Sexual Health, Arousal disorder

Female sexual functioning is an area that has long been under researched, with many activists arguing greater efforts need to be made to find out more about women's sexual health. This is particularly important given the negative treatment of women by medics/social scientists in the past and the current focus on men's sexual functioning and pharmaceuticals, where women are being left behind.

Accounts of sexuality have presented women as lacking interest in sex, or being less sexually interested than men. This is frequently attributed to innate biological differences, and may be used to avoid dealing with women's sexual problems. More critical approaches have acknowledged that women can have a variety of views about sex , so suggesting 'all' women either like or dislike sex is misleading. However, there is little research examining women's views about sex and participation in sex research. Concerns have been expressed that we are becoming 'obsessed' with sex in the West, but it seems this obsession may not extend to participating in sex research - particularly where women are concerned.

With the need for further research on women, it perhaps seems naive to propose a paper addressing issues of consent. Yet within social research on sex, the issue of who consents to participate in studies continues to be overlooked or underplayed. Whilst we can argue for more research, and design studies of our own, these efforts will be wasted if women do not want to talk about sex.

Efforts have been made to strengthen the consent process, including better explanations of participant's roles and the right to refuse participation. Though, checklists of 'good practice' for sex research exist it is unlikely that this information is accessible to consenting participants. Some, like Leonore Tiefer, argue it is impossible to even discuss issues of informed consent in relation to sex research because of "participant's lack of comprehensive sexual knowledge" (a problem that particularly affects women from developing nations). However, it seems discussions of VIC haven't helped increase the number of female volunteers to sex studies; and there is little critical evaluation of why this might be.

Anecdotal and research evidence suggests that sex research is not viewed as being as important than other social or health topics as Tiefer observes - "sex research has always seemed too risky or 'risquÈ' to be a legitimate specialty" . This could be the reason why women, who are normally more likely to volunteer for research seem less keen to take part in sex-related studies. However, it is likely that there are a number of more complex reasons that dissuade female participants.

Who Volunteers for research?

Research literature indicates that there are particular people who volunteer for studies, particularly those on sex. Certain research has identified that volunteers for research on sexual topics report higher levels of sexual interest and experience than participants who volunteer for non-sex studies. In one example, participants were invited to choose from the following conditions, viewing a sex film only, or a sex film combined with increasingly invasive measurements of sexual response. Male participants were significantly more likely to volunteer, but levels of co-operation dropped as the levels of intimacy demanded by the research increased. Again, when compared with non-volunteers, the participants in this study were sexually more interested and experienced; and overall women were less likely to participate. Evidently the volunteers and their perceptions of the research will impact upon the results.

While not all men will volunteer for research, it seems they are more likely to volunteer than women; although more detailed investigations are required to identify the specific reasons why women do not participate.

Women have also been found to differ from men in the questions they will not answer in sex research. We have already seen that women are less likely to participate in sex research and are more likely to refuse if a study seems particularly invasive. Alternatively, women may agree to participate, but refuse to answer certain questions or perform certain tasks in a study, thereby affecting the overall results of the research.

At present, the studies investigating participation rates in sex studies seem to accept that if womendo not volunteer for research, or refuse to answer a question it must be the result of their study (which is investigating the circumstances under which participants will opt-out of research). What is required is more critical evaluation to discover from participants exactly what factors are preventing them from taking part - and what would encourage them to join a sex study.

Anecdotal evidence suggests differences in response also exist within groups of female participants. Therefore younger women may be more likely to in sex studies than older women; straight women might be more likely to volunteer than lesbian or bisexual women; and (in the West) English speaking participants might be more inclined (and able) to participate. Studies suggest that lesbian and bisexual women do have different beliefs and concerns around their sexual health, do older women compared to younger women. It is therefore important that research accounts for (and celebrates) differences between women, rather than presenting them as a homogenous group. Such an approach needs to begin with study design, and last until the research has been reported.