Of all the people in the world you could talk to about your sex life, we’re guessing your doctor isn’t high on the list. Even if you’re one of the few people whose doctor makes sex an approachable and open subject, many patients never broach the topic.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but a common one is that doctors tend not to ask about their patient’s sex lives, even when it might be an important part of their healthcare. Taking a sexual history is a vital part of identifying sexual problems and concerns in many practices, but a 2012 survey found that fewer than two-thirds of doctors ask their patients about sexual activity and history. Only 40 percent inquire about sexual problems, and just 29 percent ask about sexual satisfaction. Doctors whose job it is to address sexual and reproductive health aren’t an exception — the study found obstetricians, gynecologists, and family care doctors were as likely as any other specialty to avoid the topic of sex.
Of course, this isn’t a problem if you don’t have a sexual issue or question that needs to be addressed, but the mutual silence between doctors and patients can be problematic if you do. Some studies have shown that between 16 and 43 percent of women and 9 and 29 percent of men have a distressing sexual problem to report, and the majority of them would prefer to talk about these issues with their doctors if given the opportunity.
That’s a big missed opportunity for patients and doctors — talking about sex is not only vital to diagnosing and treating sexual conditions, but for establishing a more open and trusting relationship between both parties. And, as Richard Gunderman of The Conversation points out, “For many patients, discovering that they can talk with their doctor about sex means that they can broach virtually any topic, which can be helpful in recognizing other difficult concerns, such as domestic violence and substance abuse.”
However, while most experts agree that doctors should take the lead on initiating these conversations, patients also bear a part of the responsibility to kick things off and fill their doctors in in order to get the quickest and most appropriate treatment or care.
But, because those conversations are rarely easy, we created a step-by-step guide to help you navigate them in safe and comfortable way.
1. Find the Right Doctor.
One of the biggest reasons patients don’t bring up sex with their doctors is the fear of judgment, or because they feel ashamed about bringing a sexual or gender-related topic up with them. You should never have to feel like that with your doctor, which is why it helps to research them a bit before you see them. Read their reviews online and see if there are any articles they’ve written or that have been written about them that would give you a sense of who you’re seeing.
If you don’t already have one, it really helps to have a sex-positive doctor, therapist, or health professional. These are people who are trained in a wider variety of sexual topics than most, and who take a non-judgmental approach to helping you navigate your health regardless of how you express (or don’t express) your gender and/ or sexuality. Need help finding one? Here are a few resources:
That said, we completely acknowledge not everyone has the option to choose the doctor they see. Some insurance plans assign you to someone, or if you’re on Medicare or another similar service, your options may be limited. In that case, it’s best to jump to the next step, and come as prepared as you can.
2. Come Prepared.
When you make your appointment, make sure to let the scheduling desk know what you need to be seen for, and whether you’ll need any extra time. This allows them to make the space for you that you need, and gives your doctor some time to prepare for your appointment if what you’re being seen for isn’t routine.
Before you arrive for you appointment, zero in on exactly what you want to talk about. It helps to make a list of symptoms you’ve been having, as well as any insight you’ve gotten regarding what those symptoms are related to (for example, if you’ve been experiencing pain with sex, what tends to cause the pain?) A list of questions you’d like your doctor to answer can also help — that way, you can leave feeling more informed.
3. Jump Right In.
Chances are, you only have a limited amount of time with your doctor, so jump right in with what you want to talk about. It’s okay to feel a little embarrassed at first, but sex, gender, and sexuality are huge parts of our overall health and wellbeing — think of talking about it like you’d talk about any other issue you’d see a doctor for. You probably wouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about a throat ache and there’s no reason to be embarrassed talking about your sexual health, either.
To make sure you’re being heard, ask if it’s okay if you talk for a minute while you give them your history and symptoms so that you get the opportunity to say everything you need to say. Offer up any information that might help them treat you
4. Describe the Problem.
Here are some things to consider when you’re working out how to best describe your situation:
- What the problem is
- How long you’ve had the problem
- Where on your body the problem is located (the more specific, the better)
- What the problem feels like
- What treatments or solutions you’ve already tried
- Whether anything makes the problem better or worse
- Any relevant details about your partner(s). For example, are they having symptoms?
- The type of sex you have (vaginal, oral, anal, other)
- The type of protection you’re using
- What medications you’re currently taking
- What you’d like to walk away from the appointment with (birth control, a referral, more information, exercises, a prescription, etc.)
- If you feel it’s relevant, how your sexuality and/or gender identity plays into what you’re experiencing
- If you feel comfortable bringing it up, whether you have ever been sexually abused or assaulted, as an adult or as a child (knowing this can help doctors tailor their treatment a bit more and find you the right support if you want it)
5. Ask Questions.
Curious about something your doctor said? Ask about it. This is about you and your care, and it’s your doctor’s job to help you feel more informed and empowered about your health.
6. Follow Up.
Once you and your doctor come up with a treatment plan, let them know how it’s working. The more you can communicate with them about your progress, the more you can learn about your body and health. Following up also helps keep the conversation going, which can be important when it comes to feeling comfortable talking about sex in general — the more you talk about it, the more natural it’ll seem.
Image credits: All GIFs via Giphy | Featured Image via Sexual + Being
Isabelle Kohn is a sex and relationships journalist, educator and consultant who lives in Los Angeles. Follow her at isabellekohn.com.