Decoding Sexual Satisfaction
Sexual satisfaction is a complicated construct of great importance.
Posted November 2, 2013
Based on the "tell me how and tell me now" reactions I receive from people who find out about my area of study, one of the most attention-grabbing aspects of my work is probably the study of maintaining sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships.
This is one of those golden ticket items of which everyone is dying to be let in on the secret. Although my work has led to a few pieces of the puzzle, the big "secret" has yet to reveal itself.
One thing is for certain - sexual satisfaction is complicated. There have been some important pieces of work added to the sexual satisfaction literature recently that may be of interest to readers. And sexual satisfaction is the featured topic of the latest Journal of Sex Research Newsletter and the three Editor's Choice articles on sexual satisfaction are available for free download. One of these is my latest contribution on measuring sexual satisfaction.
Defining Sexual Satisfaction
Dr. Sara McClelland, an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan, recently published an article titled “Who is the “Self” in Self Reports of Sexual Satisfaction? Research and Policy Implications” that addresses the clinical, research, and policy implications of relying on sexual satisfaction as a measure of well-being.
Positive affect has been a common focus of definitions of sexual satisfaction. After examining the various ways in which sexual satisfaction has been defined, McClelland found one common theme underlying all of the definitions:
“The common theme that unifies these definitions is the assumption that feeling satisfied is a subjective experience and that the appraisal of satisfaction rests within the person and emerges from the idiosyncratic experience.”
However, McClelland's article discusses how this assumption of subjectivity may be inaccurate. Especially when sexual satisfaction has become influential in public policy in the area of female sexual dysfunction.
Another article recently published, and is one of the three available for free download from the Journal of Sex Research, by Pascoal and colleagues, examined lay persons' definitions of sexual satisfaction and found that mutual pleasure was a key component of sexual satisfaction, in line with McClelland's findings. Additionally, they found satisfaction went above and beyond an absence of dysfunction; satisfaction was derived from positive sexual experience rather than the mere absence of negative sexual experience.
Why Does It Matter?
Aside from it being of great interest to the personal romantic lives of many, researchers use measures of sexual satisfaction in clinical settings and sexual satisfaction has increasingly become a clinical threshold of sorts that has been used as part of the assessment of sexual problems and sexual dysfunction.
Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD) has been a hot topic in the pharmaceutical world for some time now. I’ve written posts such as “A Little Pink Pill? Medicalizing Women’s Sexuality” or “Potential Impact of ‘Desire Drug’ on Women’s Sexuality” and “Placebo Elicits Improvement on Women’s Sexual Satisfaction” that outline some of the reasons for that focus. In McClelland’s article, she argues that the FDA’s reliance on sexual satisfaction as a guide for decisions about clinical interventions may be problematic.
There are a lot of really great details (that are a little dense for a blog entry) that can be found in the original article such as a case study on the Flibanserin drug approval attempt and a wealth of information on how the FDA and public policy are related to sexual satisfaction.
So Who Is The "Self"?
McClelland found differences in terms of how participants assessed their own sexual satisfaction. Some participants did use subjectively derived criteria (as is assumed by many measures of sexual satisfaction). However, interestingly, some participants looked instead toward their partner’s level of sexual satisfaction to assess their own – thereby not using the subjectivity that is sometimes an underlying assumption of measuring sexual satisfaction. More interesting findings from McClelland's paper:
- Closeness felt with a partner was sometimes used as a proxy for sexual satisfaction
- Partner’s sexual satisfaction level was sometimes used as a proxy for own sexual satisfaction
- “Doing a good job” was sometimes used as a proxy for level of sexual satisfaction
Interestingly, presence of self-orgasm was used mainly by men as a proxy for sexual satisfaction (both heterosexual and LGBT), but not for women. Women relied on their partner’s orgasm instead of their own and tended to rely less on physiological indicators of satisfaction.
What Does It All Mean?
Overall, there have been some great additions to the literature on sexual satisfaction lately. At the micro level, this work can challenge us to ensure we define our constructs of interest in a way that is accurately portrayed in the data we collect, which may require more vigorous psychometric evaluation of our measures. I've tried to contribute to this with my latest article examining the psychometric properties of three commonly used satisfaction scales and a one-item measure. At the macro level, it may have policy implications in changing the way the FDA and clinical trials define success when it comes to sexual dysfunction.
Additionally, this increased attention to sexual satisfaction in the literature will increase the number of pieces we have to be placed in that puzzle I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. Once we have more pieces to the puzzle, we'll be much better suited to provide concrete suggestions people can apply to their own sex lives.