What Factors Predict Sexual Distress?

Predictors of Sexual Distress in Women With Desire and Arousal Difficulties: Distinguishing Between Personal, Partner, and Interpersonal Distress

Lies Hendrickx, PhD; Luk Gijs, PhD; Erick Janssen, PhD; Paul Enzlin, PhD

ONLINE: November 2016 – The Journal of Sexual Medicine

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.09.016

Introduction and Goal

An estimated 40% to 45% of adult women have at least one type of sexual dysfunction, but not all of them feel distress over their situation. Past research has suggested that sexual problems and sexual distress don’t always have the same predictors.

Studies have also distinguished general distress (distress caused by sexuality in general) and sexual distress (distress caused by a specific sexual problem, such as poor lubrication). Personal and/or interpersonal distress are other types to consider, but these particular angles have not been widely studied in the context of sexual distress.

This study analyzed whether predictors of general distress in women also predict sexual distress. The researchers also distinguished between three types of sexual distress: personal, perceived partner, and interpersonal.


The study involved 520 female participants in the Sexpert survey in Flanders. All of the women were in a relationship and had been sexually active with a partner during the previous six months. Their ages ranged from 14 to 80 years.

The women completed the following assessments:

Name Item(s) Assessed
Sexual Functioning Scale (SFS) Personal, perceived partner, and
interpersonal distress due to impaired
sexual function, along with total
number of impairments and severity of
problems with desire and arousal.
Mental Health Inventory General mental health
Maudsley Marital Questionnaire Relationship satisfaction
Dyadic Sexual Communication Questionnaire Sexual communication in current relationship

Results and Discussion

Fifty-six percent of the women indicated trouble with sexual desire. Of this group:

• 27% reported personal distress.
• 50% reported perceived partner distress.
• 33% reported interpersonal distress.

Fifty-three percent of the participants had trouble with sexual arousal. In this group:

• 40% reported personal distress.
• 44% reported perceived partner distress.
• 30% reported interpersonal distress.

Overall, the number of sexual impairments and their severity were all predictive of the three types of sexual distress.

“This finding further underscores the importance of differentiating between general distress about sexuality and distress that is due specifically to sexual impairment,” the authors wrote.

For women who had issues with both desire and arousal, lower mental well-being predicted personal distress and lower relationship satisfaction predicted perceived partner distress.

For those with desire impairments only, interpersonal distress was predicted by lower relationship satisfaction and less communication about sexual needs.

For women who had only arousal impairments, lower mental well-being and lower relationship satisfaction predicted interpersonal distress.

The authors acknowledged the following limitations:

• The response rate was “modest” and replication of the study would give more insights on the generalizability of the results.

• Causal links between mental well-being, relationship factors, and sexual distress could not be determined because this was a cross-sectional study.

• The SFS, used to assess sexual distress, does not have established psychometric properties.

The authors added that including data from both women and their partners would be helpful in future research.

More study is needed before the results can be applied to clinical practice, the authors noted. However, they pointed out that “sexual impairments and sexual distress should be addressed separately in clinical assessment and treatment.”

“Increasing our understanding of risk and protective factors of different types (personal, partner, and interpersonal) of sexual distress will, ultimately, enable professionals to improve the effectiveness of clinical interventions,” they concluded.