The old adage that a woman's biggest sexual organ is between her ears may be true, according to new research that finds that a lack of erotic thoughts during sex is linked to the trouble some women have reaching orgasm.
Women who reported more trouble reaching orgasm during sex also had more automatic negative thoughts during the act. These negative thoughts included everything from those lacking erotic imagery to thoughts of sexual failure and sexual abuse.
"There is no easy way to avoid negative or distractive thoughts," study researcher Marta Xavier Cuntim, a clinical psychologist in Portugal, told LiveScience. "However, if we know that they exist, it is easier to learn to deal with them."
About one in four women experiences difficulty reaching orgasm for months at a time, and the inability to orgasm is the second-most-common female sexual complaint after lack of desire. The new study questioned 191 sexually active women between the ages of 18 and 59 about their sexual function and the types of thoughts they experienced during sex.
There were six types of potentially troubling thoughts that had been identified in earlier studies, including thoughts of sexual abuse, sexual failure, a partner's lack of affection, sexual passivity and control, things that had no erotic nature and body shortcomings. Of these, all except for negative thoughts about body image were associated with trouble reaching orgasm. [Naked Truth: Why Women Shrug Off Lousy Sex]
Because the study asked women to look back on their experiences, the data doesn't reveal whether the difficulty reaching orgasm triggered the negative thoughts, whether the negative thoughts triggered the orgasm trouble, or some cycle of both. But certain psychological vulnerabilities may lead to the negative thoughts, Cuntim said. Women with sexual dysfunction often carry around mental baggage, such as concerns that sex is bad or that they have undesirable bodies, Cuntim said. Those thoughts raise the risk of sexual difficulties.
The women in the study weren't formally diagnosed with any sexual disorders, Cuntim said, so research is needed on women with formal diagnoses to replicate the findings. For now, she and her colleagues are testing the use of a psychological therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy on sexual dysfunction in both men and women. Cognitive therapy for sexual problems aims to change the way people think about sexual situations and tries to help people challenge their negative thoughts, Cuntim said.
"Ultimately," she said, "this knowledge may help us develop new treatment strategies for orgasmic disorders."
The research will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Sexologies.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.