The four questions you should ask about sexual health


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

When I went to med school, we were taught to take a sexual history. Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you do drugs? Do you have sex? Men, women, or both? And that was it. We’re telling patients that sex is a vice, something that is dangerous and that you should feel bad about. But sex is how we’re all here and how we even continue as a species. We must get comfortable as doctors talking to our patients about sexual medicine.

What if we move away from sex being in the vice category – the part of the social history that’s the bad stuff you shouldn’t be doing? Maybe we should bring it into the review of systems.

As a very basic first step, I like to ask patients four things. As a sexual medicine doctor, I deal with these four things: libido, arousal, orgasm, and pain.

Why are these important? These are the things our patients really care about; 2.3 of every 1,000 people got divorced in 2021.

Libido. Women who have distressing low sexual desire have sex on average two and a half times per month. We call this mercy sex or duty sex. I don’t know what the half time per month looks like, but people genuinely care about desire and their doctors don’t really know that.

We have a biopsychosocial toolbox to help our patients. Let me give you an example: Antidepressants can have sexual side effects. Could there be medications in our toolbox that can help our patients? Of course there can, and there are. What about education or talk therapy? We should be asking our patients what they care about and why they care about it so we can help them achieve their quality-of-life goals.

Arousal. What about arousal? Did you know that erections are a marker of cardiovascular disease in men? We know this to be true for men, and I’m certain the research would be no different for women. We know that there are many biological causes for decrease in arousal, including sleep apnea, diabetes, hypertension, and smoking. I can convince a lot of men to quit smoking because I tell them it’s bad for their penis. We have to understand what our patients care about and then advise them on why we think we can help improve these issues.

Orgasm. How about orgasm? Have you ever been asked whether you can orgasm? Have you ever been asked whether you have questions about orgasm? About 15%-20% of women report having an orgasm disorder, and we rarely talk about this in an exam room. I’ve certainly never been asked, and everybody knows what I do for a living. Not to mention all the men that I and my colleagues see who have really distressing premature ejaculation or delayed orgasm. This is pathophysiology at its finest and most complex. It is so interesting, and we have so much to learn and understand about orgasm in general.

Pain. Finally, ask about pain. It seems obvious that we should be asking our patients about their pain, which includes pelvic pain, but oftentimes we avoid talking about private parts. Pain affects not just our patients, but also their partners and their families, when our patients can’t sit without discomfort, if they can’t go and perform the daily activities that bring them joy and belonging. We have to really work with our toolbox in a biopsychosocial manner to help our patients. I often use the incredible rehabilitation specialists called pelvic floor physical therapists.

Remember, we’re talking about libido, arousal, orgasm, and pain. Sex is important to us as a species. It’s important to our patients. Please consider enhancing your sexual history–taking skills and ask patients about their desire, arousal, orgasm, and pain. Ask nonjudgmental and open-ended questions. You actually may be the only doctor to ever do so.

Dr. Rubin is an assistant clinical professor, department of urology, Georgetown University, Washington. She reported conflicts of interest with Sprout, Maternal Medical, Absorption Pharmaceuticals, GSK, and Endo.

A version of this article first appeared on

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