Almost 75% of women experience pain during sex, so how come we don't talk about it?
Most of us have probably felt the occasional bit of soreness during or after penetrative sex, whether that was due to a challenging position or some over-zealous thrusting. But what does it mean when sex is painful every time, in every position, whether you’re going fast or taking things slow?
In a 2017 survey of almost 7,000 women in the UK, nearly one in ten said they had experienced painful sex, or to give the technical term, dyspareunia. According to the American College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians, 75 percent of women will experience pain during sex at some point in their lifetimes. That’s a lot of women, but even so, painful sex isn’t often spoken about – or worse, it’s glossed over as something that’s ‘supposed’ to happen – which can leave sufferers feeling terribly alone.
“I started experiencing pain during sex after four years with my now-fiancé. It felt like the walls and opening of my vagina were burning every time he went inside me,” says Clara, 31. “I ignored it and continued on as if nothing was happening, which was the worst thing I could have done as I started associating sex with pain, and my desire for intimacy disappeared. I felt broken, like I couldn’t be there for my partner in the way that he needed me to be.”
Some women have pelvic pain from the first time they try to put in a tampon. Others can encounter it suddenly, even if they’ve been having lovely, pain-free sex for years. There isn’t just one simple reason why it happens – it can be a sign that you need more lubrication, or have an infection that needs treating. It can also be indicative of more serious issues like vaginismus (when the muscles around the vagina tighten involuntarily during penetration) and vulvodynia (chronic pain or discomfort around the opening of the vagina). Any of these things can make sexual intercourse difficult or even impossible, which can be very distressing, whether it’s gone on for a few months or your entire sex life.
Samantha Evans, a sexual health and pleasure expert and founder of sex toy retailer Jo Divine (jodivine.com), experience vaginismus herself after getting recurrent thrush and UTIs from the lube she and her husband were using. “[Vaginismus] was like a defence mechanism, because I was thinking ‘This is gonna happen. It’s not going to be pleasurable,'” she tells STELLA. Though she is trained as a nurse herself, she had never heard about vaginismus, and was concerned about the lack of information available about it.
“I disconnected from my whole pelvic area. I didn’t see myself as a sexual being,” Samantha says. “I didn’t tell my husband, and he was really upset when he found out. But then when I did tell him, he would know when I was starting to tighten up, and ask to stop and do something else. So we explored so many different things.”
Many of us have been conditioned to believe that sex means P-in-the-V and nothing else, but in truth, intercourse is just one corner of the vast tapestry that is the sexual experience. “I wish I had told my husband earlier because it was not normal, and women are being told these things are normal,” recalls Samantha. “Sex doesn’t have to be off the menu, there are other things you can do while going through treatment. And actually, having a caring partner helps with treatment too.”
Samantha overcame her vaginismus after discovering body-safe lubricants (free of harmful ingredients like glycerine, petrolatum, preservatives and flavourings) – but she advocates a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment. “It’s worth seeing a women’s health physiotherapist, who will assess your pelvic floor, and a psychosexual therapist, who will teach you techniques to relax,” she says. “They will actually look at things that could be causing the vaginismus, and often it can bring up things that have happened in the past that the person has forgotten about, or buried deep inside them.”
Carla plucked up the courage to see a doctor about her pain, and fortunately, was able to find a solution. “I was diagnosed with a yeast infection and given antibiotics – my GP recommended that we take it slow, as the mental link between sex and pain would still be there. It’s been a few months and things are finally getting better. I’m honestly so relieved.”
The most important thing you can do if you’re experiencing painful sex is to be honest with yourself and your partner. If it hurts, it hurts, and gritting your teeth and carrying on will only make things worse in the long run. Get yourself checked out, stock up on the body-safe lube, and give yourself some time. Sex is meant to be pleasurable, and you shouldn’t have it unless you’re enjoying it.