Masters of Sex fans might think that going to a sex clinic means stripping naked, getting hooked up to a tangle of electrodes and having sex in front of a glass observational window. But in reality, sex clinics are less about having a clipboard-armed clinician assess you as you get it on, and more about getting to the root of all-too-common sexual dysfunction among women — issues like low libido, inability to have an orgasm, painful sex and more.
Forty percent of women have a physical, medical, hormonal or emotional issue significant enough to interfere with intercourse and intimacy, explains Lauren Streicher, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause in Chicago and author of Sex Rx: Hormones, Health and Your Best Sex Ever. Unfortunately, though, “when most women go for their annual exam, it’s the rare doc who brings up sexual concerns. Or if it is brought up, their doctor just tells them, ‘Try a date night’ or ‘Take a relaxing bubble bath.’ The woman leaves feeling like there is no solution.”
In response, academic-affiliated sexual medicine clinics are cropping up all over; centers at Stanford, UCLA, Indiana University Bloomington, Boston Medical Center and more invite women to come in and explore why they aren’t enjoying a normal, healthy sexual response. Streicher notes that by the time patients come to her, she is often the fourth or fifth doctor they’ve seen.
“We see a lot of women in their 40s who are moms and have pelvic floor dysfunction, incontinence, maybe they’re having problems orgasming or painful intercourse. A romantic getaway isn’t going to help that; many times there are real, physical problems at play,” she says. Conditions like thyroid disease, endometriosis, diabetes and cancer can all significantly impact sexual health, as can many commonly-prescribed medications such as certain antidepressants, antihistamines and birth control pills. Menopause, she adds, is also linked with sexual health troubles, “but 50 percent of women in our center have not entered menopause yet.”
So if you’re not gonna be having sex in front of a one-way mirror, what can you expect if you go the sexual medicine clinic route?
You’ll start with giving a detailed medical history, followed by a careful physical exam; your physician will likely look for clues like skin sensitivities, nerve problems, vaginal tightness, pelvic floor weakness and more. A program will then be tailored for your specific needs, which may include seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist, a talk therapist, a urogynecologist or other medical professional, all of whom may be conveniently located on-site. You might also be assigned various homework exercises (use your imagination); have your medications tweaked (your primary care provider will be consulted); or be advised to try anything from Viagra to topical estrogen cream to a vibrator.
In other words, you won’t just be told to live with it, or to try a glass of wine to relax.
Tami Rowen, director of the Sexual Medicine Program at University of California, San Francisco, suggests seeking out a provider with advanced training in sexual medicine; simply call the office and inquire. The International Society for Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH) also has a “find a provider” feature on its website, www.isswsh.org.
Academic-affiliated sexual medicine clinics typically accept insurance, but private clinics usually do not. Rowen warns that the latter may offer treatments that aren’t FDA-approved, like G-spot injections, or may be run by dermatologists or plastic surgeons who don’t have additional training in sexual medicine.
Everyone needs a girlfriend!
Sign up to receive our free weekly newsletter every Thursday.