Research Spotlight: A Conversation about Women’s Sexual Health with Dr. Natalie Rosen

Research Spotlight: Dr. Natalie Rosen

Dr. Natalie Rosen is a Clinical Psychologist specializing in sexual health. She is an Associate Professor at Dalhousie University with a Professorship in Sexual Health in Couples. 

The Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation is proud to support Dr. Rosen's important research and we were excited for the opportunity to chat with her about her work. Find out why sexual health is importnat to overall health, and how you can work on improving your sexual health! 

Thanks for chatting with us today, Dr. Rosen. Tell us a little about you and your research.

I am a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor at Dalhousie University and I hold a Professorship in Sexual Health in Couples supported by DMRF and the Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology.

My research focuses on women’s and couples’ sexual health. I have two key research areas: The first is sexual dysfunction in women such as pain during sex and low sexual desire. In this work I aim to improve our understanding of how relationship dynamics effect sexual problems, and to develop new and better treatments to support couples. My other research area focuses on couples who are becoming parents for the first time or who are coping with fertility problems. Both of these circumstances can be highly stressful and affect couples’ sexuality and relationships.

Why is sexual health so important? How can sexual health impact a woman’s overall health?

Sexual health is a fundamental aspect of overall health and quality of life; a satisfying sexual relationship is associated with better physical and mental health. Sexual satisfaction is one of the strongest contributors to overall relationship satisfaction, which is in turn a better predictor of mortality than smoking, alcohol consumption, and obesity. Yet sexual function problems are extremely common, especially among women; up to 51% of sexually active women report one or more sexual problems lasting at least three months in the past year. Only one in five women with sexual dysfunction have discussed their problem with a health care provider, and only a third seek treatment, indicating serious deficiencies in our current primary care services. Research on this topic is crucial to understanding what fosters or hinders the development and maintenance of satisfying sexual relationships.

Sexual health can be quite personal but can also impact relationships. Your work and research take a couple’s perspective—why is that so important from your perspective?

For many people, their sexual function and satisfaction is inherently tied to their relationship partner. Yet historically, research has focused on the person with the sexual problem, neglecting how their partner is both impacted by, and can impact, how the couple adapts and copes with the sexual difficulty. Because sexual activity frequently involves the partner, I find it essential to include both members of the couple in research that seeks to better understand and treat sexual problems.

Is it fair to say that sexual health is not stagnant and that it changes with a variety of factors, including age and life events, such as having a baby?

Yes, there are both daily events (mood, conflict, stress!) and critical life events (a new baby!) that affect sexual health. I have been especially interested in studying the transition to parenthood, where couples are juggling a host of new stressors, roles, and responsibilities. This is a vulnerable period which, on average, has been linked to declines in both sexual and relationship satisfaction. My goal has been to identify psychological risk and protective factors affecting new parents’ sexual and relationship well-being so we can intervene earlier to offer better support to those who need it most. Based on some of this research, we developed a knowledge-sharing campaign called #postbabyhankypanky. We created brief (< 1 min) videos to share our research findings, and each video also corresponds to a more detailed blog post describing the research. The goal of the series is to help normalize postpartum sexual concerns and open the lines of communication between partners, and also between health care providers and new parents. We just added a new video to the series, check them all out at www.postbabyhankypanky.com!

What are your recommendations for women and couples who are challenged with sexual health conditions?

Remember that you aren’t the only ones, sexual difficulties are extremely common and one of the top reasons for seeking couple therapy. Issues of low sexual desire and pain during sex are two of the most common sexual difficulties in women.

If you are feeling distressed about the sexual difficulty and it is causing conflict in your relationship, consider seeking professional help. I suggest couples go together to any related appointments—sexual problems affect both members of the couple and both partners can be part of the solution!

Research suggests that talking about sexual topics can cause more anxiety than other relationship topics, making it tempting to avoid talking about it. But sharing your thoughts and feelings with each other will allow you to see the other person’s perspective and approach this relationship challenge together.

Consider reading an expert book. This can help open up the conversation between partners about the sexual difficulty and ensure that you both have relevant information about the sexual difficulty. Often these books have home exercises that couples can try themselves to start working on the sexual problem. Three books that may be helpful for women’s sexual problems are:

(1) Come As You Are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life (E. Nagoski)

(2) Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How women can cultivate sexual desire (L. Brotto)

(3) When Sex Hurts: A woman’s guide to banishing sexual pain (Goldstein, Pukall, & Goldstein)

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

We are currently recruiting couples to participate in studies related to the transition to parenthood and low sexual desire. You can learn more about these studies at www.natalieorosen.com/participate 

 

You can read more about Dr. Rosen's research on her website or check out the article in the 2020 Philantropist Magazine.