The Grey Effect

I have seen several articles talking about the “Grey Effect.” The idea is that the incredibly popular book series beginning with “Fifty Shades of Grey” has created a frenzy of female sexual interest. (When I say “incredibly popular” the series has allegedly outsold the paperback Harry Potter series…) I won't go into detail about the book, or about the various critiques and controversies, let's save that for the people who are well-poised to do so. In a nutshell, the book series contains “explicitly erotic scenes.” Reports suggest that the book series craze is sending women in droves to the sex toy shops and is giving women permission to explore their sexuality. What does that have to do with pelvic rehabilitation?

The book may be a topic of discussion with our patients and this in itself may encourage us to explore our own comfort zones related to sexual health. How do you respond when a woman says that she has pelvic pain, is using a sex toy to stretch the vaginal opening, but her husband's penis is much bigger than the toy and she still has pain? How do you give advice about masturbation- or do you? What is the correct response to "my partner thinks I should be able to have an orgasm with penetration?" The replies to any of these questions depend on several factors, such as your level of knowledge about sexual health including anatomy and physiology, your own belief systems, the standards and culture at your place of work, as well as your understanding of sexual practices that are different from your own. What are the ethical issues that surface when faced with the above questions? If you are outside of your comfort zone and do not want to talk about sexual function, is it ok to say so, or are you denying your patient access to available information? How much do you share, knowing that these conversations are intimate and potentially confusing if your patient has poor boundaries? What if a patient asks you some questions and you are feeling unclear about the patient's motivations? These are really good topics for discussion, and outside of giving comprehensive answers, I would like to point out some ideas and resources that may be helpful to you. The Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute offers several courses that provide education about sexual health and function or dysfunction. All courses in the series discuss sexual function to some extent, and the Level 3 course has quite a bit of detail about sexual health. The Male course discusses rehabilitation of male sexual function, and there is a newer class instructed by Heather Howard, PhD, all about sexual interviewing and counseling.

It can be a challenge to navigate this territory as this type of “real-world” education rarely happens in school. First, we have to respect ourselves enough to take care of ourselves. This means that when you are not feeling very comfortable with the content of the conversation, say so. A statement such as “I'm not really comfortable with our conversation, let me think about your questions and come back to that next visit if that works for you.” This allows you to take the time to consult with a mentor, a supervisor, or a textbook if needed, or to process how you feel about the question so that you can give a more objective answer. If the patient is being inappropriate, such as asking for your phone number or saying anything suggestive, bring it up. “That is an inappropriate comment, and in order for you to continue to attend rehabilitation here, you must respect that.” If the inappropriate behavior continues, fire the patient, document it, contact the referring provider, and move on. If you are not really sure what sexual technique or act the patient is referring to, a phrase that can be helpful is “tell me more about that.” It is possible to discuss body mechanics in a respectful, professional manner even when discussing sexual health. It's not typically the way we are acculturated, so it takes practice and thoughtfulness.

When patients are interested in accessing websites for the purchase of devices to stretch, stimulate, or vibrate the pelvic muscles, the vendors listed on the website have ordering information for some commonly chosen devices. Other sites that are helpful for the patient are or The American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists or AASECT website is also one that might be helpful for you as a provider or for your patient as a consumer. If you are looking for a certified sex therapist, that site also lists them by region. Most experienced therapists will tell you that as long as we stay open and listen well, it is our patients who will teach us as much as we can learn in any course or textbook. Optimizing our own comfort levels with sexuality can bring us closer to having meaningful dialog with our patients who trust us enough to inquire about such sensitive topics.

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