Treatment for sexual problems

Learn about effective treatment options for low desire, erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems.

When clinicians first turned their attention to sexual dysfunction at the beginning of the 20th century, they believed it was caused by masturbation in childhood or too much sex as an adult. The treatment? Preventing masturbation and reducing sexual activity.

These days, psychologists and other clinicians focus on restoring sexual functioning and pleasure. They have developed effective treatments for many common conditions: 

  • Lack of desire. This increasingly common problem occurs when people lack any interest in sexual fantasies or activity and suffer distress or relationship problems as a result.

    • Treatment is a multi-step process. Therapists begin by helping clients identify negative attitudes about sex, explore the origins of those ideas and find new ways of thinking about sex. The focus then shifts to behavior: therapists may ask clients to keep diaries of their sexual thoughts, watch erotic films or develop fantasies. Therapists also address any relationship problems. 

  • Erectile dysfunction. When the penis fails to become or stay erect, intercourse becomes impossible.

    • The cause is typically a mix of physical and psychological factors. Physical causes include illnesses like diabetes or medication side effects. One of the main psychological causes is performance anxiety. After the first incident, men sometimes get so nervous the problem occurs again.

    • Therapy focuses on reducing anxiety by taking the focus off intercourse. For men with physical problems, medication or devices can help.

  • Premature ejaculation. Ejaculation is premature when it occurs so soon after intercourse begins that it causes emotional distress.

    • While the causes still aren't understood, treatment works in almost all cases. Therapy focuses on behavioral training. With his partner's help, the man learns to withstand stimulation for longer and longer periods.

  • Painful intercourse. Painful intercourse, or dyspareunia, is recurrent or persistent genital pain that causes significant distress or relationship problems.

    • Most cases — especially among men — involve a physical problem. A urologist or gynecologist should rule out or address any medical concerns. For women, the typical treatment focuses on relaxation training.

Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology