We Need to Talk: Disclosure of Sexual Problems

By Kat Merwin

This blog summarizes our recently published paper: Merwin, K. E., O’Sullivan, L. F., & Rosen, N. O. (2017). We need to talk: Disclosure of sexual problems is associated with depression, sexual functioning, and relationship satisfaction in women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1283378.

While there is no shortage of sex on our screens these days (be it TV shows, movies, or porn) we tend to only get shown the ‘good stuff.’ We see instant sexual arousal and orgasms (or implied orgasms) a-plenty! What we don’t see is an accurate depiction of what happens for many women: sexual problems.

Sexual problems (e.g., difficulties with desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and pain during sexual activity) are common in women. Shifren and colleagues found that 43% of women reported experiencing at least one sexual problem and that 12% of these women were significantly distressed by their sexual problem(s) [1].

Not only are sexual problems common, but they can also adversely affect women’s psychological, sexual, and relationship well-being. Sexual problems are associated with more depressive symptoms [2-3], poorer sexual functioning [4-5], and lower relationship satisfaction [6-7]. Research tells us that sexual communication, and sexual self-disclosure in particular, is important for the well-being of individuals in romantic relationships [8-9].

But do women with sexual problems tell their partners about these difficulties?

Is telling a partner about sexual problems beneficial to a woman’s psychological, sexual, and relationship well-being?

This is what we wanted to know. Specifically, we wanted to (1) examine the proportion of women with sexual problems that disclose these problems to their partners, and (2) examine the associations between telling a partner about sexual problems and women’s depressive symptoms, sexual functioning, and relationship satisfaction.

What did we do?

We had 277 women (whom reported experiencing at least one distressing sexual problem) complete an online survey that included validated measures assessing sexual problems, relationship satisfaction, sexual functioning, and depressive symptoms. We also asked women to report whether or not they had told their current romantic partner about their sexual problems.

What did we find?

  • The majority of women (69%) reported that they had told their current romantic partner about the sexual problems they were experiencing.
  • Women who disclosed their sexual problems also reported fewer depressive symptoms, greater sexual functioning, and greater relationship satisfaction (compared to women who had not disclosed).


What do these findings mean?

Broadly, this research tells us that if you have a sexual problem, telling your partner about it may be beneficial to your psychological, sexual, and relationship well-being.


Our findings suggest that the majority of women with sexual problems share this information with their romantic partners, and that this disclosure is associated with fewer depressive symptoms, and greater sexual functioning and relationship satisfaction, compared to women who do not disclose their sexual problems.

Telling a partner about sexual problems may be beneficial to women’s well-being by enhancing intimacy or allowing couples to adapt sexual activities to accommodate sexual problems.

However, this study was cross-sectional, so the relationship between disclosure and well-being may go the other direction: It is possible that targeting the improvement of sexual functioning, depressive symptoms, or the global relationship might facilitate disclosure of any sexual problems and allow the couple to work together on improving their sexual well-being.



[1] Shifren, J. L., Monz, B. U., Russo, P. A., Segreti, A., & Johannes, C. B. (2008). Sexual problems and distress in United States women: Prevalence and correlates. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 112, 970–978.

[2] Dunn, K. M., Croft, P. R., & Hackett, G. I. (1999). Association of sexual problems with social, psychological, and physical problems in men and women: A cross sectional population survey. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 53, 144–148.

[3] Echeverry, M. C., Arango, A., Castro, B., & Raigosa, G. (2010). Study of the prevalence of female sexual dysfunction in sexually active women 18 to 40 years of age in Medellín, Columbia. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 2663–2669. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01695.x

[4] Meana, M., Binik, Y. M., Khalifé, S., & Cohen, D. R. (1997). Biopsychosocial pro le of women with dyspareunia. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 90, 583–589.

[5] Rosen, C., Brown, J., Heiman, S., Leiblum, C., Meston, R., Shabsigh, D., … D’Agostino, R. (2000). The Female Sex- ual Function Index (FSFI): A multidimensional self-report instrument for the assessment of female sexual function. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 26, 191–208. doi:10.1080/009262300278597

[6] Burri, A., Radwan, S., & Bodenmann, G. (2015). The role of partner-related fascination in the association be- tween sexual functioning and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41, 672–679. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2014.966398

[7] Burri, A., & Spector, T. (2011). Recent and lifelong sexual dysfunction in a female U.K. population sample: Prevalence and risk factors. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8, 2420–2430. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2011.02341.x

[8] Pazmany, E., Bergeron, S., Veraeghe, J., Van Oudenhove, L., & Enzlin, P. (2015). Dyadic sexual communication in pre-menopausal women with self-reported dyspareunia and their partners: Associations with sexual function, sexual distress and dyadic adjustment. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12, 516–528. doi:10.1111/jsm.12787

[9] Rancourt, K. M., Rosen, N. O., Bergeron, S., & Nealis, L. J. (2016). Talking about sex when sex is painful: Dyadic sexual communication is associated with women’s pain, and couples’ sexual and psychological outcomes in provoked vestibulodynia. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 1933–1944. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0670-6