Physiological Stress Responses Predict Sexual Functioning and Satisfaction Differently in Women Who Have and Have Not Been Sexually Abused in Childhood

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Abstract

Physiological responses to sexual stimuli may contribute to the increased rate of sexual problems seen in women with childhood sexual abuse (CSA) histories. We compared two physiological stress responses as predictors of sexual function and satisfaction (sympathetic nervous system [SNS] activation and cortisol) in women with CSA (N = 136) and without CSA histories (NSA, N = 102). In CSA survivors, cortisol response to sexual stimuli did not significantly predict sexual functioning; however, in NSA women, cortisol increases were associated with poorer sexual functioning, and cortisol decreases with higher sexual functioning. For women with CSA histories, lower SNS activity was associated with poorer sexual functioning. For CSA survivors with low lifetime trauma, lower SNS activity was associated with higher sexual satisfaction; for women with high lifetime trauma, the reverse was true. Decreased SNS activity during sexual stimuli predicted higher sexual functioning in NSA women with low lifetime exposure to traumatic events, but lower sexual functioning in those with high exposure. Differences between women with and without CSA histories in the association between cortisol and SNS response and sexual functioning and satisfaction suggest that CSA causes disruptions in both short- and long-term stress responses to sexual stimuli that perpetuate into adulthood.

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