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Clearing Away Medical Misconceptions about Sex

Honors College Dean Marta Meana’s research dispels stereotypes surrounding women’s sexuality and changes the way doctors treat patients.

Research  |  Apr 20, 2018  |  By Karyn S. Hollingsworth
Portrait Marta Meana

Marta Meana, dean of the UNLV Honors College, has changed the way medical professionals approach critical aspects of human sexuality and women’s health. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

Today, Marta Meana receives the prestigious Masters and Johnson Award from the Society of Sex Therapy and Research in honor of her lifetime achievements. 

When Marta Meana started researching dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse in women) in the 1990s, the problem stumped the medical community and was often dismissed as attributable to psychological or relational problems. Meana, however, suspecting a physical condition might be responsible, mapped out definitive regions where women experienced genital pain. She was the first to do so, and in doing so, she uncovered the truth.

“Dyspareunia is, indeed, a medical problem,” Meana said. “My research found that the majority of women who experienced this kind of pain have a physical condition, and although that physical condition had a huge impact on their mood and their relationships, the cause did not appear to be psychological.”

Meana’s research, along with colleagues’ subsequent studies, resulted in the deconstruction of the disorder. It was reclassified in 2013 — from a dysfunction emanating from sexual conflict to a pain disorder that impacts sexuality. This reclassification appears in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the definitive psychiatric handbook of mental disorders, as a condition called genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder.

The seismic shift in how women with the disorder are diagnosed and treated is a point of pride for Meana, who is dean of the UNLV Honors College, a professor, and a licensed clinical psychologist. She considers her dyspareunia findings her greatest contribution to the field of human sexuality and women’s health.

“Within my lifetime, this work has changed the way we conceptualize and treat women with the problem,” she said. “Now it is much less likely that a woman who goes to a gynecologist and says, ‘I have genital pain when I attempt to be intimate with my partner,’ will be told to have a glass of wine or asked, ‘Are you having problems with your husband?’ or ‘Were you sexually abused?’ — neither of which has any strong connection to this pain.”

Meana’s research on this and other areas of women’s sexuality has increased understanding of women’s sexual health, revolutionized treatment options for women, and most recently garnered her field’s lifetime achievement award—the Masters and Johnson Award from the Society of Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR), which is so exclusive, it’s given only when SSTAR identifies a worthy honoree.

For her part, Meana describes her achievements simply as what researchers are supposed to do: steadily build on findings. “I’m just trying to peel away the layers and not fall for easy assumptions,” she said.

Finding the Continuum of Female Desire

Contrary to her findings on dyspareunia, Meana has found that women’s sexual desire — or lack thereof — is more tied to the psyche than originally thought. And, although conventional wisdom would say otherwise, women in stable, healthy, and otherwise happy marriages yearn for the same excitement in their sexual relationships as men do.

In a qualitative study published in 2010, Meana and her graduate student Karen Sims interviewed married women and found that the reasons their sexual desire declined had little to do with the quality of their relationships. It had much more to do with dwindling romance, overfamiliarity with partners, and feeling desexualized due to multiple roles as wives, moms, and working professionals.

“The more these women felt stuck in the routine rhythms of domestic life, the more their desire dissipated,” Meana said. “They would say they have no problem having desire for a total stranger; they just didn’t have desire for their husbands anymore. What they were really saying was, ‘Closeness is nice, familiarity is nice, and I wouldn’t trade it for sexual excitement, but it’s not sexual excitement.’”

Turns out these women missed the novelty and transgression, or forbidden nature, of their relationships before they said “I do” — attributes that we traditionally attach to male desire versus female desire.

“Somehow, female desire was seen as a much tamer thing, that it’s just about loving somebody,” Meana said. “But it isn’t.”

Following these findings, Meana directed her attention toward “erotic self-focus,” the idea that women’s desire is much more about how they feel about themselves than how they feel about their partners.

“These women had men in their lives who were telling them they were gorgeous and that they wanted them, but if they didn’t feel that way about themselves, it didn’t matter,” she said.

Meana’s findings represented yet another sea change in the study of women’s sexuality and helped psychologists better understand the complex nature of female desire, which had traditionally been characterized as revolving entirely around love and relationships.

“We went from saying that desire is a spontaneous urge such as hunger or thirst, which didn’t fit a lot of women, to an overcorrection that it’s all about the relationship,” Meana said. “What my desire work says is, it’s somewhere in between.”

Advancing the Field Even Further

Meana continues to chart new territory in women’s sexuality research with the curiosity and fervor of a new scholar, often conducting and publishing research with students as co-authors. She has more than 75 peer-reviewed articles and chapters in prestigious research journals and books to her credit. Currently, she’s studying the context of sexual desire in men and women over age 40, chipping away at the myth that “sexual desire is the province of the young.” She balances her research with her duties as dean and her service on the editorial board of the International Journal of Clinical Health Psychology.

Meana’s academic career is punctuated with many accolades. She won Barrick Scholar and Barrick Distinguished Scholar awards at UNLV, a Nevada Regents Excellence in Teaching Award, and the James Makawa Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Psychology from the Nevada Psychological Association. She made an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009. She’s a past president of SSTAR, a recipient of the SSTAR Service Award, and a Fellow in the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. The Masters and Johnson Award she’ll be receiving this month represents the pinnacle of success in her field.

“Meana has generously shared her knowledge, skills, wisdom, research, ideas, and her exquisite curiosity with her peers, with professionals in and outside the field of human sexuality, and with the students she teaches and supervises,” said Kathryn Hall, president of SSTAR, in a statement. “In many ways, including the development of new scientist-practitioners, Meana continues to contribute to the development of our field.”

Still, Meana herself was surprised to be tapped for the honor.

“I felt three things: I must be getting old, I’m not done yet, and I felt unbelievably honored because these are my peers,” she said. “These are the people I respect the most in my field.”

“She prefers to let her work stand front and center. But Meana is a superstar,” said Chris Heavey, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and a 21-year colleague of Meana’s on UNLV’s psychology faculty. “Her research and writing have literally changed the way we think about critical aspects of human sexuality and women’s health.”