#Love & Sex

Always Aroused, but Never Relieved

by Brie Cadman

Always Aroused, but Never Relieved

Recently, I read an Esquire article written by a woman who claimed to be perpetually aroused. Rather than enjoying her revved up libido, she described it as more of a nuisance. (“My whole vagina felt like a pressure cooker about to go off any minute—but it wouldn’t.”) Is this a claim from a sexed-up nymphomaniac or an actual medical condition?

Although there was reference to a medical condition—persistent sexual arousal syndrome—my first suspicion was that the article was a hoax, fabricated by a male writer who wanted his fantasy girl to come alive, at least on page. Less likely, but still plausible, was that maybe this was just one horny girl—the high school slut, the housewife who stands a little too long next to the washing machine on spin cycle. Whatever her affliction, certainly it couldn’t be any different from those masses of men who masturbate four to five times a day to Penthouse, Hustler, and other assorted whack rags. Or could it?

There actually is something called persistent sexual arousal syndrome (PSAS), and though it has surely existed as long as men have had priapism (painful, persistent erection of the penis), it wasn’t documented in clinical literature until 2001. The condition is thought to be extremely rare and, because of its intimate, anomalous nature, underreported.

Though the Esquire article describes the condition as a “burning desire to masturbate,” lack of sexual desire and interest is actually more like it. Afflicted women are not hypersexual or nymphomaniacs; instead they are plagued by spontaneous, intrusive, and unwanted genital arousal that never seems to cease.

A woman can relieve herself by having an orgasm, but not for long. The feeling persists, and can be an uncomfortable nuisance that disrupts work, relationships, and daily activities. The feeling of arousal can last for days or even years, resulting in serious personal distress. Various medications, including anti-depressants and hormonal therapy, have been used to try to treat PSAS, but currently there is no standard of care. This is because no one really knows what causes or triggers PSAS. Some women’s symptoms appear after discontinuing SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), a type of anti-depressant; others have been triggered by stress, or a brain injury.

However, one positive thing women suffering from PSAS (also known as persistent genital arousal disorder, because it is not inherently sexual) can find comfort in is that professionals have finally recognized their disorder as something legitimate. A recent issue of Women’s Sexual Health Journal (WSHJ) was entirely devoted to PSAS. Dr. Sandra Leiblum, director of the Center for Sexual and Relationship Health at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, first documented the condition and now conducts research into causes and cures. As with other diseases, there are online support groups.

In light of most women’s sexual complaints—absence of sexual desire or response—PSAS may seem like more of a gift than a curse. But, according to one patient quoted in the in the WSHJ, “This is an unimaginably miserable affliction.”