Little attention has been given to the sexual dynamics of couples as they navigate infertility and treatments such as IVF, despite the important role that sex plays in a couple''s attempt to conceive a child.
"Sex is for pleasure and for reproduction, but attention to pleasure often goes by the wayside for people struggling to conceive," said Nicole Smith, a doctoral student with the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington.
"With assisted reproductive technologies (ART), couples often report that they feel like a science experiment, as hormones are administered and sex has to be planned and timed. It can become stressful and is often very unromantic and regimented; relationships are known to suffer during the process."
This study, which is one of the first in the United States to examine women''s sexual experiences while undergoing assisted reproductive technologies, used the Sexual Functioning Questionnaire to assess the impact of IVF treatment on couples'' sexual experiences.
Compared to a sample of healthy women, women undergoing IVF reported significantly less sexual desire, interest in sexual activity and satisfaction with their sexual relationship.
They had more difficulty with orgasm and were more likely to report sexual problems such as vaginal pain and dryness. Similar to emotional and relationship challenges associated with assisted reproductive technologies, the sexual problems intensified as a couple''s use of ART proceeded.
When couples meet with their physicians, their sex life might not top the list of issues they want to discuss, either because of unease talking about the subject or simply because they have so many other important issues to discuss.
Still, Smith and Madeira say, the doctor-patient relationship is key, and couples can be told up front about the potential sexual side effects and resources that can help.
"There''s just a dearth of knowledge on how infertility affects sexual behavior," Madeira said. "The focus is more likely to be on the social and support dimensions of the relationship, but sex is a big part of that. Just letting patients know they aren''t alone in this would be helpful."