WEDNESDAY, March 17, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Although women have less sex as their pregnancy progresses, they don't enjoy the experience any less, new research shows.
"We've studied men's sexual health for many years, and we have not studied women's sexual health, concerns, issues and problems in the past, and there's a gender information gap," said Dr. Irwin Goldstein, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Sexual Medicine, in which this new study was recently published. "This kind of study helps narrow that gap and provide information on the real behavior of real women, and gives us a sense of what to expect."
Goldstein is director of sexual medicine at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego.
The authors of this new study, out of Lisbon, Portugal, asked 188 women aged 17 to 40 to fill out a questionnaire the day they were discharged from the hospital after the birth of a child.
Almost half (44.7 percent) of women said that their most frequent sexual intercourse took place during the first trimester of the pregnancy. A little more than one third (35.6 percent) said sex was most frequent in the second trimester.
Only 10 percent said that the most frequent sexual activity occurred in the third trimester, while 55 percent said that sex decreased at this point.
But the majority of women -- 80.1 percent -- said they did have intercourse at this later stage of the pregnancy. And almost 40 percent of women said they had sex during the birth week.
Roughly half of all women said there had been no change in their sex life during the first or second trimesters.
Almost one-quarter (23.4 percent) of women admitted they were afraid that sex would hurt the baby.
In the course of researching her book, The Working Woman's Pregnancy Book, Dr. Marjorie Greenfield said that this fear sometimes came from the male partner.
"One woman said that she felt like having sex, but her husband was uncomfortable about the idea," said Greenfield, who is division chief of general obstetrics & gynecology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "Some men say they feel the baby is watching them or that they are going to hurt the baby."
About half of the women in the survey said their sexual satisfaction remained the same throughout the pregnancy while a lesser proportion -- 27.7 percent -- said it declined. Sexual desire was the same in 38.8 percent and down in 32.5 percent of the participants.
The most common type of sexual activity was vaginal (performed by 98.3 percent), followed by oral sex (38.1 percent) and anal sex (6.6 percent). About one-fifth of women said they masturbated during pregnancy.
More than 40 percent of women said they felt less attractive while they were expecting, but three-quarters said they sensed no decrease in sexual interest from their husband or partner.
In general, the authors and other experts stated, sex during pregnancy is not dangerous.
"A lot of people think it causes abortions in the third trimester or damage to the child, but regular penal-vaginal intercourse is not an issue," Goldstein said, adding that there can be issues with air embolisms during oral sex and infections during anal sex.
And there are some people for whom sex during pregnancy can be unsafe, said Greenfield, including women with placenta previa, when the placenta lies lower in the uterus.
"Bumping into the placenta under those circumstances can cause the mom to hemorrhage," she said.
"But for your average person, there's only one sex act that has an increased risk for women who are pregnant," she added. "There have been fatalities if air is blown into vagina. Anything that forces air into the vagina is not safe."
"It's important to recognize that desire and self-image and variables such as hormonal changes and tiredness and concern for children really affect women's sexual drives and functions, especially as they go to the third trimester," Goldstein said. "It's OK to expect changes in sexual function during the pregnancy."
The March of Dimes has more on sex during pregnancy.