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The re-construction of women's sexual lives after pelvic radiotherapy: A critique of social constructionist and biomedical perspectives on the study of female sexuality after cancer treatment

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Publication details

JournalSocial Science & Medicine
DatePublished - Jan 2013
Issue number1
Number of pages9
Pages (from-to)188-196
Original languageEnglish


Pelvic radiotherapy creates physical effects and psychological responses that negatively affect the sexual health of women and couples, yet these sexual consequences are not frequently researched or clinically assessed. This focused ethnographic study explored factors that influence the clinical assessment of treatment-induced female sexual difficulties after pelvic radiotherapy within routine medical follow-up. Participant observation of follow-up clinics (n = 69) and in-depth interviews with 24 women, 5 partners and 20 health professionals were undertaken at two cancer centres in the South East of England from 2005 to 2006. Thematic analysis of interview transcripts resulted in five emergent themes, two of which are explored in detail within this paper. A social constructionist approach to human sexuality was used to explore representations of female sexuality in oncology follow-up constructed by clinicians, women and their partners. Yet neither social constructionist nor biomedical (the predominant model in medical follow-up) perspectives on human sexuality provided an adequate interpretation of these study findings. This paper argues that the comprehensive study and practice of sexual rehabilitation in oncology requires a synthesis of both biomedical and social constructionist perspectives in order to capture the complex, subjective and embodied nature of the female sexual response in both health and illness.

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