Promoting Female Sexual Well-Being Through Research and Education (2023-2024)


Sexual health is an integral part of well-being that remains understudied and unaddressed in clinical care, particularly for individuals assigned female sex at birth. Certain life events — such as childbirth and cancer treatment — can have abrupt and profound impacts on sexual function, leading to persistent genito-pelvic pain, impaired quality of life, psychological distress and poor relationship functioning. Few treatments exist to help people manage pain, improve sexual function and cope with genito-pelvic changes. 

Postpartum patients and adolescent and young adult (AYA) oncology patients (aged 18-29) experience sexual health concerns at high rates. Postpartum patients commonly experience pain and other sexual difficulties related to physical (e.g., perineal injury) and psychosocial (e.g., lack of partner support) changes that occur during and after birth. AYA cancer survivors are diagnosed at a critical period in their sexual development, and cancer and associated treatments can have a detrimental impact on their sexual functioning and satisfaction.

Project Description

This project will be broken into two research studies targeting sexual health and well-being. Team members will work with an interdisciplinary team of clinical scientists and healthcare providers within the Duke Cancer Institute, Duke Cancer Symptom Management & Support, Duke Physical Therapy and Duke Perinatal Mental Health programs who are developing 1) a measure of female sexual well-being for use in postpartum populations, and 2) an educational intervention to improve AYA cancer survivor sexual functioning and satisfaction. 

During the 2023-2024 academic year, Study 1 will be in the cognitive interview phase (review by a diverse group of patients for feedback on language and relevance of the content) and the testing phase of the measure development process. Study 2 will be in the intervention development phase.

The team will code qualitative data, assist with writing manuscripts and reports, and create intervention materials (e.g., workbooks). The graduate project manager will lead a weekly full-team meeting for collaboration across studies and consultation on interdisciplinary topics facilitated by team members and outside speakers. To promote learning and shared knowledge, team members at all levels will take part in leading educational meetings. Topics will include medical and psychosocial factors impacting sexual function, models of sexual function and well-being, medical and behavioral approaches to treatment, and research methods. The leaders of each study will meet weekly with undergraduate team members on their subteam for supervision and collaboration.

Anticipated Outputs

Measure of female sexual function for use with postpartum patients; novel intervention and educational materials to promote sexual health and well-being of female AYA cancer survivors; preliminary data to support future research and grants; manuscript submissions to peer-reviewed journals; distribution and discussion of reports with medical professionals and other relevant stakeholders to facilitate specialized training and services

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 1 graduate student and 8 undergraduate students. Interested students will likely be studying psychology, sociology, nursing, neuroscience, biology (prehealth), global health or gender, sexuality and feminist studies. 

Team members will learn about women’s health, sexual health, patient-reported measures and symptom management by working with an interdisciplinary team. Undergraduate team members will gain training in research methods (e.g., qualitative data analysis, measure development and interview shadowing to learn how interview guides are implemented). They will learn about translating research findings into assessment measures and intervention content (e.g., session role plays, developing patient materials). Team members also will collaborate on preparing conference presentations and discussing reports with healthcare leadership.

In Fall 2023, this team will meet on Tuesdays from 3:00-4:00 p.m.

This team has a summer component that will take place mid-May to mid-August 2022 and 2023, aligning with the dates of the academic summer terms (approximately 12 weeks). Graduate students will be expected to participate during this time, while undergraduate student participation will be optional and minimal (1-3 hours per week).

Sarah Arthur will serve as project manager.


Summer 2023 – Spring 2024

  • Summer 2023 (optional): Complete item review process for Study 1; conduct literature searches on sexual health interventions for Study 2
  • Fall 2023: Perform cognitive interviews and collaboratively edit item content for Study 1; develop and design prototype intervention materials; assist with Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocol preparation; seek IRB approval for Study 2
  • Spring 2024: Conduct psychometric testing for Study 1; obtain qualitative feedback from AYA cancer survivors and key community stakeholders for Study 2
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Write manuscripts for publication; disseminate findings; present at conference


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Promoting Sexual Function and Pelvic Health in Women's Healthcare (2022-2023).

Outline sketch of a female body over a yellow mottled background.

Team Leaders

  • Sarah Arthur, Arts and Sciences–Psychology and Neuroscience–Ph.D. Student
  • Caroline Dorfman, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Rebecca Shelby, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Juliann Stalls, School of Medicine-Psychiatry: Behavioral Medicine

/graduate Team Members

  • Chinenye Agina, Global Health - MSc

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Louise Adillon, Evolutionary Anthropology (BS)
  • Jane Atkeson, Psychology (AB)
  • Isabelle Ginn, Psychology (AB)
  • Bella Liu, Psychology (BS)
  • Uyen Nguyen, Evolutionary Anthropology (BS)
  • Hailey Williams, Psychology (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Kelly Acharya, School of Medicine-Obstetrics and Gynecology: Reproductive Endocrinology and Fertility
  • Jacklyn Balliot, Oncofertility Program
  • Cheyenne Corbett, Duke Cancer Institute Supportive Care and Survivorship Center
  • Brittany Davidson, School of Medicine-Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Ashley Hill, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Lisa Massa, Physical Therapy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Duke Cancer Institute