortality in young and middle-aged people with hypertension. Should primary care physicians be offering a pleasure prescription to the 6 in 10 Americans living with chronic illness?
Ask, don’t tell
First, we need to ask routinely about sexual well-being and pleasure. Without asking patients their views, we do not know the relevance of sex for their quality of life. Unless we ask, we do not know what specific kinds of sexual play are important for a person’s pleasure, nor can we assume how they prioritize their sexual functioning in the context of their medical care. When I began asking my primary care patients about sexual well-being, many more than I expected were quietly holding on to distressing issues. Now, as a sexual medicine specialist, in each sexual function evaluation, I ask three key questions: What are your goals? What does sex mean to you? What kinds of sexual play are important for your (and your partner’s) pleasure?
Chronic disease – with physical symptoms as well as psychological, relational, and cultural components – affects both general and genital physiology. Any disease process that alters vascular, neuroendocrine, or musculoskeletal function is likely to influence sexual function, either directly through the disease process or indirectly through complications or the effect on identity and well-being. In addition, a host of iatrogenic changes to sexual function may accompany effects of treatments.
Managing the effects of chronic illness on sexuality requires resilience and flexibility. A serious injury may require a massive adjustment to sexuality, but progressive disease may require continuous accommodations to sexual changes. The life stage at which the disease occurs also matters. People facing disease early in life encounter challenges (finding willing sexual partners and limited medical guidance regarding their sexual functioning) as well as benefits (they may integrate their disease as part of their sexual life). Those who experience sexual changes related to their illness later in life may face a loss of “normal” sexual function and well-being.
Meanwhile, the partner who is not ill may have their own sexual needs, fears, and worries. Both patients and partners may experience disenfranchised grief – a sense of loss about something one is not culturally permitted to mourn (“I/my partner is alive in the face of this terrible illness; who am I to worry about our/my sexual pleasure?”).
Positive marital relationships influence health through improved survival, improved medical adherence, better quality of life for the patient, and improved life satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction is an important factor in relational satisfaction. Helping our patients with these changes therefore may improve not only sexual health but overall health.
How, then, should we address sexual pleasure in chronic illness care? Here are a few tips:
Focus on pleasure. “Performance” is foul language when it comes to sex. Full attention to sensation and enjoyment, the only sexual “skill” anyone needs, is impossible while trying to perform.
Encourage flexibility and recognize that sex encompasses a wide and varied menu of experiences that change over a lifetime. Sex is everything from kissing and cuddling to the wildest things a mind can imagine. We can help both patients and partners think about the wide variety of ways to meet sexual needs. Balancing acceptance of sexual changes with motivation for improvement also is part of our role.
Address the effects of illness on the patient’s relationship with their body. Illness may alter not only bodily function but also self-esteem and body image. A reorganization of self-concept may occur (“I am no longer a sexual person; I’m a sexually dysfunctional asthmatic/diabetic/etc. and should avoid sexual intimacy”). Examining these self-constructs allows shifts in thoughts and behaviors, leading to improved psychological and sexual well-being. Encourage patients to explore what feels good in this body now. When possible, we can help with referral for corrective surgeries or direction to resources like stoma covers, wigs, scarves, and tattoos.
We offer suggestions for “sleep hygiene”; how about pleasure hygiene?
- Encourage open communication with partner(s) and offer resources to develop communication skills.
- Consider needs for physical and emotional preparation for sexual play: adequate rest, preparing the environment for body fluids, pillows for comfort or aides for positioning, and plenty of lubricant at hand.
- Allow adequate time for sexual play and encourage the ability to adjust or stop and start over – with humor and self-compassion.
- Use sexual aides to enhance pleasure.
- Seek out sexual medicine and sex therapy colleagues when things become tricky.
All bodies, no matter their health or illness state, are capable of pleasure. Hey, pleasure might even save lives!
Dr. Kranz is an clinical assistant professor of obstetrics/gynecology and family medicine, University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center. She reported no conflicts of interest.
A version of this article first appeared on.