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Researchers Partner to Explore Impact of Social and Cultural Pressures on Women’s Sexual Desire

Women’s sexual desire is influenced by a host of factors. In a study published in Sexuality & Culture, University of Kentucky College of Education researchers homed in on a piece of the puzzle — the influence of social and cultural issues on desire. It’s a factor not often studied, particularly among sexual minority populations.

photo of Dr. Mark
Dr. Kristen Mark

“The broader sociocultural context of sexual desire can be difficult to study,” said Dr. Kristen Mark, associate professor of health promotion in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion and the project’s principal investigator. “This was something that needed to be examined qualitatively through in-depth interviews – we weren’t going to be able to adequately understand the complexities of this from a quantitative survey.”

Most female sexual desire research has focused on the influence of three factors: biological (such as menopause and childbirth), psychological (such as anxiety and depression) and interpersonal (such as relationship satisfaction).

Mark, along with sixth-year doctoral student Dani Rosenkrantz, saw sociocultural issues as the fourth factor, and an area ripe for further exploration. The results of their study contribute to the understanding of how desire is influenced by issues such as sexism, religion, attitudes toward aging, gender expectations, body image, sexual orientation discrimination, and changing cultural times.

“Research tells us that social and cultural pressures and minority stress can impact women’s health,” said Rosenkrantz. “We were curious about how these stressors impact sexual desire experiences, which we believe is an important aspect of women’s sexual heath that had yet to be understood.”

Although Mark and Rosenkrantz are based in separate departments of the College of Education, the pair have

photo of Dani Rosenkrantz
Dani Rosenkrantz

collaborated on a number of studies through the Sexual Health Promotion Lab, which is directed by Mark and comprised of scholars from a variety of disciplines. Rosenkrantz, who is studying in the college’s Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology, is one of several graduate students involved in the lab. They say their latest work was a true merger of their interests: sexual desire and sexual diversity on the part of Mark and social justice and sexual diversity on the part of Rosenkrantz.

“Sexuality research is generally very interdisciplinary and my training is very interdisciplinary because of that,” Mark said. “This is in large part why the Sexual Health Promotion Lab attracts involvement from departments all over the university. Having Dani’s clinical experience and deep understanding of sociocultural approaches to other topics, such as mental and spiritual health, was very helpful in this collaboration. Doing research in disciplinary silos does not adequately explain the human experience, especially when it comes to something as complex as sexual desire and sexual identity.”

The collaborators sought a diverse group and interviewed women who identify as bisexual, lesbian, and heterosexual.

“As an interviewer, it was a privilege to be able to sit with these women and hear about this sensitive and personal part of their lives,” said Rosenkrantz. “They were really motivated to increase awareness of their experiences to move this body of research forward.”

Interviews confirmed that multiple sociocultural factors influence desire, particularly in sexual minority women.

“Sexual minority women are not only struggling with the challenges of sexual desire related to being a woman, but also those that come with being a sexual minority,” wrote Mark and Rosenkrantz in the published study. “These challenges are heightened for women identifying as women of color or bisexual. Recognizing the impact of these sociocultural factors is essential for empowering sexually diverse women and providing culturally competent treatment for sexual desire challenges.”