There is a growing movement in the wellness world emphasizing the mind-body connection, but there’s one important expression of brain/body bliss to which women tend to turn a blind eye: sexuality.
Sexual health is typically low on women’s lists of health priorities. When we play so many roles – mother, sister, daughter, boss, employee – it’s easy for those roles to overshadow the need for intimacy, self-care, emotional fulfillment, and sexual connection. These needs often fall to the back burner when crowded out by life’s more pressing obligations.
At Skyterra, we encourage women to see their sexuality as one part of their overall wellbeing. To learn more, we spoke with Dr. Maureen Ryan, a nurse practitioner and sex therapist with decades of experience helping women find fulfillment in their sex lives. Here’s what she had to say about why sexuality should be a women’s health priority.
1. Sex is a Basic Human Function
Sexuality is a path to intimacy, connection and pleasure. These are experiences most human beings long for. Our sexuality is one of the most basic aspects of our lives, affecting our overall health and happiness. Just as exercise supports the primal needs of your physical body, and eating whole foods supports your natural digestive functions, healthy sexual relationships contribute to overall vitality and wellbeing.
As Dr. Ryan explains, if you are suppressing your need for sexual expression, or settling for unsatisfying sex, you can end up feeling resentful and depressed. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors that are intended to numb those negative emotions. Excessive eating, drinking, shopping are often a response to unmet needs.
Note that sexuality can be expressed in a variety of ways that are unique to the individual woman. Many women do not experience sexual desire or passion but do experience satisfying companionable relationships built on emotional intimacy and commitment.
2. The Need for Sexual Health Education
Women require accurate information in order to make healthy choices in line with their needs and values. But despite advancements in modern medicine, there is still relatively little information being circulated about female sexuality. As a result, many women feel sexually inadequate because of myths and inaccurate information.
For instance, “Many women feel that they are ‘abnormal’ because they do not experience spontaneous sexual desire,” Dr. Ryan observes. “But the majority of women in long-term relationships do not experience sexual desire at the onset of a sexual experience. Instead, sexual desire often emerges after her body has had time to become relaxed and sexually aroused.”
Sex education isn’t limited to facts about the reproductive system, either. For example, did you know that romantic relationships cause a shift in brain chemistry, which influences your sex drive as your relationship goes on? When you first enter into a new relationship, your brain produces extra dopamine – that feel-good chemical that lights up your brain’s reward centers. That’s why we can’t get enough of our partners during the initial honeymoon phase.
But as the relationship length increases, oxytocin becomes the primary neurotransmitter released. Oxytocin is known as the “bonding hormone” – it’s the same hormone that mothers produce when breastfeeding their baby. This serves to keep a couple together long-term.
“Often, as the relationship progresses and intimacy and commitments are established, passion can begin to decrease. Women often report becoming concerned and questioning if they are still in love because that intense desire to be with her partner starts to wane,” Dr. Ryan tells us, “but when one understands the nature of romantic love, it helps them to understand that the passion that once occurred so effortlessly now requires intention and effort." This is just one example of how eye-opening a comprehensive sexual education can be.
3. Sex Improves Your Romantic Relationship
For many women, their sex partner is also their primary life partner. When the sexual part of that relationship crumbles, the rest of it can suffer as well. Dr. Ryan observes, “When a couple is sexually disconnected, they may start to turn away from their partner instead of turning toward them.” It’s no surprise that sexual incompatibility, disconnection, and infidelity are frequent causes of breakups and divorce.
The inverse is also true. When you have a better relationship with your own sexuality, you are more empowered to be fully present and mindful for your partner. The stronger your bond, the better equipped you will be to tackle life together.
But maintaining a healthy sex life with your partner does not happen by accident. “The ability to connect with your partner and yet tune into your own body and experience is cultivated through intention, attention, and a willing attitude. Being a good lover requires effort and practice,” Dr. Ryan says, highlighting the need to put effort into this area.
Even if you don’t have a partner, nurturing your sexuality helps you learn healthy ways to pursue pleasure outside of a relationship. This helps you maintain your sense of independence and self-care while still being able to identify what to look for in a potential partner (if you desire one).
4. Healthier People Have More Sex
There is a correlation between sex and good health. According to the American Sexual Health Association, “Sex has been shown to promote better sleep habits, less stress, more happiness, etc. Sex is a healthy bodily function. Our bodies thrive on the chemicals released during orgasm, so a healthy sex life is indeed part of a healthy body.”
Older women may be especially interested to hear that sex can help you look and feel younger. The female body produces estrogen during sex, which contributes to a more youthful appearance – as much as 7-12 years younger, according to one study. Another study even showed that adults aged 50-90 have better memory function than their less sexually active peers.
It also counts as exercise! Sex gets your heart pumping and strengthens your pelvic floor. It’s not the only cardiovascular or strength-training exercise you should do, but it certainly counts toward your daily activity.
5. Pleasure, Joy, Vitality
So far, we’ve mentioned many of the positives of sex without naming the most obvious: pleasure! Sex should feel good. When it does, it’s a natural antidepressant. When you nurture your own sexuality, your physical and emotional pleasure can only increase.
A woman with healthy sexuality sees sex as an expression of connection, intimacy, and love. Dr. Ryan told us “The ability to be fully embodied, immersed in the flow of the moment, connected to oneself and another, is often described as one of life’s peak experiences.” When it comes to pleasure, the sky's the limit when you have a healthy, positive approach to your own biological desires.
To summarize? A sense of healthy sexuality is vital to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. As Dr. Ryan puts it, “It is impossible to tap into your greatest potential as an individual, companion, or a lover without understanding who you are, what you want, and where you are going.”