A University of New Brunswick researcher says a new survey dispels the myth that most young people are enjoying fun, pleasurable sex lives.
Lucia O'Sullivan, a psychology professor at the Fredericton university, said more than three-quarters of young men and women struggle with bad sex lives – with one or more "persistent and distressing" problems in sexual functioning.
"We have this image that partnered sexual life for young people, particularly at the beginning, is fun, pleasurable and really hedonistic," she said Wednesday. "But what we found once we started tracking them over time is that many young people have sexual problems they are dealing with."
The survey of more than 400 young people aged 16 to 21 in New Brunswick found 79 per cent of young men and 84 per cent of young women reported sexual problems over a two-year period.
Common problems for men included low sexual satisfaction, low desire and problems in erectile function, while women reported an inability to reach orgasm, low satisfaction and pain.
"It's scarily common amongst young people to have really bad, painful, unwanted sex," O'Sullivan said. "If they're not enjoying it … they're doing it because they feel they should."
Some of the problems could be chalked up to a learning curve, she said, especially issues related to controlling ejaculation for men or learning how to orgasm for women.
But O'Sullivan, whose research focuses on sexuality and intimate relationships, said the high rates of disinterest, low arousal and poor satisfaction are a bigger concern.
If sexual problems go unresolved, she warned they could develop into a more serious sexual dysfunction later in life, putting a strain on relationships.
O'Sullivan launched the survey after a doctor at the university health centre remarked on the high number of students with erectile issues, pain and – in particular – vulvar fissures, or tearing.
"The standard of care was to hand them this lubrication and to let them know they are at high risk for sexually transmitted infections," she said. "But then she started asking them, 'Are you having sex that you want, that you are interested in? Are you aroused?' and she began to realize that there was a more serious problem."
Part of the issue lies with sex education in Canada, O'Sullivan said.
"We have always educated young people about the problems of sex. We think about it in terms of, 'Don't have it and if you do have it, make sure you prevent this calamity,'" she said. "We never say, 'By the way, this should be a fun part of your life.'" Despite improvements in sexual education, O'Sullivan said Canada continues to lag many western European countries.
Proposals to improve sexual education in Canada are often met by a small but vocal minority that is "screechingly loud" in its opposition, she said.
"It creates so much fuss that everyone freaks out," O'Sullivan said. "But we know that providing comprehensive sex education gives people options, choices, power and decision-making capacity. They actually delay sexual activity, they have safer sex and lower rates of [sexually transmitted infections] and pregnancy."