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WomenTALK 2011 Survey on Sex: What We Want Isn't What We Get

The survey also brings up some important issues outside of the realm of women's sexual health knowledge -- issues that I'd argue can't be fixed by telling women that having sex will help them burn calories or give them younger-looking skin.
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Most of us wouldn't be surprised to learn that many women's real sex lives don't match their ideal sex lives. Unfortunate maybe, but not breaking news -- except according to yet another survey discussing the connection between sex and women's health.

The WomenTALK 2011 Survey, commissioned by HealthyWomen, a non-profit that produces women's health-focused publications, asked over 1,000 women living in the U.S. a variety of questions about their sex lives, their sexual satisfaction and their views on sexual health. The press release frames the results as proof that women just don't get how much a healthy sex life will make them healthier overall:

While many women seem to be on the perpetual "quest" for youth and the ultimate anti-aging remedies, it seems the key to staying young may be right inside their bedroom. But according to a new survey, few women recognize the wellness benefits of a healthy sex life.

There's a lot wrong with the way this survey is presented, but one valuable piece of information it offers is that only 42 percent of the women surveyed rated sexual health as "very or extremely important" to their overall health. As HuffPost Women previously reported, many of the physical and mental health benefits of sexual activity and orgasm are very real (i.e. it's a form of physical activity and it relieves stress), and encouraging women to pay attention to their sexual health and general wellness is definitely a good thing.

However, focusing too much on women's simple lack of knowledge about said health benefits -- and downplaying the survey's other findings -- misses the mark somewhat. (Also, given the extensive media coverage of these possible health effects -- "10 Surprising Health Benefits of Sex," "17 Health Benefits of Sex," "The Secret Health Benefits of Sex" -- it seems surprising that so many women are ignorant of them.) Women might be better served if researchers explored why we aren't absorbing this information in the first place, how it might be more effectively distributed to us, and what we should being doing with it. It might also be helpful to know if men are more aware of the health benefits of sex than women. If not, why so much emphasis on educating women specifically about those benefits? If so, does knowing the health perks cause men to have more or better sex? If it doesn't, is it all that useful to educate men or women about its salubrious effects?

The survey also brings up some important issues besides women's sexual health knowledge, or lack thereof -- issues that I'd argue can't be fixed by telling women that having sex will help them burn calories or give them younger-looking skin. One of these is the gulf that exists between what women believe is important to having a happy and healthy sex life and how satisfied they actually are in those areas.

For example, 63 percent of women surveyed rated "connecting with my partner" as extremely or very important, while only 42 percent are extremely or very satisfied with the level of connection in their sexual relationships. In the same vein, 59 percent said their "level of enjoyment" during sexual activity is extremely or very important, while only 41 percent are actually very satisfied. We can talk about the health benefits of sex until we're blue in the face, but until we start really addressing the importance of a woman's pleasure and empowering women to engage with their partners (and themselves) to achieve it, little will change. (And let's be honest, if something doesn't feel good, who's going to want to keep doing it long enough to access the health benefits?)

"While pleasure and intimacy with your partner should be the primary drivers to have sex, the health and wellness benefits are a big bonus," Naomi Greenblatt, M.D. told HealthyWomen. Describing health benefits as a bonus, rather than the impetus for sex, is exactly how we should be framing these conversations to begin with.

And to get the bonus, you need to a) find a partner you want to be sexual with, b) understand what gives you pleasure and c) experience that pleasure with your partner. And if you succeed in all of that, your health probably isn't going to be what's on your mind.

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