Seriously, only half of you are enjoying sex?

Ask a group of women about their reproductive health and you're going to face a lot of uncomfortable truths. UK government agency Public Health England recently surveyed over 7,000 women between the ages of 16-64 across a range of socioeconomic levels and regions (though the respondents were predominantly white).

As the women surveyed get older, they become less concerned about avoiding pregnancy. But also, they become more concerned about having an enjoyable sex life. And yes, this trend extends into the 55-65 group. Postmenopausal women are the most concerned about having great sex. 

Interestingly, women of all ages are more concerned about avoiding pregnancy than with getting pregnant. Even fewer are concerned with getting an STI, with the exception of women 16-24.

Next to having great sex, women are most concerned with what the researchers called "managing reproductive symptoms." And that ranges to everything from heavy menstrual bleeding to hot flashes. It peaks a bit for 45-55-year-olds, but for the most part women of all ages seem nearly equally concerned about the havoc their reproductive systems wreak on their lives. Yes, even the 55-65-year-olds. Across all ages, 31% say they've experienced "severe" reproductive symptoms in the last 12 months. That's a lot of us.

There seems to be a correlation between how much you know about your reproductive system and how you feel about it. Knowing what to expect--across all stages--helps a lot. The greatest source of knowledge about reproductive health across all ages is school. Now, quick raise of hands: How many of you learned anything about menopause while you were in school? Yeah, so no wonder we're in the dark. That said, the second most common source of knowledge is family. So I'm curious, how many women talk with their mothers, sisters, aunts about menopause?

A few quotes from the report illustrate how little women know about menopause. “…I know every woman goes through the menopause but I actually don’t know what’s going to happen to me…I have no idea.” I mean, that was pretty much me well into my 40s. I didn't even know what perimenopause was. “If I had had the right information about how to live with menopause, with the symptoms, maybe could have changed something but now, I don’t recognise my body anymore.” That's something I hear a lot from perimenopausal women, that they no longer recognize their body, or that they don't know who they are anymore. Would knowing what to expect change this sense of being in an alien body?

Now here's something sad: nearly half of all women report experiencing "lack of sexual enjoyment" during the last 12 months. It's worst among 25-34-year-olds, and best among the oldest group. I guess eventually some of us figure out what we like and how to get it--but not nearly enough of us.

Menopausal symptoms seem to decline among older women, but not by much (60% of women 45-54, vs. 55% of women 55-64). So if you're still experiencing hot flashes in your early 60s, you're not alone. Another recent study bears this out.

Are our doctors any help? Well, I guess it depends. But here's another quote from the survey that echos what I've heard from a lot of other women. “…the whole of the symptoms of the menopause, depression, anxiety, hot flushes, sleepless nights, you feel yourself worthless…it’s a horrible state. And you come back to your GP and she’s telling you ‘no, it’s normal. Just get on with your life.’" It's typical, sure. But there's so much you can do about it, from lifestyle changes to hormone replacement therapy. 

The researchers point out that other studies show 12% of women have taken a day off work because of menopause issues, and 59% of women have lied about why. And if you think you're the only woman to suffer through heavy menstrual bleeding, another survey shows this happens to 35% of women.

I'm focusing here on perimenopausal through postmenopausal women, but there's loads of interesting data about how much women struggle with other issues, like heavy bleeding, cramps, and post-natal problems.

Here's the researchers' conclusion:

Detailing women’s experience of their reproductive health has shown that the majority of women do experience some difficulties related to reproductive health at different stages in their life and would benefit from easily accessible information an enabling environment for making positive choices, managing symptoms and reaching care when needed. In order to ensure that women of all ages and backgrounds can take the steps required to take control and manage their reproductive health education, support and services should be structured and delivered in a manner that reduces barriers and reflects the needs of populations they serve. 

But what I was thinking about as I read this was how much our world is build by and for men, and how much pain and discomfort that causes women. Little by little we're remaking the world to fit our needs better. But imagine a world where you wouldn't have to lie about why you're not at work today, or where allowances are made for severe cramping or bleeding. Or where you knew what to expect from perimenopause because everyone talked about it like it was a healthy, normal (albeit intense) phase of life.

Read more about Public Health England's survey.